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1001 Books: The Memory of Fire Trilogy by Eduardo Galeano

For the last quarter of 2019 I have been plunged into the world of Latin America and its colonisation by Europe. Instead of the usual sanitised history Galeano brings us the story from the point of view of the first people and trust me it is very different from the history I was taught at school.

I must confess when I saw that this trilogy was made up of 3 books composed solely of multiple vignettes my heart sank, by now you know how I feel about short stories, so I was astonished when I realised that I loved the format.

Book One – Genesis – This book starts out with a section called “First Voices” and this is a series of stories, myths, beliefs of the first people of Latin America. For me this section was fascinating I loved the creation myths and how the local animals are worked into the stories and used to explain things that at the time were unexplainable in terms of science.

The book then moves onto to cover the time period 1492-1700 and how the discovery of America by Columbus had huge consequences for the people who were already there. Instead of seeing Columbus as a hero this book tells how a people who while primitive were actually civilised were essentially destroyed because they had something Europe wanted. It also shows how missionaries and the word of God didn’t actually improve things for the first people in fact the opposite is probably true.

Book 2 – Faces & Masks – 1701-1900 again we get the Latin American view of history the best way I can sum this book up is by sharing some of my favourite moments.

Lima runs on the “Snack Clock” which is pretty much how I run my life, each hour brings a new street vendor selling something new.

1776 Pennsylvania “In the best of cases, Paine considers government a necessary evil; in the worst, an intolerable evil. And monarchy is the worst of cases.”

1810 The Virgin of Guadalupe Versus the Virgin of Remedios “Indian virgin defies white virgin.”

1810 Hidalgo “Everybody knew, in the town of Dolores, that the priest Hidalgo had the bad habit of reading as he walked through the streets, the great wings of his hat between the sun and the pages, and that it was a sheer miracle that neither the horses nor the Inquisition ever hit him, because more dangerous than reading was what he read.”

1812 “From Cochabamba, many men have fled. Not one woman.”

1826 Simon Rodriguez “Boys and girls should study together in schools. First so that in this way men should learn from childhood to respect women; second, so that women should learn not to be afraid of men.”

1890 The Tango ” The tango comes from gaucho tunes of the interior and comes from the sea, the chanteys of sailors. It comes from the slaves of Africa and they gypsies of Andalusia. Spain contributes its guitar, Germany its concertina, Italy its mandolin. The driver of the horse drawn street car contributed his trumpet, and the immigrant worker his harmonica, comrade of lonely moments.”

Book 3 – Century of the Wind – 1900-1984 this book moves into modern history and it was fascinating for me to see what things have occurred in living memory and specifically events that happened in my lifetime. It also taught me more about historical figures I had only heard of in passing.

Again the best way to explore this book is for me to share my favourite moments:

1908: Caracas – Castro in one paragraph the author sums up the dictatorship and eventual betrayal of Cipriano Castro.

1909: New York – Charlotte the author explores the inner thoughts and feelings of Charlotte Perkins Gilmore about the position of woman. “This stubborn wayfarer travels tirelessly around the United States, announcing a world turned upside down.”

1913: Mexico City – An Eighteen-Cent Rope “The fate of Mexico is discussed in the smoking lounge of the U.S. embassy. It is decided to invoke the shot-while-trying-to-escape law, so they put Madero in a car, order him to get out of town, and riddle him with bullets when he tries to.”

1914: Montevideo – Batlle ” He writes articles slandering the saints and makes speeches attacking the company that sells real estate in the Great Beyond. When he assumed the presidency of Uruguay, he had no alternative but to swear before God and the holy evangels, but explained immediately after that he didn’t believe in any of that.”

1942: New York – The Red Cross Doesn’t Accept Black Blood. How shocking is that?

1958: Stockholm – Pele ” Brazilian football glows. It dances and makes one dance. At the world cup in Sweden, Pele and Garrincha are the heroes, proving wrong those who say blacks can’t play in a cold climate.”

1967: Houston – Ali ” They took away his world title, they stopped him from boxing, they sentenced him to jail and a fine: He yells his thanks for these compliments to his human dignity.”

The Trilogy – this is a masterful telling of history and I loved every minute of it I would recommend that everyone reads this especially if you have never heard the history of Latin America from the Latin American side.

I will leave you with the final note from the author “Here goes the last volume of Memory of Fire. As you’ll see it ends in 1984. Why not before or after. I don’t know. Perhaps because that was the last year of my exile, the end of a cycle, the end of a century; or perhaps because the book and I know that the last page is also the first.”

Last, last word (I promise) AMAZING!!



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