Past, Present, and Future: Interview with Eduardo Galeano

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I. Past

Jorge Majfud: A humanist vision considers history to be a human product, which is to say, a product of the freedom of its individuals and the diverse groups that have enacted it and interpreted it.  An anti-humanist vision asserts that, on the contrary, those individuals and groups are the result of history itself, and their freedom is an illusion.  If you allow me to limit the choices artificially within this possible spectrum, where do you situate yourself in it?

Eduardo Galeano: Based on what I have experienced in my life, I have the impression that we make the history that makes us.  When the history that we make comes out crooked, or is usurped by the few among us who rule, we blame it on history.

J. M.: In this vision there is no room for materialist determinism or for any kind of religious fatalism. . . .

E. G.: Fatalisms are comforting, they allow you to sleep soundly, fate is inscribed in the stars, history moves along by itself, don’t be bitter, there’s no choice but accept it.  Fatalisms lie, because if life is not an adventure in freedom, someone should come and explain to me whether living is worth the trouble.  But notice: the enlightened ones lie also, the select few who are attributed the power to change reality by touching it with their magic wand: and if reality does not obey me, it doesn’t deserve me.

J. M.: If the time of modern revolutions, that is, of abrupt and violent revolutions has passed, is it evolution or resistance that is the better alternative in our times?

E. G.: Who knows how many worlds there are in the world, and how many times there are in time.  History walks with our feet, but sometimes it walks very slowly, and sometimes it seems motionless.  At any rate, when the changes come from below, from the lower depths, sooner or later they find their way, at their own pace.  From below, I mean, from the foot, like in the Zitarrosa song.  The only things made from above are wells.

Feria del Libro de Sevilla ’08:
Presentación de Espejos de Eduardo Galeano

J. M.: Your latest book Espejos (Mirrors) represents an effort that is both creative and archeological and covers a vast geographic and temporal space.  Which periods of history do you believe would win first prize for cruelty and injustice?

E. G.: There are too many favorites in that championship.

J. M.: Okay, more to the point, could you sum up cruelty in an image, in a situation that you have experienced?

E. G.: It happened to me years ago, in a truck that was crossing the upper Paraná.  Except for me, everyone was from that area.  Nobody spoke.  We were packed closely together, in the bed of the truck, bouncing around.  Next to me, a very poor woman, with a baby in her arms.  The baby was burning with fever, crying.  The woman just said that she needed a doctor, that somewhere there had to be a doctor.  And finally we arrived somewhere, I don’t know how many hours had gone by, the baby hadn’t cried for a long time.  I helped that woman get off the truck.  When I picked up the baby, I saw that the baby was dead.  The killer who had committed this cruelty was an entire system of power, neither in prison nor traveling around on rickety old trucks.

J. M.: With memories like that, we should stop here.  But the world keeps turning.  Do you believe that the pre-Colombian past has survived so many years of colonization and modernization, enough to define a Latin American way of being, feeling, and even thinking?

E. G.: For centuries, the gods have come, who knows how, from the American past and from the African jungle and from everywhere.  Many of those gods travel with other names and use fake passports, because their religions are called superstitions and they continue to be condemned to the underground.

II. Present

J. M.: Are we witnessing the end of capitalism, of a paradigm based on consumerism and financial success, or is this simply one more crisis which will end up strengthening the system itself, the same hegemonic culture?

E. G.: I frequently receive invitations to attend the burial of capitalism.  We know quite well, however, that this system — which privatizes its profits but kindly socializes its losses and, as if that weren’t enough, tries to convince us that that is philanthropy — will live more than seven lives.  To a great degree, capitalism feeds off the discrediting of its alternatives.  The word socialism, for example, has been emptied of meaning, by the bureaucracy that used it in the name of the people and by the social democracy that in its name modernized capitalism’s look.  We know that this capitalist system is managing quite well to survive the catastrophes that it unleashes.  We don’t know, on the other hand, how many lives its main victim — the planet we inhabit, squeezed to the last drop — will be able to live.  Where will we move, when the planet is left without water, without land, without air?  The company Lunar International is already selling plots of land on the moon.  At the end of 2008, the Russian multimillionaire Roman Abramovich made a gift of a little plot to his fiancée.

J. M.: Perhaps he intends to be the first man to give a piece of the moon to his wife, which turns out to be a kind of romantic capitalism.  Do you believe that if China, for example, had a hegemonic economy it would quickly become a new empire, colonialist and dominating like any other empire?

E. G.: If I were a professional prophet, I would die of hunger.  I’m not even right in soccer, and that is something I know something about.  All I can say to you is what I can see: China is putting into practice a successful combination of political dictatorship, in the old communist style, with an economy that functions at the service of the capitalist world market.  China can thus provide an extremely cheap workforce to U.S. enterprises like WalMart, which bans unions.

J. M.: Speaking of which, on the most recent “Black Friday,” the one day of the year that large retail chains in the U.S. sell at cost, an avalanche of shoppers couldn’t wait for the doors to be opened at one of those Wal Marts and they ran over an employee.  The man was crushed to death. . . .  Despite all this absurdity, can we think that humanity finds itself in an improved state of individual rights and collective conscience?  What is best about our times?

E. G.: In the 20th century, justice was sacrificed in the name of freedom, and freedom was sacrificed in the name of justice.  Our time is now the 21st century, and the best it has to offer is the challenge it presents: it invites us to fight to assist the reunion of freedom and justice.  They want to live real close to each other, back to back.

J. M.: Can we compare the appearance of the Internet with the revolution produced by the printing press in the 15th century?

E. G.: I have no idea, but it is important to remember that the printing press was not born in the 15th century.  The Chinese had invented it two centuries earlier.  In reality, the three inventions that made the Renaissance possible were all Chinese inventions: the printing press, the compass, and gunpowder.  I don’t know if education has improved today, but before we used to learn a universal history reduced to the history of Europe.  From the Middle East, nothing or almost nothing.  Not a word about China, nothing about India.  And about Africa, we only knew what professor Tarzan taught us, and he was never there.  And about the American past, about the pre-Colombian world, some little folkloric thing, a few colored feathers . . . and ciao.

J. M.: What is the greatest danger of technological progress in communication?

E. G.: In communication, and in everything else.  Machines are no saints, but they are not to blame for what we do with them.  The greatest danger lies in the possibility that the computer can program us, just like the automobile drives us.  With frightening ease, we become instruments of our instruments.

J. M.: As a writer and as a reader, what kind of reading occupies most of your time these days?

E. G.: I read everything, starting with the walls that accompany my steps through the streets of the cities.

J. M.: Are cruelty and injustice the greatest provocations for the literature of Eduardo Galeano?

E. G.: No.  If that were the case, I would have already fallen ill from unmitigated sadness.  Luckily I am a busybody, curious by birth, and I am always seeking out the third bank of the river, that mysterious place where humor and horror meet.

J. M.: For what do you think our times will be remembered in the centuries to come?

E. G.: Will it be remembered?  Will there be centuries to come?  May God hear you, and if God is deaf, may the Devil hear you.

III. Future

J. M.: Eduardo, do you believe the world will move in the direction of a greater balance of its geographical, social, and cultural divisions or, on the contrary, are we condemned to repeat the same forms of what we today consider physical and moral violence?

E. G.: Condemned, we are not.  Fate is a challenge, although at first sight it might appear to be a curse.

J. M.: Does an improvement of our present lie mainly in the deepening of humanist values from the European tradition or in a revaluation of a lost origin in the “peripheral” nations?

E. G.: The European tradition is not enough.  We Americans are the children of many mothers.  Europe yes, but there are also other mothers.  And not only the Americans.  All the little human beings all over the world much more than what they believe they are.  But the earthly rainbow will not shine, in all its brilliance, as long is it continues to be mutilated by racism, machismo, militarism, elitism, and all those isms that deny us the fullness of our diversity.  And by the way, it is fitting to clarify that the humanist values of the European tradition were developed while Europe was exterminating indigenous people in the Americas and selling human flesh in Africa.  John Locke, the philosopher of freedom, was a shareholder in a slave-trading company.

J. M.: Yes, not unlike the imperial democracies, from ancient Athens to the United States.  But does that mean that history always repeats itself?

E. G.: She doesn’t want to repeat herself, she doesn’t like that one bit, but very often we oblige her to.  To give you a very current example, there are parties who come into the government promising a program of the left and wind up repeating what the right wing did.  Why don’t they let the right continue doing it, since they have the experience?  History grows bored, and democracy is discredited, when we are invited to choose between one and the same.

J. M.: What role do “non-organic” intellectuals fulfill in society today?  Do they continue to be, at least a few of them, a critical and provocative force?

E. G.: I believe that writing is not a useless passion.  But that generalization, “intellectuals,” organic or non-organic, doesn’t look much like the real world.  It takes all kinds to make the world.  In my case, I can tell you that I work with words, that I am totally useless otherwise, and that is the only thing that I do more or less well, and that it seems to me, based on my own and others’ experience, that the act of reading is a secret, and sometimes fertile, ceremony of communion.  Anyone who reads something that is really worth the trouble does not read with impunity.  Reading one of those books that breathe when you put them to your ear does not leave you untouched: it changes you, even if only a little bit, it integrates something into you, something that you did not know or had not imagined, and it invites you to seek, to ask questions.  And more still: sometimes it can even help you to discover the true meaning of words betrayed by the dictionary of our times.  What more could a critical consciousness want?

J. M.: But contemporary writers tend to avoid that word, “intellectuals.”  Why?

E. G.: I will answer for myself, not in the name of “writers,” which is also a dubious generalization.  I write wanting to speak and express myself in a language that is sentipensante (feeling-thinking), a very precise word taught to me by fishermen of the Colombian coast of the Caribbean sea.  And for that reason, precisely for that reason, I don’t like at all to be called an intellectual.  I feel like I am thereby turned into a bodiless head, which is also an uncomfortable situation, and that my reason and emotion are being divorced from one another.  One supposes that an intellectual is someone capable of knowing, but I prefer someone capable of comprehending.  A cultured person is not someone who accumulates more knowledge, because then there will be nobody more cultured than a computer.  A cultured person is someone who knows how to listen, to listen to others and listen to the thousand and one voices of the natural world of which we are a part.  In order to speak, I listen.  I write on a round-trip journey, I pick up words that I return, stated in my method and manner, to the world from which they come.

J. M.: Speaking of which, what is your narrative technique, that is, your writing habits and behaviors?

E. G.: I have no schedules.  I don’t make myself write.  In Santiago, Cuba, an old drummer, who played like the gods, taught me: “I play” — he told me — “when my hand itches.”  And I paid attention.  If I don’t itch, I don’t write.  In literature, like in soccer, when the pleasure turns into duty, it becomes  something pretty similar to slave labor.  The books write me, they grow inside me, and every night I fall asleep thanking them, because they allow me to believe that I am the author.  And having said this I will point out to you that I write each page many times, that I scratch out, I suppress, I re-write, I tear up, I start over again, and all that is part of the great happiness of feeling that what I say is similar to, and sometimes very similar to, what my pages want to say.

J. M.: Your books after the military dictatorships in Uruguay and Argentina, after exile, are different in style.  Or perhaps they deepen one characteristic: your gaze continues being that of a non-conformist rebel, but your voice becomes more lyrical.  If I remember correctly, it was Jean-Paul Sartre who said that a writer’s technique transmits his conception of the world.  How would you define your style?  Does it reflect your perception of the world or, perhaps, your aspirations about it, or is style something accidental, a form of doing things that comes from a history of aesthetics, from an influence of the adolescent years?

E. G.: My style is the result of many years of writing and erasing.  Juan Rulfo used to tell me, showing me one of those pencils that you now almost never see: “I write with the graphite in the tip, but I write more with the other end, where the eraser is.”  That is what I do, or try to do.  I try to always say more with less.

J. M.: One common element of committed literature, of the revolutionary utopias up until the seventies, from the years prior to the dictatorships in South America, seems to be happiness.  As an example to illustrate this, we could make an exhibit of photographs of the severe faces of the Pinochets, on one side, and of the smiling faces of the Che Guevaras on the other.  Does a connection exist between the “aesthetics of sadness” of the literature of the 20th century and society’s conservative forces?  To what degree is happiness, the Epicureanism of which Amerigo Vespucci spoke with reference to a certain image of native Americans, subversive?

E. G.: I will return to the Colombian coast, and I will tell you that there, the worst insult is amargao (a bitter person).  Nothing worse can be said to you.  And not without reason, because at the end of the day, there is nothing in the world that doesn’t deserve to be laughed at.  If the literature of denunciation is not, at the same time, a literature of celebration, it distances itself from life as lived and puts its readers to sleep.  Its readers are supposed to burn with indignation, but they are nodding off instead.  It often happens that the literature that claims to speak to the people only speaks to those who are already persuaded.  Without taking any risks, it seems more like masturbation than the act of love, even though according to what I have been told the act of love is better, because one gets to know people.  Contradiction moves history, and the literature that truly stimulates the energy of social change helps us to find the secret suns that every night conceals, that human feat of laughing in the face of all evidence.  The Judeo-Christian heritage, which so praises pain, does not help much.  If I remember correctly, in the entire Bible not a single laugh is heard.  The world is a vale of tears, the ones who suffer the most are the chosen ones who ascend to Heaven.

J. M.: How do you imagine the world in fifty years?

E. G.: At my age, I imagine that in fifty years I will no longer be here.  As you can see, I have a prodigious imagination.

J. M.: Onetti once said that he wrote for himself. Would Galeano write if he had the bad fortune to be the sole survivor of a worldwide catastrophe?

E. G.: The sole survivor?   Ay!  I would die of boredom.  Perhaps I would write anyway, because that’s my vice, but writing for nobody is worse than dancing with your own sister.  Onetti got mad at me one night when I committed a juvenile insolence.  He told me that he wrote for himself, and I offered to take his letters to Juan Carlos Onetti, Gonzalo Ramírez Street, Montevideo, etc., etc. to the Post Office.  He got pissed off.  He got pissed off because he was lying, and he knew it quite well.  Anyone who publishes their writing writes for others.

J. M.: What would you do differently if you had the experience and opportunity to do it all over again?  What does Eduardo Galeano regret?

E. G.: I have no regrets.  I am the sum of all the times I put my foot in my mouth as well.

Eduardo Galeano is an Uruguayan writer.  Translated by Bruce Campbell.  Click here to download the Spanish text of the interview, originally titled “Inquisiciones sobre el paradigma.”