Book Review: Shards of Reality
      Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces, translated by Cedric Belfrage with Mark Schafer, W. W. Norton, 281 pages, $19.95  




Like white light broken into a spectrum of colors by a prism, Eduardo Galeano's The Book of Embraces presents an experience that is at once fragmented and integrated.

The new work, like his monumental trilogy Memory of Fire, is composed of a sequence of short prose compositions--most are less than a page--that form a surprisingly coherent whole. Both works combine political commitment with poetic vision. But while Memory of Fire traces the history of the Americas from pre-Columbian times to the present, The Book of embraces comprises incidents and reflections from Galeano's own life. It is a less epic and more intimate work, slighter perhaps, but more personal and revealing, a stroboscopic vision that emerges from a series of quick glimpses at a life in motion.

"Why does one write, if not to put one's pieces together?" asks Galeano is an entry titled "Celebration of the Marriage of Heart and Mind." He continues: From the moment we enter school or church, education chops us into pieces: It teaches us to divorce soul from body and mind from heart."

In contrast, Galeano applauds the fishermen of Colombia who coined the word sentipensante (feeling-thinking) "to define language that speaks the truth." So Galeano embraces the exceptional and the banal, the whimsical and the profound, the visionary and the concrete--and the visual and the verbal. Recalling his early days as both a journalist and a caricaturist in Montevideo, Uruguay, the texts in The Book of embraces are accompanied by his own fanciful and surrealistic collages and drawings.

Some of the pieces are analytical and essayistic, as when Galeano notes that in Latin America today, "It doesn't bother anyone very much that politics be democratic so long as the economy is not." Some are anecdotes passed on from friends, such as Alastair Reid's account of his neighbors' puzzlement at an advertisement for a rowing machine, or Nelson Valdes's account of passengers commandeering a Havana bus when the driver took time out for romance.

One sequence reports the dreams of his wife, Helena: "There was a woman in a tower wearing a white tunic and combing her tresses, which reached down to her feet. The comb shed dreams replete with all their characters: The dreams flew from her hair into the air." Another sequence reports graffiti observed during his travels, such as this one from the Uruguayan town of Melo: "Assist the police: torture yourself." Other entries are more personal: reflections on his heart attack and on Helena's miscarriage, for example.

The result is what Galeano's fellow writer from across the River Plate, Argentinean Julio Cortazar, once termed a "collage book." Galeano's book bears a significant resemblance to Cortazar's Around the Day in Eighty Worlds. Both are assemblages of bits and pieces, both feature whimsical illustrations, both combine elements of surrealism, personal reflections, and political commitment (in The Book of embraces Cortazar appears in one of Helena's dreams, embracing Galeano and her at once.) Cortazar's work has more moments of genuine and sustained narrative inspiration, but readers daunted by his highly allusive style will find Galeano's book more accessible.

Without embarrassment, Galeano can write such lines as "I write for those who cannot read me: the downtrodden." No one will doubt his sincerity, but some might find the phrasing of his sentiment somewhat shopworn. Yet the courage of his directness and outspokenness in defying repressive Latin American regimes more than counterbalances this tendency.

"The system feeds neither the body nor the heart: Many are condemned to starve for lack of bread and many more for lack of embraces," he writes. elsewhere he notes, "In the River Plate basin we call the heart a "bobo," a fool. And not because it falls in love. We call it a fool because it works so hard."

Galeano's very occasional lapses are excesses of the heart, and easily forgivable because his work, both in this book and elsewhere, is inspired and validated by its heartfelt quality. It is the rhythm of Galeano's heart that unifies and composes this engaging collection.




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