In at least one instance, a book by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano may have saved a life. In 1997, Víctor Quintana—a Mexican congressman and anticorruption activist—was abducted by paid assassins, brutally beaten, and threatened with death. By his account, he survived by distracting his assailants with stories about soccer—quirky and lyrical tales drawn from a history of the game that Galeano had recently published. After listening to the adventures of Pelé and Schiaffino, Maradona and Beckenbauer, the killers decided to let Quintana live. “You’re a good guy,” one told him.
In another case, a book by Galeano proved less propitious. A battered copy of The Open Veins of Latin America, his seminal history of hemispheric exploitation, was found in the knapsack of a guerrilla who was killed fighting El Salvador’s death-squad government. “The book was mortally wounded,” Galeano later recalled. “A bullet hole went from the front cover right through the back.”
The tales of Quintana’s kidnapping and the slain Salvadoran guerrilla are both related by Galeano in Hunter of Stories, a final collection of the author’s work, posthumously released in 2017. Before succumbing to lung cancer in 2015, Galeano was regarded for decades as one of the most prominent literary figures on the Latin American left. He was an important popularizer of economic theory and an innovator of experimental literary vignettes. He helped pioneer the writing of Latin America’s history from below and was a memoirist who juxtaposed his life and times with surrealist collage. Long forced to live in exile, he was welcomed in his final years by audiences throughout the world.
Galeano has received considerably less critical attention than other titans of Latin American literature. In part, this has been due to his chosen genre, or lack of one: He preferred the essay and the historical snapshot to the novel. Particularly in his later works, he would blend reportage, anecdote, history, myth, testimony, and travelogue together in one book. But it was also due to Galeano’s practice of linking his literary ambitions with his radical politics, which some readers—particularly critics in the English-speaking world—felt were too overt and polemical. Yet without his politics, we would have little sense of who Galeano was or why his artistic evolution holds such enduring significance. Galeano’s radical commitments made him an intimate witness to many of the major turning points in Latin American politics over the last 75 years. Even as he sought to evoke a common identity for the peoples of a continent that had been battered but remained unbowed, his biography mapped the region’s history.
Eduardo Hughes Galeano was born in 1940 in Montevideo, Uruguay, to a family of mixed European origin. The period in which he grew up—from the late 1940s to the early ’60s—marked the height of what was known as “developmentalist” economics. During this era, various Latin American governments, notably that of Juan Perón in Argentina, implemented nationalist experiments in building up local infrastructure, protecting internal markets, and substituting domestic manufacturing for imports. The Southern Cone was developmentalism’s epicenter, with Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile amassing unusually large middle classes, and with the elites in these countries envisioning them as being on a par with rising European states.