Very few writers maintain total indifference toward the ethics of their work. Those who have thought that in the practice of literature it is possible to separate ethics from aesthetics, however, are not so few. Jorge Luis Borges, not without mastery, practiced a kind of politics of aesthetic neutrality, perhaps convinced of its possibility. Thus, the universalism of Borges’ precocious postmodernism was nothing more than the very eurocentrism of the Modern Age nuanced with the exoticism proper to an empire that, much like the British empire, held closely to the old decadent nostalgia for the mysteries of a colonized India and for Arabian nights removed from the dangers of history. It was not recognition of diversity — of equal freedom — but confirmation of the superiority of the European canon adorned with the souvenirs and booty of war.
Perhaps there was a time when truth, ethics, and aesthetics were one and the same. Perhaps those were the times of myth. This has also been characteristic of what we call committed literature. Not a literature made for politics but an integral literature, where the text and the author, ethics and aesthetics, go together; where literature and metaliterarure are the same thing. The marketing thought of postmodernity has been different, strategically fragmented without possible connections. Legitimated by this cultural fashion, critics of the establishment dedicated themselves to rejecting any political, ethical, or epistemological value of a literary text. For this kind of superstition, the author, her context, her prejudices, and the prejudices of readers remained outside the pure text, distilled from all human contamination. But, what would remain of a text if we took away all of its metaliterary qualities from it? Why must marble, velvet, or sex repeated until void of meaning be more literary than eroticism, a social drama, or the struggle for historical truth? Rodolfo Walsh said that a typewriter could be a fan or a pistol. Has this fragmentation and later distillation not been a critical strategy for turning writing into an innocent game, into more of a tranquilizer than an instrument of interrogation of the musculature of power?
In his new book, Eduardo Galeano responds to these questions with unmistakable style — Borges would recognize it with a backhanded compliment — without explicitly concerning himself with them. Like his previous books, since Days and Nights of Love and War (1978), Mirrors is organized with the postmodern fragmentation of brief capsule narratives. Nevertheless the entire book, like the rest of his work, evinces an unbreakable unity. So do his aesthetics and his ethical convictions. Even in the midst of the most violent ideological storms that shook recent history, this ship has not split.
Mirrors expands to other continents from the geographical area of Latin America that had for decades characterized the main interest of Eduardo Galeano. His narrative technique is the same as in the trilogy Memory of Fire (1982-1986): with an impersonal narrator who fulfills the purpose of approximating the anonymous and plural voice of “the others,” avoiding personal anecdote, with a thematic order at times mixed with a nearly constant chronological order, the book begins with the cosmogonic myths and culminates in our times. Each brief text is an ethical reflection, almost always revealing a painful reality with the invaluable consolation of the beauty of narration. Perhaps the principle of Greek tragedy is none other than this: shock and moral lesson, hope and resignation or the greatest lesson of failure. As in his previous books, the paradigm of the committed Latin American writer, and above all the paradigm of Eduardo Galeano, seems to be reconstructed once again: history can progress, but its ethico-aesthetic progress has its mythical origin for its utopian destination and the memory and awareness of oppression for its instruments. Progress consists of regeneration, of the recreation of humanity in the same manner as the wisest, most just, and most vulnerable of the Amerindian gods, the man-god Quetzalcóatl, would have done it.
If we were to remove the ethical code with which each text is read, Mirrors would shatter into brilliant fragments, but it would reflect nothing. If we were to remove the aesthetic mastery with which this book was written, it would cease to be memorable. Like myths, like the mythical thought redeemed by the author, there is no way of separating one part from the whole without altering the sacred order of the cosmos. Each part is not only an alienated fragment but a tiny object that has been unearthed by a principled archeologist. The tiny object is valuable in its own right, but much more valuable due to the other fragments that have been organized around it, and they are even more valuable due to those fragments that have been lost and that are now revealed in the empty spaces that they have left, revealing an urn, an entire civilization buried by wind and barbarism.
The first law of the narrator, to not be boring, is respected. The first law of the committed intellectual as well: entertainment is never to become a narcotic but rather is to be a lucid aesthetic pleasure.
Mirrors was published in Spanish in 2008, simultaneously in Spain, Mexico, and Argentina by Siglo XXI, and in Uruguay by Ediciones del Chanchito. The latter continues an already classic collection of books bound in black, which has reached number 15, represented meaningfully with the Spanish letter ñ. The texts are accompanied with illustrations in the manner of little vignettes reminiscent of the careful art of book publishing in the Renaissance, in addition to the author’s drawings as a young man. Even though his conception of the world leads him to think structurally, it is difficult to imagine Eduardo Galeano skipping over any detail. A good jeweler of words who polishes each word in search of his different reflections, he is equally careful in the making of his books as works of art.
With each new contribution, this icon of Latin American literature confirms for us that additional formal prizes, like the Cervantes Prize, should not be long in coming.
The English edition, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, translated by Mark Fried, will be published by Nation Books.
Jorge Majfud is a Uruguayan writer. He is Assistant Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Lincoln University. The original review “Los espejos de Eduardo Galeano” has been published by Página/12 among other magazines. Translation by Bruce Campbell.