Scenes From the Life of a South American Literary Legend

By Eduardo Galeano
Sunday, June 14, 2009

WHEN I WROTE "Soccer in Sun and Shadow," I wanted fans of reading to lose their fear of soccer and fans of soccer to lose their fear of books. I never imagined anything more.

But a former member of the Mexican congress, Victor Quintana, told me the book saved his life. In the middle of 1997, he was kidnapped by contract killers, hired to punish him for exposing some nasty business.

They had him trussed up, face in the dirt, and were kicking him to death, when, just before finishing him off with a bullet, they started arguing about soccer. Victor, more dead than alive, put in his two cents. And he started telling stories from my book, trading minutes of life for every tale out of those pages. Time and stories came and went, and at last the murderers left him, beaten and broken, but alive.

"You're okay," they told him, and they took their bullets elsewhere.

-- -- --

I don't know Jorge Ventocilla. Rather, I've never met him, but my books are his friends, so I am too.

When "Mirrors" was first published in Spanish last year, Jorge decided that the book, not readily available in Panama, ought to be handed around from one reader to another.

Though his savings didn't amount to much, in a flight of fancy he used them all to buy copies of "Mirrors," and he set them loose in cafés, stores, barbershops, kiosks, everywhere. He inscribed each one:

"This free book is a traveling book. Read it and pass it on."

And so it was.

-- -- --

In 1971, I submitted "Open Veins of Latin America" for the Casa de las Américas prize in Cuba. It lost. Perhaps the jury thought the manuscript was not serious enough.

Later on, the book got published. Perhaps the military dictatorships that had spread across Latin America thought it too serious. They burned it.

But in my country, Uruguay, "Open Veins of Latin America" circulated freely among political prisoners during the first few months of military rule. The censors thought it was a textbook on anatomy, and medical texts were not forbidden.

-- -- --

A few years ago, at a school in Salta in the north of Argentina, I was reading stories to 8- and 9-year-olds.

Afterward, the teacher asked the children to write to me, commenting on what I had read.

One of the letters counseled: "Keep at it, you'll improve."

-- -- --

In March 2007, in the Yucatan, "The Book of Embraces" was banned from the jail in Mérida "because it contains diabolical things."

Some time before that, in San Jose, Costa Rica, I'd met a girl who was reading it in the bus station. "I always bring it along when I travel," she told me. "It's my portable boyfriend."

-- -- --

In "Mirrors," I tell stories that are barely known or simply unheard of.

One of them occurred in Spain in 1942. After Francisco Franco's coup d'état had annihilated the Spanish Republic, the dictatorship trumpeted the news that a prisoner, Matilde Landa, was going to publicly repent of her satanic beliefs and receive the holy sacrament of baptism in the prison yard.

The ceremony could not begin without the guest of honor, but Matilde could not be found.

She was up on the roof. Suddenly, she threw herself off and exploded like a bomb when she hit the ground.

The show went on. The bishop baptized her shattered body.

"Mirrors" was at the printers when I received a letter from the copy editor at the publishing house.

She wanted to know where I got that story. The facts were correct, but she knew it only as a family secret.

Matilde Landa was her aunt.

-- -- --

A few months ago, I read some stories at the University of Mexico.

One of them, from my book "Voices of Time," recounts how a Uruguayan troupe visiting Spain put on a play by Federico García Lorca, the poet executed by Franco and banned during the long dictatorship. It was the first time the play had been performed after decades on the blacklist.

When the curtain came down, the audience applauded, but with their feet, stamping on the floor. The actors were stunned. Had they done such a poor job? A moment later they received a prolonged ovation.

In my story I suggest the thundering of feet might have been for the playwright, shot for being a Red, a fag, a weirdo. A way of saying: "Federico, listen."

And when I told this story at the University in Mexico, something happened that had never happened before on the many other occasions I had told it: 4,000 students applauded with their feet, stamping their hearts out, as if they too were sitting in that theater in Madrid so many years ago.

Federico listened.

-- -- --

At one of my storytelling sessions, in the Spanish town of Ourense, a man in the back row kept staring at me, an unblinking, impassible mask. When the reading ended, he approached slowly, fixing me with his gaze as if he wanted to kill me. Fortunately, he didn't. Instead, he said, "It must be so hard to write so simply."

And after that remark, the highest praise I have ever received, he turned on his heel and left.

-- -- --

The Bolivian town of Llallagua lived from the mine, and in the mine its miners died. Deep in the shafts in the bowels of the mountains, they hunted veins of tin and lost, in a few short years, their lungs and their lives.

I spent some time there and made good friends.

The last night, we were drinking, my friends and I, singing laments and telling bad jokes till just before dawn.

When little time remained before the scream of the siren that would call them to work, my friends fell silent, all of them at once. Then one asked, or pleaded, or ordered: "And now, my brother, tell us about the sea."

I was speechless.

They insisted: "Tell us. Tell us about the sea."

It was the most difficult challenge in all my storytelling life. None of these miners would ever know the sea; each was doomed to die young. And I had no choice but to bring them the sea, the sea that was so far away, discovering words that could drench them to the bone.

--Translated from the Spanish by Mark Fried

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