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Eduardo Galeano:
Through the Looking Glass


by Daniel Fischlin and Martha Nandorfy
436 pages,
ISBN: 155164178X


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Struggle for Liberation through Literature
by Cherry Clayton

Daniel Fischlin and Martha Nandorfy have produced an inspiring and challenging study of the relationship between human rights and Latin American literature, one that draws attention to the relationship between United States political and economic power and dominant paradigms of literary theory. They have made the genre-breaking work of Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan novelist, journalist and political activist, central to a critique of the dominant assumptions that have made indigenous and popular Latin American storytelling traditions and cultural systems invisible to literary criticism. One of the strengths of their book is its reliance on different media: cartoons, icons, journalism and graphics demonstrate how multiple forms of address are needed in order to respond adequately and appropriately to the lives and literatures of oppressed peoples.
Fischlin and Nandorfy argue that Galeano has offered a powerful critique of the way literary culture must rethink its relation to the public sphere in works such as Open Veins of Latin America, Song About Us, Days and Nights of Love and War, and his trilogy Memory of Fire, in which he continues to draw a link between the imagination and social change, as well as question the exploitative relations between European and North American cultures and Latin America. Galeano won the first Cultural Freedom Award from the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe for his formidable literary and journalistic output in the service of liberation struggles.
In their discussion, Galeano operates partly as a generic representative of a Latin American intellectual responding to popular awareness of the structures of economic exploitation, labour and poverty in Latin America. The discussion consists of four major topics: human rights issues; storytelling and testimony as challenges to the separation of high and popular culture; writing of revisionary history that challenges dominant historiographic conventions, and literature in relation to alternative forms of community. Capitalist society is seen as valuing the individual and the magic of the free market too highly, whereas Galeano and other Latin American writers posit a communitarian vision that celebrates the joys, sorrows and political ironies of everyday life and collective endeavours, partly through their hybrid and allegorical literary style.
Through the Looking Glass thus extends into the domain of literary criticism the activities of organizations such as PEN and Amnesty International, which make the political dimension of literature central, and draws attention to the very real penalties suffered by writers who have spoken out against politically repressive systems such as Nadine Gordimer, Mongo Beti, Joy Kogawa, Vaclav Havel, Hans Enzensberger, and many others who have suffered censorship, house arrests, banning, exile, deportation and sometimes death. The censorship of literary production is in itself a form of death to a writer.
Fischlin and Nandorfy are very good at implying the subtle forms of silencing that still exist or that have taken on more nuanced forms in post-Cold War neo-liberal democracies: the silencing effected by the collusion between economic elites and the mainstream media, the marginalizing of the various minority communities, and by the influence that major Western powers exert¨by way of uneven economic relationships¨on developing nations' attitudes. A complex multi-faceted discussion draws awareness to these forms of silencing and devaluation. Fischlin and Nandorfy seek to show how literature can reconstitute the texture of daily lives, beliefs, stories, humour and satire, and how Galeano's literary strategies call attention to this lived dimension of geopolitical power imbalances.
Despite this admirable critical enterprise, with its detailed analysis and unfolding of sub-topics such as the role of memory, liberation theology, gender, class, and attitudes to poverty, some weaknesses remain as the realpolitic of the current state of international relations is not fully brought to bear. The attainability of the goal itself¨that of "working towards the creation of non-oppressive, liberatory social structures where words circulate freely and decisions are made collectively through participation" (p19) is questionable when scrutinized within the real context of a post NAFTA world. Currently, international economic treaties are often negotiated without adequate representation for ŠThird World' countries, granting multi-national corporations new forms of power and legal recourse, while the concerns of local communities defending economic and environmental issues are not just ignored but are often legislated against in punitive financial terms. Linda McQuaig's new book, All You Can Eat: Greed Lust and the New Capitalism, which also deals with human rights and international capitalist activity, dissects this process and provides examples of such litigation between multinational concerns and collective protest groups. Signs of hope have been offered by way of local forms of protest and organization, and by recent efforts, at least in Canada, to initiate creative dialogues with African and Latin American countries along with increased financial assistance.
A second problem arises from the terminology of "the Americas", or "America" as used to designate South America only (or South America and the Caribbean), though this problem is rooted in colonialism and neo-colonialism itself, which has not lexically marked the United States of America as North American but reserves the geographic qualifiers for Latin American countries and the adjective American for the United States. As Galeano has argued, this is because the contemporary world needs to be turned upside down in order to be understood in its lived history of colonialism and neo-colonialism. Nevertheless, this problem of terminology is part of the analytical problem and requires a fuller discussion.
A third difficulty I have with the book is the absence of a Canadian dimension in a study originating in Canada. Abuses of foreign power are shown to derive mainly from Europe and the United States. A group from Colombia recently visited Guelph and pointed out the abuses carried out by Canadian corporations within Colombia, where assassinations are common, where 45,000 people died as a result of the war between 1986 and 1995, 2 million people have been displaced in 2000 alone, and where paramilitaries who commit atrocities have increased their forces by 81% and their influence over the country's policy to 40% within the last 12 months. Recent crises in Venezuela and Argentina have also drawn attention to paramilitary activities and the difficulties of good governance and economic control under these conditions. Admittedly, Fischlin and Nandorfy do discuss the collusion that has built up between foreign powers and internal dictatorships as a compounding factor in the history of colonialism.
The group from Colombia discussed Canada's role in giving taxpayers' dollars, $5 billion annually, to Canadian corporations investing in oil and gas, mining and telecommunications in Colombia. Many of these projects are in the lands of indigenous peoples. The rights and needs of indigenous peoples are often neglected when mega-projects are being proposed and implemented. Activists, labour union organizers and other Colombians have called upon ordinary Canadians to demand that all of these companies adhere to the same standards regarding workers' rights, environmental safeguards, regulated access to resources, and protection for indigenous lands.
The rich world of literature and myth that is uncovered in this study, and the individual and collective lives of the people involved in these debates, suggest that those corporations and governments operating in Latin American countries, and all countries where resources are being expropriated for profit, should adhere to the standards that new legal powers are making it difficult to enforce. Literature is one of the best means of bringing about understanding and action across national boundaries. Government support of school and university departments which teach Latin American literature would certainly help achieve such goals. Literary analysis could be complemented by ethical pressures on the actual businesses involved in what is otherwise seen as an abstract system of neo-liberal capitalism. Then the books and the songs, and the newspapers and journals, may be able to deliver better news from Latin American countries. In the meanwhile, Through the Looking Glass will be an invaluable guide to Latin American cultural production and human rights, and the ways in which we should attend to popular sources of imaginative expression in order to understand the specific histories of oppressed peoples. ˛

Letters to the Canadian and Colombian governments and to the companies involved (for example, Transcanada Pipelines, Talisman Energy, Conquistador Mines, Nortel and Quebecor World) can ask that economic investment be accompanied by pressure for a climate of peace and equitable social and economic programs. Letters to corporations can be registered with SOS_KIMY@yahoo.ca).
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