Latin American history. Uruguayan writer's lyrical, personal vision

Memory of Fire, by Eduardo Galeano. New York: Pantheon Books. 293 pp. $17.95. Latin American readers are already familiar with the prolific Uruguayan writer and journalist Eduardo Galeano, who was born in 1940. One of his best books, ``Las Venas Abiertas de Am'erica Latina'' (``The Open Veins of Latin America''), published in 1971, is in its 30th edition. It is a poignant account of Latin America's political, economic, and social failures that, according to Mr. Galeano, are due to foreign intervention in the affairs of the continent, beginning with the Spanish conquest and continuing to the present day.

Galeano's obsession as a writer and as a journalist has been the nature of history and its implications. He believes ``official history'' is a fossilized chronicle, encrusted by meaningless dates and numbers. ``Memory of Fire'' attempts to create a flowing and dynamic history of the American continents, a history that Galeano argues ``had stopped breathing, betrayed in academic texts.''

``Memory of Fire'' is a highly lyrical and personal vision of the historical process of the American experience. However, Galeano does not intend to fictionalize history, but to re-create it, to bring it to life. His method is to study a wide variety of books, historical and even mythological accounts, to build up his own version of history. ``Memory of Fire'' does not claim to be an objective account of events, but neither is it a work of propaganda nor an epic. It is Galeano's own vision of what happened, ``a mosaic, with each fragment being based on a solid documentary foundation,'' he explains in the introduction. He continues, ``Nothing is neutral about this historical narration. Unable to take sides, I take sides. I confess it and I am not sorry.''

``Memory of Fire'' is the first volume of a projected trilogy. Volume I tells the story of pre-Columbian America up to the 1700s. Volume II will cover the 18th and 19th centuries, and the final volume will deal with the 20th century. Galeano's style cannot be classified as a specific literary genre. He uses vignettes and poetical prose and most particularly striking visual imagery to evoke the people and events of the past.

He can be very effective using these techniques, as for instance when he describes the origin of creation based on Mayan myths: ``Time was born and had no name when the sky didn't exist and the earth had not yet awakened,'' or when he describes the arrival of the Spaniards in the New World.

Here is a scene from the conquest of Mexico: ``Twilight of soaring flames on the coast of Veracruz. Eleven ships are burning up; burning, too, the rebel soldiers who hang from the yardarm of the flagship. While the sea opens its jaws to devour the bonfires, Hern'an Cort'es, standing on the beach, presses on the pommel of his sword and uncovers his head.''

In addition to such vivid dramatic accounts, Galeano also raises fundamental questions which have never been answered satisfactorily for Spanish America. For instance, why did Queen Elizabeth I of England knight Francis Drake, who was a pirate and a thief? Why did the Spanish Inquisition disapprove of the actions of Bartolom'e de las Casas, a Spanish priest, when he tried to defend the lives and rights of the Indian population? Galeano gives his answers to these questions in a subjective and emotional way, and uses them as the central theme of his book, but one must not forget that he is basing his conclusions on historical information.

I enjoyed reading this book, seeing Sor Juana In'es de la Cruz, a leading poet of the 16th century, as she wanders through a market in colonial Mexico, ``a market of dreams. . . . The market women have spread out dreams on big cloths on the ground. . . .'' Or viewing the seizing of New York by the British: ``With a few shots from the guns the English bring down the flag that waves over the fortress and seize the island of Manhattan from the Dutch, who had bought it from the Delaware Indians for 60 florins.''

``Memory of Fire'' succeeds in bringing a sense of immediacy to history. Although it can be a bit exhausting at times because of its intense poetical style, it is an important book and must be praised for its ambitious attempt to redefine and understand the entire sweep of the history of North and South America.

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