Eduardo Galeano became news-worthy in 2009 when the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, gave his American counterpart his book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Mirrors (subtitle: Stories of Almost Everyone) is a more ambitious project, a history of the world in less than four hundred pages. Galeano has described his style as:
“…stories that are integrated, always integrated in a huge mosaic of other stories interlinking, sort of a conversation between different experiences, emotions, ideas, sounds, colours…”
Mirrors is similarly made up of hundreds of shorter pieces of text, each around a third of a page, telling its individual story but also building a larger picture.
Of course, a history of the world that will satisfy everyone, or indeed anyone, is unlikely, no matter how expansive and all-embracing it attempts to be. This is not, however, where Galeano’s ambitions lie. Instead he presents the reader with a particular viewpoint, so much so that the image of a lens seems more appropriate than a mirror. But in Galeano’s view history frequently reflects itself, generally as a battle between freedom and tyranny. His heroes are those who resist; his villains are rulers, colonisers, and religions.
Strictly speaking, this is literature not history: Galeano uses the techniques of fiction (juxtaposition, irony, symbolism) in order to convey a truth about the world we live in. His early sources are mythical rather than historical, with stories from Africa (Exu), South America (Quetzacoatl), the Middle East (Gilgamesh), Polynesia (Maui), Egypt (Thoth, Osiris), India (Ganesha) and Northern Europe (Odin). These stories are presented neither with belief nor disbelief; similarly, not one of them is characterised as superior to the others. Galeano has established within the first few pages that his book will range across the continents and not seek to rank them. His political views are also clarified in his titles for these myths, such as ‘Origin of Social Classes’ and ‘Serfs and Lords’.
Galeano also frequently uses juxtaposition to make his point. For example, an early story that begins:
“When Iraq was not yet Iraq, it was the birthplace of the first written words.”
transports us to the near present within a few lines:
“In our days, George W. Bush, perhaps believing that writing was invented in Texas, launched with joyful impunity a war to exterminate Iraq.”
No pretence at objectivity there, though the cheap if amusing remark about “believing writing was invented in Texas” suggests a less restrained anger than is typical. Indeed, the few references to the Iraq war betray a less artful side to Galeano’s writing that may unfortunately date an otherwise timeless book. The same technique working in reverse is to be found in ‘Forbidden to Be’ which begins by listing all the prohibitions, including bathing in public baths, aimed at Muslims by Philip II of Spain in 1567, but ends with the line:
“A century before, there had been six hundred public baths in the city of Cordoba alone.”
Galeano also themes sections of the book, so, for example, we find a series of stories on war or writing or the Devil (the titles alone here make a point: ‘The Devil is Muslim’; ‘The Devil is Jewish’; ‘The Devil is Black’; ‘The Devil is Female’…). Others are brief biographies, though even those of figures from the arts focus on the political. Beethoven “had a prisonlike childhood and he believed in freedom as a religion”. Goya was court painter for Ferdinand VII, but “artist and king detested each other”.
“The artist had no choice but to do the job that earned him his daily bread and provided an effectual shield against the enmity of the Holy Inquisition.”
This may well be true, but you can almost hear the sigh of relief when Goya loses his job and retires to the country to paint his Black Paintings. If the artists himself isn’t amenable to politics then his work maybe. Kafka’s writings are seen as an echo of the First World War:
“In a certain way those stories, those books, continued in the newspapers, which day after day told of the progress of the war machine.”
This determination to remain faithful to his vision, however, is a strength rather than a weakness, particularly as it is a view of the world that we so rarely get to see in our own media. This strikes me as a book to be gifted to the young, not as the history of the world but as a history, and one that should not be ignored. If it is a mirror, it is a broken one, where every piece reflects the same truth in a myriad different ways.