October 11, 2012
Author: Eduardo Galeano
Publisher: Granta
Year: 2009
ISBN: 9781846274398
Rating: ★★★★½
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History is perhaps the most flawed edifice that has been handed down and been added to by successive generations of the world. It works by the magical illusion that it is sacrosanct, unquestionable and impartial. We forget that it is merely a construction at the hands of equally flawed mortals at the rest of us who were guided by ideologies of their own. Mirrors is an arrow aimed at every one of these suppositions in order to destroy history’s illusory armour.

Mirrors is written in the style that Galeano has created and developed to an art. It strings together some 600 vignettes of varying lengths that form a sweeping take on human history. It is a subversion of official history that tells the story of the victors and excludes everything that does not comply with the grand narrative. Galeano’s mission is to construct an alternative chronicle based on memory of the victims of the victors; those multitudes that hug the shadows while the kings and leaders of the world march on in their victory parades. He moves across cultures, regions, countries and peoples. Every act is an exercise in power, and power has many victims- from the massacred masses of the native population of Latin America to the humiliations of lower caste groups in India. The brunt of his anger is borne by institutions of power- the Church, the aristocracy, the modern day state and the evils of patriarchy, slavery, imperialism and capitalism. The scope of the book is broad, yet Galeano makes no authoritarian claims. The subtitle of the book is Stories of Almost Everyone; it leaves space for more and accepts that there have been exclusions.

The style of writing is much the same as Galeano’s other books. His anger does not get in the way of the lyricism of his writing. The genre is undetermined, as is his trade mark. The vignettes draw from folk lore as well as journalistic pieces. They’re written in verse form as well as poetry. It is an exercise in history writing yet it deviates from it. There is a calm subtlety that belies the powerful message of the author. He paints with images and with a certain detachment. The beauty lies in the range of his stories. The language is restrained and so is the sentiment. Mark Fried has shown great skill and sensitivity in translating the book while keeping Galeano’s unique style intact.

Eduardo Galeano’s writing is an act of political dissent. His radical politics filters through without dilution into his books but it does not overpower it. The book does not throw political slogans and manifestos at the reader with every turn of the page. Yet it is difficult to imagine a reader who would go away untouched by the outrage that it presents. Galeano has recounted a history of torture, torment and injustice. He bleakly declares that the twenty first century is “following in its predecessors footsteps”, terrifying and bloody. Yet his vision is not pessimistic. He invests faith in the rebellions shaking the various countries of the world. He has faith in humanity yet.

Mirrors is one of those books that, as a literary work, give the most pleasurable of reading experiences. There is no overwhelming polemic or complex and off-putting literariness to it. In its simplicity and calmness it can pass off as bedtime reading. It does not agitate but it leaves one with a lot to mull over.

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