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Eduardo Galeano: In the Crucible

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Among Latin American literary giants, Gabriel García Márquez is known for mesmerizing, Pablo Neruda for wooing. Mario Vargas Llosa educates. Jorge Luis Borges captivates. Then there is Eduardo Galeano, the galvanizer, firebrand, a writer who tells readers about history that other, more powerful people don't want them to know or understand.

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He was born Eduardo Hughes Galeano in Uruguay in 1940, a descendant of middle-class European immigrants. By the time he was 14, he was publishing cartoons in newspapers. By 20, he was editor of Uruguay's famous left-wing weekly La Marcha. Shortly thereafter, he became top executive of Montevideo's paper of record, Época. In 1971, at 31, he published a hair-raising indictment of North American influence on the hemisphere, "The Open Veins of Latin America." Just this past April at the Summit of the Americas, Hugo Chavez handed a copy of that book to Barack Obama.

For all the ease with which Galeano slid into journalism, the rest of his writing life hasn't been easy. After Uruguay's 1973 military coup, he was arrested for his radical views and imprisoned. He broke free and fled to Argentina where, three years later, he had to flee again. The notorious Brigadier Gen. Jorge Videla, who had deposed Isabel Perón, installed a regime that became known for its secret camps, kidnappings and torture. When Galeano's name appeared on Argentine death squad lists, he escaped from Buenos Aires and settled in Spain, where he wrote his three-volume masterwork, a bracingly original narrative of America's 500 years of history, "Memory of Fire." Like the accompanying essay, it is a mosaic of miniatures, strung together to fashion a powerful and moving portrait. "We Latins are known for jabbering on," he told me. "I wanted to write it all sharper and shorter."

Surviving lung cancer a few years ago freed him, he says, to employ an even larger canvas: His new book, "Mirrors," reflects 5,000 years of human experience. But it does so with a keen sense of perspective.

For all the past that Galeano captures, this is a writer who lives right now.

-- Marie Arana


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