I am a sucker for words with too many syllables that evoke memories of first encounters with them. There's 'propinquity' which I met in an article bemoaning the location of Canada, which like Mexico (setting a distant God aside) has the US too close for comfort. 'Proparoxytone' - I think I'll save that for another occasion. 'Escafandrista' brings on the image of a diver from a previous century, fitted with an umbilical tube and a spherical brass head. 'Ametralladora' is a word tossed off by Ruben Blades in his song about hired assassins - Sicarios. Machine-gun, the prosaic equivalent, just doesn't work the same magic for me, nor does Tommy-gun. Scatter-gun is what I'm after, from which, scatter-shot, which describes the preferred madness of my reading method. OK, I am an utterly shameless scatter-brained braggart, an idiot but no savant - satisfied? As I said elsewhere, my mind goes where it will.
Reading long works is a thing of my youth. I marvel at how I once got though classic tonnage like War and Peace and Les Miserables. I lay the blame for my affliction equally on age-induced ADD and the logorrhea of modern writers of lesser substance. A published author simplified the process of writing a novel for me. Just think of it as a page a day for a year, he said, and to this day I cannot see why an interesting yarn cannot be told in the space of 365 pages, 366 at most. If it's a page turner, the laguage engaging, and there aren't huge swaths of vapid conversation or jargon-filled academic analyses, I'll give a little - let's say 450, tops! The English Patient is the gold standard for me - just 300 pages to tell an intricate and compelling story. Since I know it all from the excellent film, I can enjoy the book ten pages at a time sampled randomly.
Among shorter works, above all, I am a fan of sudden fiction. Good authors may go for 20 pages, but 25 taxes my patience. When I pick up a book of short stories, I read them in order of increasing length, requiring the shortest piece to vouch for the author's art. Beyond that, there is the novella, for which I set an arbitrary limit of 175.
Brevity, unfortunately, is not an easy goal for the non-fiction writer. Once the subject and its scope has taken hold of the writer's mind, she faces the task of presenting a set amount of unavoidable detail. Thereafter, it is the skill of the author's trade-offs that determines the readability of the book for me. I like popular histories of a distant past, and I judge these against Alan Moorehead's The White Nile and The Blue Nile, non-fiction sisters of the Ondaatje novel. Browsing at the library today I saw a three volume book about Napoleon's Russian debacle, titled 1812. On the other pan of the scales, I have a book called 1688 that tells about happenings all over the world in that year in a scant 300 pages. Which would you rather read?
And so I commend to you Eduardo Hughes Galeano, the prolific Uruguayan writer, master of the short form, whose latest book I am now sampling. Sampling and reading are one and the same with Galeano. I found this summation on the Internet :
Galeano defies easy categorization as an author. His works combine documentary, fiction, journalism, political analysis, and history. The author himself has denied that he is a historian: "I'm a writer obsessed with remembering, with remembering the past of America above all and above all that of Latin America, intimate land condemned to amnesia."
Official history has it that Vasco Nuñez de Balboa was the first man to see, from a summit in Panama, the two oceans at once. Were the people who lived there blind?
Who first gave names to corn and potatoes and tomatoes and chocolate and the mountains and rivers of America? Hernan Cortéz? Francisco Pizarro? Were the natives mute?
The Pilgrims on the Mayflower heard Him : God said America was the Promised Land. Were the natives deaf?
Later on, the grandchildren of the Pilgrims seized the name and everything else. And those of us who live in the other Americas, who are we?
In the Spanish fashion, the table of contents comes at the end of the book, after the index. The index takes up fifteen 2-column pages; the table of contents, seven. In retelling history, Galeano's style is to present vignettes as parables.
I bought Memory of Fire about the time I developed a taste for Brazil, then Latin America too. I was in a hurry to cover the terrain, and Galeano was the answer. Reading comprehensive histories of American countries was not what I needed. What Galeano supplied, in brief bursts, were snapshots of poignant moments from centuries. They whet my awareness just enough to make sensible choices to pursue in future readings. How else could I have encountered such obscure, fascinating and historically significant characters like Cabeza de Vaca, Zumbi dos Palmares and Antônio Conselheiro? Each chapter is no longer than two pages; many scarcely cover a page. Typical is one that relates a forgotten incident in Jalisco, from 1927, in less than 150 words. Vignettes are presented in no chronological order at all, and yet, mirabile dictu, it all holds together as a complete history. Galeano's art is in co-opting the capacity of the reader's mind to integrate, interpolate, extrapolate and reassemble information in a way that no author of a voluminous history book may, given the mind's equalizing limitation of stamina.
A quarter century later, an older but still capable Galeano presumes to cover the history of mankind till the start of the present century in Mirrors - Espejos. He prefaces his project with an enigma ...
Mirrors are filled with people
The invisible see us
The forgotten recall us
When we see ourselves, we see them
When we turn away, do they?
... followed by a seven line version of Genesis titled 'Born of Desire', followed by an eleven line treatise on the origins of man beginning with the question, 'Adam and Eve were black?' He ends the book with two sections that mention dreams. The penultimate, a dream attributed to his wife Helena, has passengers debarking at an airport with their pillows.
The pillows were sent through a dream-reading machine.
The machine detected any dangerous dreams that threatened to disturb the peace.
The second is an ominous foreshadowing of what might come :
LOST AND FOUND
The twentieth century, which was born proclaiming peace and justice, died bathed in blood. It passed on a world much more unjust than the one it inherited. The twenty-first, which also arrived heralding peace and justice, is following in its predecessor's footsteps.
In my childhood I was convinced that everything that went astray on earth ended up on the moon. But the astronauts found no signs of dangerous dreams or broken promises or hopes betrayed. If not on the moon, where might they be?
Perhaps they were never misplaced. Perhaps they are hiding here on earth. Waiting.
In between are some 650 chapters that might appeal to seekers and the curious alike. Here's a sampling of headings with annotations :
ORIGIN OF THE HEN : Brought to Egypt from Syria, it is not beautiful, it doesn't sing, it has a blunt beak, a silly crest and stupid eyes, and it has wings that have forgotten how to fly. But it sires a child a day!
AMERIGO : Who knew that Boticelli's Venus was a girl named Simonetta who married Vespucci's cousin? Lovesick, Amerigo sailed all the way to the land that now bears his name.
MOHAMMED'S BIOGRAPHER : The first American biographer, a former evangelical pastor who studied at Princeton and became a professor of oriental languages in New York, died in 1859. His name was George Bush.
ALEIJADINHO : Brazil's ugliest man creates the finest beauty in colonial art. Assailed by leprosy, syphilis or who knows what, lacking one eye, teeth and fingers, but the rest of him carves stone with the hands he lacks.
THE ASS : My favourite animal, the ass is ever present in the lore of Jesus. Perhaps the ass is not such an ass after all?
A FEUDAL LORD EXPLAINS HOW TO CARE FOR THE PEASANTS : By reason of his species and his manners, the peasant comes below the pig. ... So you see, his pockets must be kept empty, says the lord. Aaah, the bad old days!
WHAT DID THE CHINESE NOT INVENT? : A whole page of items that they did.
DEATH TO TEA, LONG LIVE COFFEE : Dubious, this, about the Tea Party. A century later the men who won the West drank coffee by their campfires, not tea.
ORIGIN OF AERIAL BOMBARDMENTS : Not Germans in Spain, but Italians in Libya in 1911.
RESURRECTION OF DJANGO : He lost a leg and most of one hand in a fire when he was 18? A secret pact between Reinhardt and his guitar - if he would play her, she would lend him the fingers that he lacked.
ORIGIN OF JAZZ : Imagining the five year old Louis Armstrong watching Buddy Bolden play the cornet.
PESSOA'S PERSONS : The inventor of heteronymy. Pessoa also wrote, while the others slept. The title a bilingual pun.
LAST WISH : A football star, a committed socialist, has his last wish granted - to take a piss in front of the firing squad during the Spanish Civil War.
PHOOLAN : The bandit queen herself.
YELLOW EMPEROR : Galeano's interview of Pu Yi in '63, with a Freudian punch-line
GANGES : Ganga descended from heaven, never imagining the offerings that would be made to her of garbage and poison.
ORIGIN OF ROAD RAGE : Invented by the Marquis de Sade!
If I have a complaint it is that, having witten the exhaustive Memory of Fire, Galeano might have restricted his attention to the rest of the world. Carping aside, the book appeals to my dillettante instincts, the commitment phobe in me, and the scatter-brain too.
Since I started this piece with an awkwardly vamped prelude, it is only fair that I leave you with a better coda. Here's Secret Woman - Secreta Mujer - co-authored by Eduardo Galeano, with its plaint of de-nude me / de-doubt me.
Kay-Bye! The snow is piled up outside my door. I must leave to others the business of attending to the demands and concerns of political partisans and pbuh folks of every stripe, all of whom are getting to be tiresomely high-maintenance. Cara-Caras are in season and I got to eat a dozen before they spoil. Need it for that shovelin' arm - I'm no John Henry.