Thursday, 26 May 2011

Veggie Books: Mirrors

Eduardo Galeano, the author of Mirrors, is one of those writers who has an overtly political agenda. I don't think there are many left (not that get published, anyway...), but the few you'll come across tend to not be from Europe or the US. There's a strong argument here about financial dissatisfaction breeding political dissent - after all, when do we pick up our banners and march? When somebody suggests there's not enough money for all the things we take for granted any more. Make more money! we cry. Or take money from somewhere else in the budget! But what if there never was any money for you in the first place? And no freedom to complain about it either? I can see how the purest application of the ability of the writer is to name and shame injustice, and I will forever admire writers such as Galeano for doing that. I'm just too well-fed and middle-class to get stoked up about politics. For me, politics is about other sheltered people making speeches and occasionally saying the wrong thing, causing unintentional hilarity. I wish it were different. Maybe one day I'll write a book about that wish instead.

Galeano may be rubbing off on me.

Okay, so, Mirrors is not a novel. It's a collection of very short essays, one paragraph or maybe two, about historical events. It covers the entire range of human experience, and pretty much every time period in our not very illustrious history. It shows how we make the same mistakes, over and over. It concentrates on war and discrimination. You'll only need to read a few pages before you start to feel bad about yourself.

Don't attempt to read more than a few in one sitting, or you'll start noticing the themes of the condemnation of America and religion and white men in general (which is fair enough, maybe) over the insights into the past. And some of them are great - I kept thinking this could be a historical novelist's dream. So many times I could have written a book about some throwaway piece of history, and it actually becomes quite frustrating to not have a longer story about them. Here's a veggie one as an example:

Doomed By Your Past

Corn, sacred plant of the Maya, was given several names in Europe. The names recast geography: they called it Turkish grain, Arab grain, grain of Egypt, or grain of India. These errors did nothing to rescue corn from mistrust and scorn. When people learned where it came from, they fed it to the pigs. Corn had a higher yield than wheat and it grew faster, resisted drought, and produced good food. But it was not proper for Christian mouths.

The potato was also a forbidden fruit in Europe. Like corn, its American origins condemned it. Worse, the potato was a root grown in the depths of the earth, where hell has its caves. Doctors knew it caused leprosy and syphilis. In Ireland, if a pregnant woman ate a potato at night, in the morning she would give birth to a monster. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the potato was fed only to prisoners, lunatics, and the dying.

Later on, this cursed root rescued Europe from hunger. But not even then did people stop wondering: if not food of the devil, then why are potatoes and corn not mentioned in the Bible?

See what I mean?

Mirrors is a fantastically interesting book, and I would like to have some of the passion that inspired such a huge undertaking. But would I like to get that passion at the expense of my soft white upbringing? No. I'm thinking not. I'm sorry for all the terrible things that happened throughout history, and I'm glad that there are novelists out there who can tackle such things so that we don't forget them. I'm also glad I'm not one of them.


Andy said...

Too many books, and too little time.

Aliya Whiteley said...

So true, Andy.

Tim Stretton said...

Also, as if to offset all this seriousness, Galeano wrote with great insight about Uruguay's national passion, football. Even here, though, those same political sensibilities are in evidence.

Aliya Whiteley said...

How interesting - I guess once a politically motivated author, always a politically motivated author.

Me, I'm motivated by toast.

Tim Stretton said...

I yield to no-one in my appreciation of toast, but I am not sure if it is the basis of enduring fiction.