Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Eduardo Galeano and the telling of resistant stories

At the moment, I'm in the middle of reading Hunter of Stories by Eduardo Galeano (translated by Mark Fried). Galeano, who died in 2015, was an Uruguayan writer and public intellectual of global renown. I haven't read his early classics Open Veins of Latin America or the Memory of Fire trilogy, but I've read a couple of his later books.

Hunter of Stories was written in the years before he died and was only published posthumously. Like others of his later books, it collects very short pieces of story – almost all shorter than a page, in what I've read so far, and most considerably so. The title of the book refers to Galeano himself, who – like any master storyteller – collected stories wherever he went. The pages are filled with what he has found, and then distilled, polished, and presented. He has, it seems, taken fragments from dusty books, from ancient myths, from the pages of newspapers, from his own life, and from a thousand conversations with the people he has met in his travels. In his choices about which fragments are worth extracting and re-telling, and his ever-so-minimal approach in doing so, he makes them his own...but, as storytellers often do, he sends them out into the world to be told and shared again in turn.

I don't actually know much about him or about his process of working, but for some reason I imagine him in conversation with my partner's maternal grandfather – a rural working-class man, devout and conservative, who did hard manual labour his whole life. And also a storyteller. He was the sort of storyteller who would start at random, proceed at length, and reveal only by a glint in his eyes just before he dropped the punchline that this was not an anecdote from his day, but a joke he'd heard, re-packaged, and re-told just for you. So though the two were very different men – different lives, different politics – I for some reason am drawn to imagining the joy in the Spanish-accented and Pennsylvania-Deutsch-accented Englishes as stories fly back and forth over coffee at a kitchen table.

But I digress.

The book is remarkable for two reasons. The first is its craft.

The stories do many things. Some are pointedly political, others more subtley so. Some are general observations of the world, others are narrativizations of self. Many are told with humour, while many relate the tragedy of a violent, oppressive world. What is amazing is how effectively Galeano does all of these things with so few words – just a few lines, often, and rarely more than a few short paragraphs. I also happen to be reading a science fiction novel by Cixin Liu right now, and in it one character talks about Chinese landscape paintings that capture an entire scene in very few brushstrokes. I feel like Galeano does that with his stories.

But what is perhaps even more remarkable about these stories, and what I had trouble identifying for awhile after I started reading, is the rare way it brings together the conversational and the resistant in print.

There are a limited range of ways that we get used to encountering words that honestly name the colonial and capitalist domination of the world, and the things that people do to survive and thrive. Many of us have little opportunity to encounter such words at all. They are mostly not in the media that most of us view and hear and read – people's realities sneak in anyway, but they are rarely matter-of-factly present. Others of us encounter them primarily in written form, but it is the written form of the polemic, the dense novel, the ideological code-word, the (quasi-)academic decoding of the social, all of which are important but all of which are boundaried, limited. It's not that we don't need those things – we do. But they are knowledge with built-in walls. They name what we have been deprived of the tools to name, which is great, but that means many will be unable to understand them without other kinds of work. And a few of us encounter honest naming of colonial and capitalist domination through the people around us relating and reflecting on their lived experiences. Which is crucial – it's how communities-in-struggle make and re-make themselves, it's how moments of everyday resistance are shared and circulated. And, frankly, listening to such moments is a big part of the work-life I've constructed for myself. But everyday conversation is bounded as well, not because it won't be understood, but because it won't be heard. Chatter over a water cooler or kitchen table by definition reaches only those others gathered around the same object.

What Galeano does, here, is takes all of those resistant knowledges that he has encountered – the polemic, the shared everyday conversation, the obscure incident in the dusty book, the anecdote, the myth – and makes them story. The language of story, the circulability of print – it allows a kind of naming of the world that is so often kept restricted to certain spaces or to inaccessible forms, or forced to pre-emptively defend itself, to feel broad and normal and ordinary.

That's precious and rare, and the chance to experience it is making me glad that I'm reading this book.

Anyway. I look forward to reading the rest of it, in particular the later sections that I think feature more stories drawn from Galeano's own life. I'm always keen to learn about the teller as well as to hear the tales. :)

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