Writer without Borders
Witmer, Scott, In These Times
Eduardo Galeano disdains borders, both in life and in literature. Exiled from his native Uruguay after the 1973 military coup, he returned to Montevideo in 1985, where he continues to live and write. Galeano's books subvert the distinctions between history, poetry, memoir, political analysis and cultural anthropology. With a graceful sense of craft, he uses "only words that really deserve to be there" to convey a humanely moral perspective on matters both personal and political. His writing honors the experiences of everyday life as a contrast to the mass media that "manipulates consciousness, conceals reality and stifles the creative imagination ... in order to impose ways of life and patterns of consumption." By multiplying seldom heard voices, Galeano refutes the official lies that pass for history-his work represents an eloquent, literary incarnation of social justice.
His most recent book, Voices of Time: A Life in Stories (Metropolitan Books), combines 333 prose poems into a fluid mosaic of humor, despair, beauty and hope. During a recent visit to Chicago, Galeano talked with In These Times about his life and work.
Your book Open Veins of Latin America (1971) analyzes the brutal exploitation of Latin American resources by the U.S. and European powers. That book, now a classic, was published at the beginning of an especially turbulent period of Latin American history. What was your life like at that time?
I was working as a journalist, always in independent jobs, working for weeklies-the mad adventures of independent journalism. So I earned my living quite difficultly, writing other things or editing books on the sexual life of bees, or something like this. I was also working in the publishing department of the University of Montevideo. And at night I went home to work on the book. It took four years of researching and collecting the information I needed, and some 90 nights to write the book.
Did you ever sleep?
I suppose I did not. I remember now, I was drinking rivers of coffee. Later I developed an allergy to coffee, but fortunately I overcame it, and now I'm a very good coffee drinker. I love it.
You were then forced into exile in Argentina, where you edited Crisis.
In the beginning of 1973, I was in jail for a short period in Uruguay and I decided prison life was not healthy, so I went to Buenos Aires. The magazine was a beautiful experience. We invented it with a small group of friends, trying to open a new way of speaking about culture.
Did you continue to publish when the military regime initiated censorship?
For two or three months, and after that it was impossible to go on. We were obliged to choose between silence and humiliation. We could stay alive if we accepted the obligation to lie, or we could shut up. We decided to shut up entirely and not pretend to be free, because that would give an alibi to the military regime to say, "See, there is freedom of expression here." Many members of our staff were killed or disappeared or jailed or went into exile, and so it was a good decision to go away and abandon it. We left behind a very good memory of an exceptional cultural magazine. We showed that it was possible to have a different conception of culture. Not culture made by professional people to be consumed by non-professional people, like workers or anonymous people. Instead, we were trying to hear their voices. Not only to speak about reality, but asking reality, "What would you tell me?" This conversation with reality was the key to our success. That's why one of the first decrees of the military regime was to forbid the diffusion of "non-specialized opinions." We were trying to show that the best voices come from non-specialized mouths.
In the middle of 1976, I was obliged to fly away from Argentina because I was supposed to be on the death squad list to be killed. Many of my friends had been killed, and being dead is so boring, so I chose exile in Spain. …