“I learned the art of writing and the art of storytelling in the cafés of Montevideo,” said the great and loved Eduardo Galeano during his hour-long conversation with Jessica Hagedorn Saturday night. It was as though all 500 of us at the filled-to-capacity auditorium at the New School were transported to those cafés, listening to the master tell his tales. Much of the evening Galeano spoke about and read from his new book, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, the idea for which, he said, came from the Mayans in Guatemala who believe “we are all sons and daughters of the days.”
His readings of The Days were brief, like the piece for May 10 titled “The Unforgivable,” only three sentences long, yet, like much of his work, has in its concision the sweep of an epic:
The poet Roque Dalton wielded a defiant wit, he never learned to sup up or take orders, and he laughed and loved fearlessly.
On the eve of this day in the year 1975, his fellow guerrillas in El Salvador shot him dead while he slept.
Criminals: rebels who kill to punish disagreement are no less criminal than generals who kill to perpetuate injustice.
Few writers can move so effortlessly from the details of a story to a universal truth, but this is a defining characteristic of Galeano's work. His writing strikes me as biblical in a way (the publisher even describes his latest book as “showing us how to live”), writing, or recovering, dictating, as he might have it (writing his last book, he said, the stories tapped him on the shoulder) a new modern history told from the bottom up.
Perhaps that's why I had a sense that everyone there connected with Galeano so intimately. The audience, who had paid $20 a seat, frequently broke out in applause and cheered for him by name: “Eduardo!” This is what it's like when people say an artist belongs to us. The audience asked questions about nothing less than global politics and saving the world (and soccer, of course). While he generally demurred from answering directly, he responded to most of the questions with stories or quips, like when one woman asked him for his advice to new writers, he replied “listen twice, write once.”
I think this love for Galeano comes as much from his humility and modesty as his storytelling. Early on he said that to him “I equals we.” Indeed, in every story he told of his own experiences it was as though he were a small part, an observer, never centered around himself. He told us about Bolivian miners he once met, who he knew were doomed because of the mines, and how his greatest challenge as a writer occurred there when he was asked to describe the sea for these people who had never seen it, and never would. How do you find “wet words?”
The sense we get is that Galeano is not just trying to describe the sea, but to give these people a memory of something they know nothing about. That is his obsession: an obsession with memory and recovering the lives in “the human rainbow, which is much more beautiful than the other one, the one up in the sky.” “But,” he said, “it has been mutilated, mutilated by years and centuries and millenniums of oppressive military regimes, machismo, and so many other forms of mutilating the human reality.” He concluded “We are much more than we are told we are. I try to recover the lost memories.”
At the end of the evening, Ms. Hagedorn let us know that Eduardo was recovering from an illness and wouldn't be able to sit for a signing. Many of us clamored (it was a bit of a madhouse) for pre-signed editions while others went to speak to him or grab a photograph. It's a shame the event cost so much, but it's heartening to know that a Uruguayan author can fill an auditorium in the U.S. without having, yet, won a Nobel. Children of the Days is a beautiful book that Galeano collaged himself, and I've been reading it since, dipping in here and there, having a hard time stopping, reading aloud to my wife, thinking about the stories and thinking that we're lucky to have such a unique and powerful voice in the world speaking for us and speaking for those who have no voice in the world.