Eduardo Galeano discusses "Children of the Days"

It was May 10 and it was cold outside and I was inside, at a downtown bar/restaurant awaiting the arrival of the distinguished Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano, which latest book is titled "Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History."

I flipped the book open, found "May 10" and read this:

The poet Roque Dalton wielded a defiant wit, he never learned to shut up or take orders, and he laughed and loved fearlessly.

On the evening of this day in the year 1975, his fellow guerrillas in El Salvador shot him dead while he slept.

Criminals: rebels who kill to punish disagreement are no less criminal than generals who kill to perpetuate injustice.

That is it. Only 63 words, a bit of "human history" compressed, one of the 365 "chapters" in this compelling, enlightening, tragic, hopeful, and hypnotic book: history in poetic snapshots.

None is longer than a page and many of them are shorter than is May 10.

Here is January 29:

Today in 1860 Anton Chekhov was born.

He wrote as if he were saying nothing.

And he said everything.

When he walked into the bar/restaurant and settled onto a stool without removing his hat or his jacket, Galeano said, "It is cold outside."

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Earlier in the day, Galeano had given a talk at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and his Chicago stay was to include events at the National Museum of Mexican Art and the Chicago History Museum.

"I have been to Chicago many times before," he said.

He talked about the five times he was interviewed on the radio by the late Studs Terkel, a fellow soldier in the ongoing battles for human rights and social justice. They both also shared the philosophy that most on the planet suffer from a "collective amnesia" that does not enable us to see and learn from mistakes of the past.

Galeano was born on Sept. 3, and the entry in his book for that date provides the year:

A year after the invasion of Poland, Hitler had gobbled up half of Europe and was still on his headlong rampage. Austria, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France had already fallen or were about to fall, and the nightly bombings of London and other British cities were under way.

In its edition for today in 1940, the Spanish daily ABC reported that 'one hundred and sixteen enemy planes' had been shot down, making no attempt to hide its satisfaction at 'the great success of the Reich's attacks.'

On the front page Generalissimo Francisco Franco smiled triumphantly. Gratitude was one of his virtues.

Galeano was born and raised in Uruguay but lived in exile in Argentina and Spain for a dozen years before returning in 1985. He began his career as a journalist, and his many books include the international best-sellers "Open Veins of Latin America," the "Memory of Fire" trilogy and "Mirrors."

At 72 and having twice beaten cancer, he is frail, but there is a distinct twinkle in his eyes and a playfulness in his manner.

"It was difficult to choose. So many stories," he said in response to a question about his new book.

"And to choose which ones to tell and how to tell them. The words, they will tap me on the shoulder and they will speak to me: 'Tell me! Tell me!' The stories choose me.

"Less is always more. The best language is silence. We live in a time of a terrible inflation of words and it is worse than the inflation of money."

He paused for a piece of bread and then said, "The diversity of life is so stimulating for me."

And the diversity in his book is stunning.

There are stories here of the Beatles, George Washington Carver, Al Capone, Emma Goldman, John Rockefeller, Mark Twain, Thomas Paine and many other familiar people.

But Galeano also brings to the page people from history's shadows. There is Roy Sullivan, a Virginian who was born in 1912 and survived seven lightning strikes; Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun; Nezahualcoyotl, "the king of Texcoco in the vast valley of Mexico" who wrote poetry.

The book travels the globe and across the centuries.

Have you ever heard of Abdul Kassem Ismael?

You will find him on January 3 as Galeano writes, in part:

Throughout the history of humanity, only one refuge kept books safe from war and conflagration: the walking library, an idea that occurred to the grand vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, at the end of the tenth century.

This prudent and tireless traveler kept his library with him. One hundred and seventeen thousand books aboard four hundred camels formed a caravan a mile long. The camels were also the catalogue: they were arranged according to the titles of the books they carried, a flock for each of the thirty-two letters of the Persian alphabet.

There are great stories in the book, pain and injustice too. And there is hope.

"Indignation must always be the answer to indignity," Galeano said. "Reality is not destiny."

Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.

Children of the Days

By Eduardo Galeano, Nation Books, 432 pages, $26.99

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