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Eduardo Galeano: A Lost and Found History of Lives and Dreams (Some Broken)

Cover of Mirrors

Excerpts selected by Tom Engelhardt

Who isn’t a fan of something — or someone? So consider this my fan’s note. To my mind, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano is among the greats of our time. His writing has “it” — that indefinable quality you can’t describe but know as soon as you read it. He’s created a style that combines the best of journalism, history, and fiction and a form for his books that, as far as I know, has no name but involves short bursts of almost lyrical reportage, often about events long past. As it turns out, he also carries “it” with him. I was his English-language book editor years ago and can testify to that, even though on meeting him you might not initially think so.  He has nothing of the showboat about him. In person, he’s almost self-effacing and yet somehow he brings out in others the urge to tell stories as they’ve never told them before.

Call it charisma if you want (though I still remember a professor of mine pointing out, in reference to Chinese leader Mao Zedong, that what’s charisma to one is zilch to another).  Explain it as you will, from Memory of Fire, his three-volume history of the Americas, to his recent Children of the Days, a kind of prayer book for our time, he’s never stopped telling us our own stories in ways we haven’t heard them before.

At some point in Galeano’s life as a collector of stories, history decided to trust him and spilled its secrets to him. In 2009, he returned the favor by writing one of the great books of this century, Mirrors, a history of humanity in 366 episodes, from our first myths to late last night. Thanks to his publisher, Nation Books, and his devoted literary agent, Susan Bergholz, I’ve chosen 12 of my own favorites from that work for your summer pleasure. Think of this post as a Galeano-esque mini-history of our last century of turmoil through a kaleidoscope of “characters,” human and inanimate — and then get your hands on Mirrors and read the whole thing for yourself. Tom

Century of Disaster
Riddles, Lies, and Lives — from Fidel Castro and Muhammad Ali to Albert Einstein and Barbie
By Eduardo Galeano

[The following passages are excerpted from Eduardo Galeano’s history of humanity, Mirrors (Nation Books).]

Stalin

He learned to write in the language of Georgia, his homeland, but in the seminary the monks made him speak Russian.

Years later in Moscow, his south Caucasus accent still gave him away.

So he decided to become more Russian than the Russians. Was not Napoleon, who hailed from Corsica, more French than the French? And was not Catherine the Great, who was German, more Russian than the Russians?

The Georgian, Iosif Dzhugashvili, chose a Russian name. He called himself Stalin, which means “steel.”

The man of steel expected his son to be made of steel too: from childhood, Stalin’s son Yakov was tempered in fire and ice and shaped by hammer blows.

It did not work. He was his mother’s child. At the age of 19, Yakov wanted no more of it, could bear no more.

He pulled the trigger.

The gunshot did not kill him.

He awoke in the hospital. At the foot of the bed, his father commented:

You can’t even get that right.

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