This is an alternative way to look at history, through short stories filled with myths, urban legends, folktales, propaganda, and of course – the main theme of the book – the unfiltered and uncompromising truths.
Eduardo Galeano is a man who seems to have seen it all and read them all, and it shows in the wide range of knowledge and the depths of understanding required for him to be able to write 600 short summaries of nearly everything, without having to lose the essential key points.
The book covers so many stories of the voiceless and the forgotten people, from indigenous people wiped out by their colonial rulers, the oppressed ethnic minorities, the lowest caste, to the women in chauvinistic society.
It also covers the story of almost every significant personality in our history. Everyone, including authors like Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Robinson Crusoe. Inventors like Thomas Alva Edison, Nikola Tesla. Civil rights activist such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King jr. Or revolutionary leaders like Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.
In his writings Galeano can somehow made these extraordinary people human beings with emotions. For instance, there is a story of when Alfred Nobel was horrified when his invention the dynamite was misused by wicked men. When Pierre Cury feared the future after he figured out that his (and his wife’s) discovered substances were more powerful than uranium. When the inventor of modern airplane Alberto Santos Dumont killed himself after seeing his invention being used to airbomb innocent lives. Or tragic stories that Van Gough and Nikola Tesla only became famous after they were deceased, and lived most of their lives poor.
There are also stories that show the darkest side of humanity. A story about the dire human costs in building the Suez Canal and Panama Canal. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The human tragedy of Chernobyl incident 1986, the Bhopal incident 1984. The many walls in the world other than Berlin wall: in Palestine, Morocco, US-Mexico, Ceuta and Melilla. The darkest of human minds, such as Rudolf Hoss, the Nazi inventor of the worst death camp in history. Or Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who experimented with Jews.
Indeed, his writing shows how brutal the past was, how incredibly naive humanity was, and gives a whole new level of understanding on how colonial power, status quo play, and propaganda works. But it also shows a simpler times, when unknown foreign lands were exotic mythical stories, when ignorance was actually was a peace of mind.
The book also insert several jokes every once in a while, and it also gives the stories of the positive reactions coming out of the darkness, which show the best side of humanity. Stories like the origins of jazz, tango, and samba, a lot of football stories, including that crazy safe by Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita in Wembley 1995, or the “black panther moment” by Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexican Olympics 1968, and many more historical accounts are all featured in the book.
There are also the intriguing history of Russia, Latin America, colonial Asia, and medieval Europe. China under Mao revolution. Germany under Hitler. Spain under Franco. Mau Mau rebel group in Kenya which its leader Jomo Kenyatta became the 1st president of independent Kenya in 1963. There are also stories about what the Belgiums did to Congo. What the richest man in Africa (Cecil Rhodes) did to two countries, and why they named the park in Rhodesia Victoria Park.
It’s dark, it’s light, it’s complex, but incredibly simple, sarcastic at times, without leaving behind his strong idealism. It’s so beautifully written, It’s almost poetry. It is one of a kind book.
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