Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire Trilogy defies categorization—or perhaps creates its own. It is a passionate, razor-sharp, lyrical history of North and South America, from the birth of the continent’s indigenous peoples through the end of the twentieth century. The three volumes form a haunting and dizzying whole that resurrects the lives of Indians, conquistadors, slaves, revolutionaries, poets, and more.
The first book, Genesis, pays homage to the many origin stories of the tribes of the Americas, and paints a verdant portrait of life in the New World through the age of the conquistadors. The second book, Faces and Masks, spans the two centuries between the years 1700 and 1900, in which colonial powers plundered their newfound territories, ultimately giving way to a rising tide of dictators. And in the final installment, Century of the Wind, Galeano brings his story into the twentieth century, in which a fractured continent enters the modern age as popular revolts blaze from North to South.
This celebrated series is a landmark of contemporary Latin American writing, and a brilliant document of culture.
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The Memory of Fire Trilogy
Genesis, Faces and Masks, and Century of the Wind
By Eduardo Galeano, Cedric Belfrage
Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.Copyright © 1982 Eduardo Galeano
All rights reserved.
The woman and the man dreamed that God was dreaming about them.
God was singing and clacking his maracas as he dreamed his dream in a cloud of tobacco smoke, feeling happy but shaken by doubt and mystery.
The Makiritare Indians know that if God dreams about eating, he gives fertility and food. If God dreams about life, he is born and gives birth.
In their dream about God's dream, the woman and the man were inside a great shining egg, singing and dancing and kicking up a fuss because they were crazy to be born. In God's dream happiness was stronger than doubt and mystery. So dreaming, God created them with a song:
"I break this egg and the woman is born and the man is born. And together they will live and die. But they will be born again. They will be born and die again and be born again. They will never stop being born, because death is a lie." (51)
For the Maya, time was born and had a name when the sky didn't exist and the earth had not yet awakened.
The days set out from the east and started walking.
The first day produced from its entrails the sky and the earth.
The second day made the stairway for the rain to run down.
The cycles of the sea and the land, and the multitude of things, were the work of the third day.
The fourth day willed the earth and the sky to tilt so that they could meet.
The fifth day decided that everyone had to work.
The first light emanated from the sixth day.
In places where there was nothing, the seventh day put soil; the eighth plunged its hands and feet in the soil.
The ninth day created the nether worlds; the tenth earmarked for them those who had poison in their souls.
Inside the sun, the eleventh day modeled stone and tree.
It was the twelfth that made the wind. Wind blew, and it was called spirit because there was no death in it.
The thirteenth day moistened the earth and kneaded the mud into a body like ours.
Thus it is remembered in Yucatán.
The Sun and the Moon
The first sun, the watery sun, was carried off by the flood. All that lived in the world became fish.
The second sun was devoured by tigers.
The third was demolished by a fiery rain that set people ablaze.
The fourth sun, the wind sun, was wiped out by storm. People turned into monkeys and spread throughout the hills.
The gods became thoughtful and got together in Teotihuacán.
"Who will take on the job of dawning?"
The Lord of the Shells, famous for his strength and beauty, stepped forward.
"I'll be the sun," he said.
Everybody looked at the Small Syphilitic God, the ugliest and wretchedest of all gods, and said, "You."
The Lord of the Shells and the Small Syphilitic God withdrew to the hills that are now the pyramids of the sun and the moon. There they fasted and meditated.
Afterward the gods piled up firewood, made a bonfire, and called to them.
The Small Syphilitic God ran up and threw himself into the flames. He immediately emerged, incandescent, in the sky.
The Lord of the Shells looked at the bonfire with a frown, moved forward, backward, hesitated, made a couple of turns. As he could not decide, they had to push him. After a long delay he rose into the sky. The gods were furious and beat him about the face with a rabbit, again and again, until they extinguished his glow. Thus, the arrogant Lord of the Shells became the moon. The stains on the moon are the scars from that beating.
But the resplendent sun didn't move. The obsidian hawk flew toward the Small Syphilitic God. "Why don't you get going?"
The despised, purulent, humpbacked, crippled one answered, "Because I need blood and power."
This fifth sun, the sun that moves, gave light to the Toltecs and gives it to the Aztecs. He has claws and feeds on human hearts.
Cloud let fall a drop of rain on the body of a woman. After nine months, she had twins.
When they grew up, they wanted to know who their father was.
"Tomorrow morning early," she said, "look toward the east. You'll see him there, up in the sky like a tower."
Across earth and sky, the twins went in search of their father.
Cloud was incredulous and demanded, "Show me that you are my children."
One of the twins sent a flash of lightning to the earth. The other, a thunderclap. As Cloud was still doubtful, they crossed a flood and came out safe.
Then Cloud made a place for them by his side, among his many brothers and nephews.
When God made the first of the Wawenock Indians, some bits of clay remained on the earth. With these bits Gluskabe made himself.
From on high, God asked in astonishment, "Well, where did you come from?"
"I'm miraculous," said Gluskabe. "Nobody made me."
God stood beside him and reached out his hand toward the universe. "Look at my work," he challenged. "If you're miraculous, show me things you have invented."
"I can make wind, if you like." And Gluskabe blew at the top of his lungs.
The wind was born and immediately died.
"I can make wind," Gluskabe admitted shamefacedly, "but I can't make it stay."
Then God blew, so powerfully that Gluskabe fell down and lost all his hair.
In the region of the great northern lakes, a little girl suddenly discovered she was alive. The wonders of the world opened her eyes and she took off at random.
Following the trail of the Menomenee nation's hunters and woodcutters, she came to a big log cabin. There lived ten brothers, birds of the thunder, who offered her shelter and food.
One bad morning, when she was fetching water from the creek, a hairy snake caught her and carried her into the depths of a rocky mountain. The snakes were about to eat her up when the little girl sang.
From far away, the thunder birds heard the call. They attacked the rocky mountain with lightning, rescued the prisoner, and killed the snakes.
The thunder birds left the little girl in the fork of a tree.
"You'll live here," they told her. "We'll come every time you sing."
Whenever the little green tree frog sings from his tree, the thunderclaps gather and it rains upon the world.
The forest dwarfs had caught Yobuënahuaboshka in an ambush and cut off his head.
The head bumped its way back to the land of the Cashinahuas.
Although it had learned to jump and balance gracefully, nobody wanted a head without a body.
"Mother, brothers, countrymen," it said with a sigh, "Why do you reject me? Why are you ashamed of me?"
To stop the complaints and get rid of the head, the mother proposed that it should change itself into something, but the head refused to change into what already existed. The head thought, dreamed, figured. The moon didn't exist. The rainbow didn't exist.
It asked for seven little balls of thread of all colors.
It took aim and threw the balls into the sky one after the other. The balls got hooked up beyond the clouds; the threads gently unraveled toward the earth.
Before going up, the head warned: "Whoever doesn't recognize me will be punished. When you see me up there, say: 'There's the high and handsome Yobuënahuaboshka!'"
Then it plaited the seven hanging threads together and climbed up the rope to the sky.
That night a white gash appeared for the first time among the stars. A girl raised her eyes and asked in astonishment: "What's that?"
Immediately a red parrot swooped upon her, gave a sudden twirl, and pricked her between the legs with his sharp-pointed tail. The girl bled. From that moment, women bleed when the moon says so.
Next morning the cord of seven colors blazed in the sky.
A man pointed his finger at it. "Look, look! How extraordinary!" He said it and fell down.
And that was the first time that someone died.
The crow, which now dominates the totem of the Haida nation, was the grandson of that great divine chief who made the world.
When the crow wept asking for the moon, which hung from the wall of tree trunks, his grandfather gave it to him. The crow threw it into the sky through the chimney opening and started crying again, wishing for the stars. When he got them he spread them around the moon.
Then he wept and hopped about and screamed until his grandfather gave him the carved wooden box in which he kept daylight. The great divine chief forbade him to take the box out of the house. He had decided that the world should live in the dark.
The crow played with the box, pretending to be satisfied, but out of the corner of his eye he watched the guards who were watching him.
When they weren't looking, he fled with the box in his claw. The point of the claw split passing through the chimney, and his feathers were burned and stayed black from then on.
The crow arrived at some islands off the northern coast. He heard human voices and asked for food. They wouldn't give him any. He threatened to break the wooden box.
"I've got daylight in here," he warned, "and if it escapes, the sky will never put out its light. No one will be able to sleep, nor to keep secrets, and everybody will know who is people, who is bird, and who is beast of the forest."
They laughed. The crow broke open the box, and light burst forth in the universe.
The sun never stopped shining and the Cashinahua Indians didn't know the sweetness of rest.
Badly in need of peace, exhausted by so much light, they borrowed night from the mouse.
It got dark, but the mouse's night was hardly long enough for a bite of food and a smoke in front of the fire. The people had just settled down in their hammocks when morning came.
So then they tried out the tapir's night. With the tapir's night they could sleep soundly and they enjoyed the long and much-deserved rest. But when they awoke, so much time had passed that undergrowth from the hills had invaded their lands and destroyed their houses.
After a big search they settled for the night of the armadillo. They borrowed it from him and never gave it back.
Deprived of night, the armadillo sleeps during the daytime.
By playing the flute love is declared, or the return of the hunters announced. With the strains of the flute, the Waiwai Indians summon their guests. For the Tukanos, the flute weeps; for the Kalinas it talks, because it's the trumpet that shouts.
On the banks of the Negro River, the flute confirms the power of the men. Flutes are sacred and hidden, and any woman who approaches deserves death.
In very remote times, when the women had the sacred flutes, men toted firewood and water and prepared the cassava bread. As the men tell it, the sun got indignant at the sight of women running the world, so he dropped into the forest and fertilized a virgin by slipping leaf juices between her legs. Thus was born Jurupari.
Jurupari stole the sacred flutes and gave them to the men. He taught the men to hide them and defend them and to celebrate ritual feasts without women. He also told them the secrets they were to transmit to their male children.
When Jurupari's mother found where the sacred flutes were hidden, he condemned her to death; and with the bits that remained of her he made the stars of the sky.
(91 and 112)
The Milky Way
No bigger than a worm, he ate the hearts of birds. His father was the best hunter of the Moseten people.
Soon he was a serpent as big as an arm. He kept asking for more hearts. The hunter spent the whole day in the forest killing for his son.
When the serpent got too big for the shack, the forest had been emptied of birds. The father, an expert bowman, brought him jaguars' hearts.
The serpent devoured them and grew. Then there were no more jaguars in the forest.
"I want human hearts," said the serpent.
The hunter emptied his village and its vicinity of people, until one day in a far-off village he was spotted on a tree branch and killed.
Driven by hunger and nostalgia, the serpent went to look for him.
He coiled his body around the guilty village so that no one could escape. While the men let fly all their arrows against this giant ring that had laid siege to them, the serpent rescued his father's body and grew upward. There he can still be seen undulating, bristling with luminous arrows, across the night sky.
The Evening Star
The moon, stooping mother, asked her son, "I don't know where your father is. Find him and give him word of me."
The son took off in search of the brightest of all lights. He didn't find him at noontime, when the sun of the Tarascan people drinks his wine and dances with his women to the beat of drums. He didn't find him on the horizons and in the regions of the dead. The sun wasn't in any of his four houses.
The evening star is still hunting his father across the sky. He always arrives too early or too late.
The First Father of the Guaranís rose in darkness lit by reflections from his own heart and created flames and thin mist. He created love and had nobody to give it to. He created language and had no one to listen to him.
Then he recommended to the gods that they should construct the world and take charge of fire, mist, rain, and wind. And he turned over to them the music and words of the sacred hymn so that they would give life to women and to men.
So love became communion, language took on life, and the First Father redeemed his solitude. Now he accompanies men and women who sing as they go:
We're walking this earth,
We're walking this shining earth.
(40 and 192)
The nights were icy because the gods had taken away fire. The cold cut into the flesh and words of men. Shivering, they implored with broken voices; the gods turned a deaf ear.
Once, they gave fire back and the men danced for joy, chanting hymns of gratitude. But soon the gods sent rain and hail and put out the bonfires.
The gods spoke and demanded: to deserve fire, men must cut open their chests with obsidian daggers and surrender their hearts.
The Quiché Indians offered the blood of their prisoners and saved themselves from the cold.
The Cakchiquels didn't accept the bargain. The Cakchiquels, cousins of the Quichés and likewise descended from the Mayas, slipped away on feathered feet through the smoke, stole the fire, and hid it in their mountain caves.
In a dream, the Father of the Uitoto Indians glimpsed a shining mist. The mist was alive with mosses and lichens and resonant with winds, birds, and snakes. The Father could catch the mist, and he held it with the thread of his breath. He pulled it out of the dream and mixed it with earth.
Several times he spat on the misty earth. In the foamy mash the forest rose up, trees unfolded their enormous crowns, fruit and flowers erupted. On the moistened earth the grasshopper, the monkey, the tapir, the wild boar, the armadillo, the deer, the jaguar, and the anteater took shape and voice. Into the air soared the golden eagle, the macaw, the vulture, the hummingbird, the white heron, the duck, and the bat.
The wasp arrived in a great hurry. He left toads and men without tails and then rested.
The First Father conjured the world to birth with the tip of his wand and covered it with down.
Out of the down rose the cedar, the sacred tree from which flows the word. Then the First Father told the Mby'a- guaranís to hollow out the trunk and listen to what it had in it. He said that whoever could listen to the cedar, the casket of words, would know where to establish his hearth. Whoever couldn't would return to despised dust.
The Guaiacum Tree
A young woman of the Nivakle people was going in search of water when she came upon a leafy tree, Nasuk, the guaiacum, and felt its call. She embraced its firm trunk, pressing her whole body against it, and dug her nails into its bark. The tree bled.
Leaving it, she said, "How I wish, Nasuk, that you were a man!"
And the guaiacum turned into a man and ran after her. When he found her, he showed her his scratched shoulder and stretched out by her side.
White were once the feathers of birds, and white the skin of animals.
Blue now are those that bathed in a lake into which no river emptied and from which none was born. Red, those that dipped in the lake of blood shed by a child of the Kadiueu tribe. Earth-color, those that rolled in the mud, and ashen those that sought warmth in extinguished campfires. Green, those that rubbed their bodies in the foliage, white those that stayed still.
Excerpted from The Memory of Fire Trilogy by Eduardo Galeano, Cedric Belfrage. Copyright © 1982 Eduardo Galeano. Excerpted by permission of Open Road Integrated Media, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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