Wednesday, December 5, 2018
Faces and Masks by Eduardo Galeano
Two centuries of slavery and revolution
Faces and Masks, originally published in 1984, is the second book in Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s trilogy Memory of Fire, which chronicles the history of the Americas. This trilogy is a stylistically unique work of literature, neither fiction nor nonfiction but a combination of the two. Each book is comprised of hundreds of brief historical scenes a page or two in length. Within a strict chronological framework, Galeano literally jumps all over the map, though he mostly focuses on Latin America. Even though the narrative never stays in one place for long, certain characters make repeated appearances throughout the book, allowing readers to chart the trajectories of their lives. Galeano’s hopscotch technique is quite effective in drawing connections between diverse peoples and places while providing an eye-opening and moving perspective on world history.
Faces and Masks begins in 1700 where the first book, Genesis, left off, and covers the 18th and 19th centuries. While Genesis was mostly about the Spanish conquest of the New World, Faces and Masks focuses heavily on the enslavement of African Americans and Native Americans and highlights the various uprisings of American peoples against their conquerors. I liked Genesis, but I found Faces and Masks much more compelling simply because a lot of fascinating events took place during these two centuries, such as Alexander von Humboldt’s expedition to Latin America, the Mexican Revolution of 1810, and Simón Bolívar’s revolution in South America. Galeano briefly covers prominent world events like the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the American Civil War, but he gives much more in-depth coverage to wars and revolutions in Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Paraguay, Cuba, and many other conflicts great and small. As Galeano shows, too often the violence and upheaval resulted in a nation’s nominal freedom from European political rule only to be handed over to wealthy, Euro-friendly rulers who continued to exploit Native and poor populations for the economic gain of the conquerors they just overthrew.
Memory of Fire is very much a “people’s history” of the world, told from a Southern Hemisphere perspective. In his beautifully written historical vignettes, which combine poetic prose with insightful social commentary, Galeano is equally adept at illustrating the greed and excesses of oligarchs or the tragedies and miseries of slaves, farmers, and freedom fighters. Sadly, the downtrodden underdogs are nearly always the Native inhabitants or working-class laborers of Latin America. Galeano’s narrative, however, is by no means one-sided or preachy, and not all of his heroes are Latino. Historical figures of all races and classes make appearances in Faces and Masks, and the author judges them fairly on the basis of their actions. The ensemble cast features not only politicians, military leaders, and revolutionaries, but a surprising number of artists and writers as well.
Even North Americans who consider themselves reasonably well-versed in the history of Latin America will find much to learn from this Uruguayan man of letters. The Memory of Fire books are not so much a replacement of traditional history books as they are an appetizer for them. Each mini-chapter inspires the reader to want to learn more about the interesting personages and surprising incidents depicted, and Galeano’s extensive bibliography would be a fine place to start. After Faces and Masks, I am looking forward to reading book three, Century of the Wind, but it will be hard for the 20th century to top this.
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