I discovered The Book of Embraces, by the Uruguayan writer/philosopher/artist Eduardo Galeano, in the early 1990s when it was new. It’s a curious book, a mosaic of tiny stories and musings. I loved the brevity of the pieces (most were a page, some were a glimpse), and I was captivated by the proximity of muscle and whimsy. The little ink drawings, surreal and perplexing, delighted me. Most of all, I loved the way Galeano’s wisdom and fiery commitment to justice illuminated each one, subtly and without didacticism. The book was an invitation. Every time I picked it up, I discovered something new about his world, about mine.
Galeano was deeply rooted in Latin America, and is probably best known for the Memory of Fire trilogy, beautifully described as a “lyrical history” of the Americas, from the first indigenous peoples to the end of the fiery twentieth century. Passionate, radical, challenging: this is not the sanitized history of settlement and prosperity, but the terrible history of devastation and brutality. Galeano wants to draw attention to the patterns, the repetitions, the designs: “If the past has nothing to say to the present, history may go on sleeping undisturbed in the closet where the system keeps its old disguises.”
Even in his outrage, Galeano always found and celebrated beauty and hope. (“We’re all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine,” he writes—how true!) His books are full of small moments of tenderness, insight, generosity, compassion. One of the stories from The Book of Embraces describes how people under the Uruguayan dictatorship were systematically separated and isolated; the regime wanted “everyone to stand alone, everyone to be no one,” as Galeano puts it. Two particular men, locked away for years in solitary confinement, “survived because they could talk to each other by tapping on the wall. In that way they told of dreams and memories, falling in and out of love; they discussed, embraced, fought; they shared beliefs and beauties, doubts and guilts, and those questions that have no answers.”
Galeano calls this micro-story “The Celebration of the Human Voice” and it leads him to this observation: “When it is genuine, when it is born of the need to speak, no one can stop the human voice. When denied a mouth, it speaks with the hands or the eyes, or the pores, or anything at all. Because every single one of us has something to say to the others, something that deserves to be celebrated or forgiven by others.”
I’m haunted by those two men, inventing a way to communicate so that they could tell their truths and hear another’s, so that they could wonder, share, learn. Against all odds, they create connection. They’re artists at living.
“I don’t believe in charity,” Galeano once told an interviewer. “I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.”
With so much violence and superficiality swamping our public airways, with such crippling injustices built right into our communities, Galeano’s extraordinary work reminds us what we are capable of—not just atrocity, but wonder and solidarity. Let’s stand with our neighbours, and bravely share what deserves to be celebrated or forgiven.