As you may know, Larry Rohter of the New York Times spun this story as if it were a “God That Failed” episode. So, here it is in English, for the record. — Ed.
In 1998, I interviewed the writer Rachel de Queiroz (1910-2003), and she confessed to me that she felt “mortal antipathy” for O Quinze [The Year Fifteen], a classic of Brazilian literature that she had published at age twenty, in 1930, which, thenceforward, would become her “most important and most popular” work (the book is so referred to in every encyclopedia). The same is true of Open Veins of Latin America and the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. Published in 1971, when Galeano was thirty, the work haunts him to this day. He is always characterized as “the author of Open Veins . . . ,” which seems to trouble him as he has written more than thirty books since then.
At the collective interview on Friday, April 11, in Brasília, which he was visiting as an honored writer of the 2nd Biennial of Books and Reading, Galeano heard the probably millionth question about Open Veins. “It’s been over forty years since you wrote Open Veins of Latin America. What are the open veins of today?” And he, in quite decent Portuguese, replied: “It would be impossible for me to answer such a question, especially since, after so many years, I don’t feel as attached to that book as when I wrote it. Time has passed, I started to try other things, to get closer to human reality in general and political economy in particular — for Open Veins tried to be a book of political economy though I didn’t have necessary training. I don’t regret having written it, but I’ve gone beyond that stage. I wouldn’t be able to read that book again — I would keel over. For me, that prose of the traditional left is too heavy, and my body can’t take it. I would have to be admitted to an emergency room. The question would be: ‘Got any open bed?'” Laughter.
I seize this opportunity and change tack: But what do you make of Chávez’s gift of the book to Obama? Would Obama understand Open Veins . . . ? “Neither Obama nor Chávez,” Galeano answers, to general mirth. “To be sure, he gave it to Obama with the best intentions in the world — Chávez was a saint, never met a kinder guy — but he gave Obama, as a present, a book written in a language that he doesn’t know. So, it was a generous gesture, but a little wicked.”
I had never seen the great Uruguayan writer up close. He is much shorter than I imagined, about 1.70 m. Rather fragile, he looks older than his 73 years. He himself mentions that a majority of writers are of the left and, as such, bohemians and this is not good for health. . . A young woman asks: “Getting old is not good for football players. And for writers?” Galeano demurs: “Depends. There are very youthful old ones and there are superannuated old ones and then there are old ones who you think are just waiting to kick the bucket and surprisingly end up winning a match 8-0. It doesn’t depend on biology or prophets’ prophesy. The best thing about football as a sport — the feast that football is, the feast of legs that play, the feast for the eyes — is its capacity to surprise, to astonish. In truth no one knows what will happen. Least of all, experts. Those doctors of football are fearsome creatures, very dangerous for society and the world in general.”
Another journalist jabs: “Why has the left failed in Latin America?” Galeano does not hesitate to answer: “Sometimes the left succeeded, sometimes it didn’t. The reality is changeable, the reality of politics or anything else — fortunately. Otherwise we would be like statues, frozen in time. It is not true that the left has failed. The left has succeeded and has many times been destroyed for having succeeded, for having gotten it right, because what the left preached, at one point in Latin America, proved to be true, so the left was punished. Punished by coups d’état, military dictatorships, extremely prolonged periods of state terror, horrific crimes committed in the name of social peace, of progress. In the name of democratic coexistence — imagine that! What democracy? What coexistence? I have to ask: ‘What are you talking about, mister?’ Things are much more complex than they seem. Sometimes the left also commits gravest errors, other times it doesn’t, and instead it does what must be done in the best way, even beyond what the mass movement itself was hoping for. Reality always has this power to surprise. It surprises you with an answer that it gives to questions never asked — and which are most tempting. A great stimulus to life is there, in the capacity to divine possible unasked questions.”
Galeano in Brasília. Photo by Fábio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil.
Galeano is tired, it took him many hours of travel to arrive at the federal capital, and he wants to wrap up the interview. I protest: “But what about Mujica? You are not going to talk about Mujica?” He doesn’t resist and sits down again. “I’m kind of tired, weary of talking about Mujica, because the whole world is talking about him! Even on other planets Mujica is being talked about. On Mars, Jupiter . . Mujica’s ability to create resonance is incredible. And he is a good friend of mine — he has been a friend for many years. The only thing I can do to add a grain of sand to this immense beach that the Mujica phenomenon is, spread across the world, is to tell a little story that gives you an idea of his human quality.”
And he begins to narrate it, savoring every bit of it, as is his custom:
“About four years ago — I can’t be bothered to remember the precise date — I was operated on for cancer. It was a serious, acute case of cancer. I was under very powerful anesthesia, the kind that doesn’t wear off quickly. I was alone in a hospital bed, waiting for the effect of anesthesia to go away. In other words, I was more asleep than awake — not knowing what was going on, where I was, delirious. At that time, I was alone in a bed — alone, except accompanied by cancer. But cancer isn’t a reliable friend — I won’t recommend it to you. Well, I was there and back again and half delirious. As I am very much a football fanatic, a devotee of the ball, I had football deliriums that took me back to my childhood years, when I used to play in the street, with improvised balls, made of old rags. And in one of those flights of delirium, I began to hit the ball. As if I were a lost Egyptian mummy, playing football against no one and without any ball, only in imagination. I kicked the ball and it came back, I kicked the ball and it came back again. All under the sheet. And all in vain, the ball kept on doing the same thing, as if it had been dying of laughter at my stupidity of thinking that I could control it. ‘No, you can’t control me.’ In the middle of all this, I felt a weight on my knees. Then I begin to regain my senses and see someone I know, a voice I recognize, of a friend. I ask:
‘What are you doing here?’
And he says:
‘Is that any way to receive a friend?’
‘Doesn’t matter. I want to know what you are doing here. Are you sick too?’
‘What do you mean? I’m the picture of health. You’re the sick one.’
‘I’m aware of that. Thanks for the notice, but I already know.’
‘Sick is what you are, you are fucked, brother. I’ve come here to visit you. Now, I didn’t know that a friend would be received like this, getting kicked once, twice, thrice. That’s not very educated.’
We continued like this till I piped up:
‘Look, that’s enough. Your job isn’t to be here fooling around with me. You are the president of the Republic and your job is to govern. Mujica, you’re the president! Go govern this country already! We need your active, disinterested participation — extremely important for our people. Don’t waste any more time on me.’
‘Ah, the pretty manner of being a friend, huh?’
‘Pretty or ugly, that’s the only one I have for you. You are the president! On top of that, to make it worse, everyone loves you and wants you to be the president for another 300 years. If you don’t like that, go fuck yourself.’
And that’s the end of the story.”
At the exit, I manage to tell Eduardo Galeano what a pleasure it is to meet him in person and that I adore The Book of Embraces. He looks at me and says: “Me too.”
Cynara Menezes is a left-wing journalist in Brazil. Follow her on Twitter @cynaramenezes. The original article “Galeano: ‘Eu não seria capaz de ler de novo “As Veias Abertas. . .”, cairia desmaiado'” was published in her blog Socialista Morena on 14 April 2014. Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at] gmail.com).