What Should We Make of Eduardo Galeano Rejecting His Classic Book, “Open Veins.”

May 27th, 2014

I recently read “The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent” by Eduardo Galeano. The title basically sums it up. The book discusses how European and American powers raped and plundered Latin America for 500 years. The book, written from a revolutionary socialist perspective, offers harsh critique of conservatives (on the Latin American spectrum), and unapologetically fetes adoration of Communism in Cuba. You may recall that Hugo Chavez gave President Obama a copy.

Anyway, the author of the 1971 book (stunningly) had second thoughts, and changed his mind on the topic.

“I wouldn’t be capable of reading this book again; I’d keel over. For me, this prose of the traditional left is extremely leaden, and my physique can’t tolerate it.”

In his remarks in Brazil, Mr. Galeano acknowledged that the left sometimes “commits grave errors” when it is in power, which has been taken in Latin America as a criticism of Cuba under the Castro brothers and of the erratic stewardship of Venezuela under Mr. Chávez, who died last year. But Mr. Galeano described himself as still very much a man of the left, and on other occasions he has praised the experiments in social democracy underway for the last decade in his own country, as well as in Brazil and Chile.

“Reality has changed a lot, and I have changed a lot,” he said in Brazil, adding: “Reality is much more complex precisely because the human condition is diverse. Some political sectors close to me thought such diversity was a heresy. Even today, there are some survivors of this type who think that all diversity is a threat. Fortunately, it is not.”

Precisely why Mr. Galeano chose to renounce his book now is unclear. Through his American agent, Susan Bergholz, he declined to elaborate. She said he had gradually grown “horrified by the prose and the phraseology” of “Open Veins.”

What fascinates me, is what scholars should do with this newly discovered information. I considered this question in the context of J.K. Rowling’s revelations–after the final book was published–that Dumbledore was gay, or that she should have paired Hermione with Harry. Or what should we make of a newly-discovered journal by Braham Stoker discussing Dracula. I view these post-authorship facts like unreliable post-enactment legislative history. I like to let the work stand by itself, based on its original meaning. As an author, I know that once I hit publish, the words are gone, and I cannot control them. (Unless you are the Supreme Court and can quietly edit opinions after they are published).

So how are scholars reacting to Galeano’s new tone? All over the place.

 But Mr. Galeano’s unexpected takedown of his own work has left scholars wondering how to deal with the book in class.

“If I were teaching this in a course,” said Merilee Grindle, president of the Latin American Studies Association and director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard, “I would take his comments, add them in and use them to generate a far more interesting discussion about how we see and interpret events at different points in time.” And that seems to be exactly what many professors plan to do.

Caroline S. Conzelman, a cultural anthropologist who teaches at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said her first thought was that she wouldn’t change how she used the book, “because it still captures the essence of the emotional memory of being colonized.” But now, she said: “I will have them read what he says about it. It’s good for students to see that writers can think critically about their own work and go back and revise what they meant.”

Michael Yates, the editorial director of Monthly Review Press, Mr. Galeano’s American publisher, dismissed the entire discussion as “nothing but a tempest in a teapot.” “Open Veins” is Monthly Review’s best-selling book — it surged, if briefly, into Amazon’s Top 10 list within hours of Mr. Obama’s receiving a copy — and Mr. Yates said he saw no reason to make any changes: “Please! The book is an entity independent of the writer and anything he might think now.”

I agree most with the last view. Let the book speak for itself. It is “independent of the writer.”

On an unrelated note, Galeano explains that he was not prepared to write such an ambitious book at such a young age, and lacked the skills.

“ ‘Open Veins’ tried to be a book of political economy, but I didn’t yet have the necessary training or preparation,” Mr. Galeano said last month while answering questions at a book fair in Brazil, where he was being honored on the 43rd anniversary of the book’s publication. He added: “I wouldn’t be capable of reading this book again; I’d keel over. For me, this prose of the traditional left is extremely leaden, and my physique can’t tolerate it.”

I often have this worry when I write. I’m a young-un, and I know there’s a lot that I do not know. I hope that my career lasts a solid 6 decades. And I wonder in 60 years whether I will look back and laugh at how unprepared and uninformed I was about a lot of things. I probably will.