Here is a typical complete chapter from surely the strangest book of history I've ever read.
- 1927: San Gabriel de Jalisco: A Child Looks On
The mother covers his eyes so he cannot see his grandfather hanging by the feet. And then the mother's hands prevent his seeing his father's body riddled by the bandits' bullets, or his uncle's twisting in the wind over there on the telegraph posts.
Now the mother too has died, or perhaps has just tired of defending her child's eyes. Sitting on the stone fence that snakes over the slopes, Juan Rulfo contemplates his harsh land with a naked eye. He sees horsemen -- federal police or Cristeros, it makes no difference -- emerging from smoke, and behind them, in the distance, a fire. He sees bodies hanging in a row, nothing now but ragged clothing emptied by the vultures. He sees a procession of women dressed in black.
Juan Rulfo, a child of nine, is surrounded by ghosts who look like him.
Here there is nothing alive -- the only voices those of howling coyotes, the only air the black wind that rises in gusts from the plains of Jalisco, where the survivors are only dead people pretending.
The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano's trilogy Memory of Fire contains the books Genesis, Faces and Masks, and Century of the Wind, from the last of which this chapter comes. Taken together, the books make up a compendious and riveting history of the Americas (mostly Central and South America). But this is no academic history. It does follow a chronological timeline through the last five centuries or so. But each chapter tells a small story, like the one above. Hundreds of historical figures wander, curse, pray, converse, make love, die, are transformed or obliterated in these pages. And each story is an anecdotal parable that contributes to a single long history of almost total cruelty.
And the history of The Americas is one of cruelty. Starting with the creation myths of several American Indian peoples, Memory of Fire continues through the history of those Indians prior to the invasions of their lands by Europeans, almost the only sanguine section of the entire trilogy. Then, Galeano proceeds to the invasions themselves, which include stories of myriad individual Indian headmen, priests and women warriors, mystic Indian truth tellers, those who would tell of future disasters, and tribal chiefs misled by their own oracles... as well as the thousands of adventurers, holy men fanatics, pirates, crazy dictators, soldiers, mercenaries, prostitutes and treasure seekers that came with the conquerors.