Thursday, June 28, 2018

Genesis by Eduardo Galeano

Scenes of New World conquest
Genesis, a book by Uruguayan novelist and journalist Eduardo Galeano, was originally published in 1982 under the Spanish title Los nacimientos. It is the first book in Galeano’s trilogy Memory of Fire (Memoria del fuego), in which he chronicles the history of the Americas. Though Genesis is certainly historical fiction, it isn’t quite a novel, but rather its own unique form of fiction. The book consists of hundreds of brief historical scenes, each only a page or two in length. These vignettes are arranged in chronological order but don’t necessarily lead sequentially from one to another in the way chapters of a novel do. Each scene is based on historical fact, but Galeano fictionalizes the history by adding dialogue, interior monologue, bits of folklore and myth, and poetic description. Snippets of poems and songs also appear sporadically. Though unlike a novel it has no protagonist per se, certain “characters”—historical personages such as Christopher Columbus, the pirate Henry Morgan, or Mexican scholar and poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz—make recurring appearances throughout the book, allowing the reader to see the progression of their lives.

Though the trilogy is often described as a history of Latin American, its scope is actually broader than that, encompassing the entire Western Hemisphere. While most of the chapters deal with Mexico and South America, it does include glimpses of North America as well—the Plymouth and Jamestown colonies, for example, or the Haida in the Pacific Northwest. Galeano also elaborates on the history of the conquerors with many scenes set in Spain. England and France are also covered, as is the slave trade in Africa. Genesis begins with a series of creation myths from Native American cultures, then chronicles the years 1492 to 1700. The second and third books, Faces and Masks and Century of the Wind, will continue the narrative into the 1980s. Galeano omits the history of Native American civilizations prior to the arrival of Columbus, presumably because his main concern is the conquest, colonization, and clash between Old and New World cultures.

Though the scenes jump all over the place in terms of location, culture, and tone, all are united stylistically by Galeano’s consistent narrative voice, skillfully translated by Cedric Belfrage in the English edition from Open Road Media. Galeano’s descriptions of the brutality of conquest are often bluntly graphic, but his prose is suffused with a gallows humor, as if speaking from the perspective of a centuries-old inhabitant of this world where violence and slavery were simply facts of life. He points out the laughable absurdities of the Spanish Inquisition, for example, without sugar-coating the atrocities. His treatment of the conquest is admirably even-handed and matter-of-fact, eliciting pathos without succumbing to preachy condemnation. His intention is neither to shock nor to castigate but rather to examine how modern America arose from such reprehensible beginnings.

Reading Genesis inspires the reader to want to find out more about these characters and events. Therefore, one of the most valuable aspects of this book is its bibliography. Each of Genesis’s vignettes ends with a numerical reference to one of the 227 cited works Galeano consulted in writing the book. Unfortunately, in the ebook edition from Open Road Media, those reference numbers are not linked to the bibliography, so the reader has to search for them.

I will admit that at times I lost my patience with Galeano. He can get long-winded and venture off into fanciful asides, but overall I’m glad I read the book and plan to read the other two volumes in the trilogy. Readers may find themselves resistant at first to the book’s unusual composition, but once one lets go of conventional notions of what fiction should be and just accepts Genesis for what it is, the book is a profound and educational reading experience.
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