Recommended Reading for Dietas 1: ‘Memory of Fire’
I have heard the view expressed that you should not read whilst doing a dieta, as the idea of dieta is to empty yourself in order to be able to receive the spirit of the plant or tree. (For an excellent account of what is dieta click here). I’m not ‘advanced’ enough for that and besides I dislike over-generalized rules – though the basic food restrictions of dieta are important as well as the requirements not to have sex or drink alcohol.
It is, however, important what you read on dieta. Someone once said to me, and I agree, that you diet the book as well. On a previous diet, over two days, I read the novel “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett, which a fellow dietero had brought with her. The novel is set in the Brazilian Amazon and touches on the theme of relations between indigenous and white people – in the case of the book, white people working in a transnational North American pharmaceutical company.
After finishing the book, in ceremony that night, it filled my consciousness. I felt there was a terrible coldness at the core of the book – a heart of coldness rather than darkness – and wondered if this was deliberately and cleverly constructed by the author to show the effects of the objective, rationalist, clinical Western world-view of the characters or whether it was an aspect of her personality that was expressing itself, largely unconsciously, in the writing. If anyone knows the book and/or the author I’d be very interested to hear your view on this. Despite the title, there is very little wonder in the book.
My companions laughed as I spent most of the time after the ceremony in the early hours of the morning expounding on how much I disliked the book, especially the way I thought the author had imposed her will on two of the characters at the end of the book – though all credit to the writer for having such a provocative impact.
For my recent thirty day dieta, I took eight books with me, four of which were about the history of the Americas. This post will be about three of these books, which together form a trilogy called ‘Memory of Fire’. I aim to write further posts about the other books I read.
The three volumes of ‘Memory of Fire’ are written by Eduardo Galeano – a Uruguayan writer best known for another of his books, entitled ‘Open Veins of Latin America’ (1971), which was banned by the military governments not only of Uruguay but also Argentina and Chile. Hugo Chavez, ever provocative, gave a copy of this book to Barack Obama at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009.
Galeano was born in Montevideo in 1940, and worked as journalist until the military coup in Uruguay in 1973, when he was first imprisoned and then exiled to Argentina. In 1976, the Videla military regime seized power in Argentina and Galeano fled to Spain after his name appeared on a death-list.
In three books, written between 1982-1986, Galeano traces the history of the Americas, beginning in Volume 1, called ‘Genesis’, with the creation myths of different indigenous peoples, and then, from 1491 to 1700, tracing the arrival and impact of the first European colonialists, conquistadores, adventurers, slave-traders and missionaries on the original inhabitants of the Americas.
The second volume ‘Faces and Moods’ covers the period 1701-1900, and the third volume, ‘Century of the Wind’, begins at the start of twentieth century and ends, relatively arbitrarily as the author himself says, in the year 1986.
This trilogy should be mandatory reading for anyone visiting Latin America.
What makes these books so creative and unusual is that the entire three volume history is sketched out in mosaic form, using short, (roughly half-page), passages of text, which include stories, poems, songs, theatrical vignettes, fables, excerpts from written historical records, accounts of historical events and the author’s own comments. All this is put together in a beautiful, almost hallucinatory prose style that is close to poetry. All these different pieces of the mosaic combine to form a complex, interrelated, colorful, magical narrative. If only all history could be taught this way.
To give a few examples that suggest the scope and depth of this work, all taken from the last volume about the twentieth century.
1. On the wonder of Latin America (p.123):
……….. In Haiti, Carpentier learns that there is no magic more prodigious and delightful than the voyage that leads through experience, through the body, to the depths of America. In Europe, magicians have become bureaucrats, and wonder, exhausted, has dwindled to a conjuring trick. But in America, surrealism is as natural as rain or madness.
2. On Chaplin and Keaton (p.145):
An Admirable Ghost
…………….Chaplin and Keaton are still the best. They know that there is nothing more serious than laughter, an art demanding infinite work, and that as long as the world revolves, making others laugh is the most splendid of activities.
3. On Che Guevara (p.191):
This Multiplier of Revolutions
Spartan guerillero, sets out for other lands. Fidel makes public Che Guevara’s letter of farewell. “Now nothing legal ties me to Cuba,” says Che, “only the bonds that cannot be broken.”
Che also writes to his parents and to his children. He asks his children to be able to feel in their deepest hearts any injustice committed against anyone in any part of the world.
Here in Cuba, asthma and all, Che has been the first to arrive and the last to go, in war and in peace, without the slightest weakness.
Everyone has fallen in love with him – the women, the men, the children, the dogs, and the plants.
4. On the Amazon (p.222):
1975: Amazon River
This is the Father of All Rivers,
the mightiest river in the world, and the jungle sprouting from its breath is the last lung of the planet. The adventurous and the avaricious have flocked to Amazonia since the first Europeans who came this way discovered Indians with reversed feet, who walked backward instead of forward over these lands promising prodigious fortunes.
Since then, all business in Amazonia starts with a massacre. At an air-conditioned desk in Sao Paolo or New York, a corporate executive signs a check which amounts to an extermination order, for the initial job of clearing the jungle begins with Indians and other wild beasts.
They gave the Indians sugar or salt mixed with rat poison, or bomb them from the air, or hang them by their feet to bleed to death without bothering to skin them, for who would buy the hides? The job is finished off by Dow Chemical’s defoliants, which devastated Vietnam’s forests and now Brazil’s. Blind tortoises stumble around where trees used to be.
I have to stop giving examples here as otherwise I will reproduce the whole book. The genius of the books lies in how these fragments reverberate together and combine to produce a compelling overall picture.
The key point (if such a nominalistic word like ‘point’ can be used in this context) I took from this trilogy is that the whole continent’s history is drenched in blood. I knew this about Mexico as I lived there for seven years and had become fascinated by its history. In every country the pattern was the same – colonization, slaughter, torture, rape, slavery alongside forced evangelization and expropriation of natural resources – especially, in the case of the Spanish, gold and silver.
Galeano shows how not only principally the Spanish in Latin America, followed by the Portuguese in Brazil, were leading this colonial pillage, but they were supported by English capital and the lucrative slave trade as well as by Dutch trading companies. Much of the gold and silver that was sent to the Spanish Crown was used to fund debts incurred to Flemish and English financiers. Globalization was already in its formative, early stages.
What also particularly struck me is how this pattern has continued throughout the twentieth century – what the English newspaper editor Harold Evans praised as the “American Century” (meaning the USA). Galeano lays bare the mechanics and excesses of US Imperialism, and shows how the US, facilitated by the US Army School of the Americas they created in Panama for training budding military dictators, brutally and bloodily intervened in Honduras (1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, 1924, and 1925 and even in 2009 according to Global Research and Wikileaks), Nicaragua (1909 and 1979-early 1990s), La Paz, Bolivia (1946), Bogota, Columbia (1948), Guatemala (1953), Brazil (1964), Chile (1973), Uruguay (1973) and Argentina (1976) to overthrow democratically elected governments and/or install and maintain puppet military dictatorships.
(For a really good article in the UK newspaper ‘The Guardian’ by Baltasar Garzón about what happened in Chile in 1973 and subsequently, published very recently on the 40th anniversary of the military coup, click here.)
In addition to aiding the assassination of democratically elected leaders such as Salvador Allende in Chile, the US were implicated in the so-called accidental deaths in aircrashes, all in 1981, of Jaime Roldós, President of Ecuador, Omar Torrijos, the de facto leader of Panama and General Rafael Hoyos Rubio, the Head of the Peruvian Army, all opponents to US economic interests. All deaths were put down to: “Bad luck, human error, bad weather”.
‘Century of Wind’ gave me great, additional respect for Fidel Castro. Despite the problems of Cuba, which I know first hand from my visit there seven years ago, and which have been largely caused by the US economic blockade, Fidel has managed for over 50 years to resist US attempts to overthrow or assassinate him.
It is said that “history is written by the victors”. These three books show history on the side of the vanquished. Overall, despite this terrible history of oppression, plundering and suffering over five centuries, what shines through in these three books is the spirit of the people, constantly rebelling, constantly being crushed, yet never extinguished.
The trilogy is a remarkable achievement and comes with some impressive recommendations. Doris Lessing, one of my favorite authors and winner of the Nobel Prize Winner for Literature in 2007, said simply: “I like this book”.
And I like very much what the English writer and critic John Berger wrote:
“To publish Eduardo Galeano is to publish the enemy: the enemy of lies, indifference, above all of forgetfulness. Thanks to him, our crimes will be remembered. His tenderness is devastating, his truthfulness, furious.”
If you have any interest in Latin America, I urge you to read these books. I am very grateful to my friend S. for giving them to me. A perfect gift for my dieta.