Posted by: Sally Ingraham | June 30, 2009

OT: The Book of Embraces – Uruguay

The Book of Embracesby Eduardo Galeano

I was going to read The Shipyard by Juan Carlos Onetti as my Uruguay pick for the OT challenge, and June was the month for it. However I was thwarted by the ILL system here in Maine, which is undergoing some transitional thing that has caused major delays in state wide book traveling. As the month drew to a close I began to panic, and finally gave The Shipyard up as a temporary loss. Crossing my fingers I went to the library at COA (where I recently was initiated into the patron record!) and looked for something, from any South American country, that I could get through before June ended.

After nearly giving up, for the collection had an abundance of Mexican and Argentine writers but not a whole lot else, I emitted a little squeal when I scanned the back of The Book of Embraces and saw the words, “Uruguayan writer Galeano“.

A quick flip through the book proved it to be full of drawings and lots of empty space – thankfully a quick read! It proved to be a fascinating one as well. It is composed of short pieces of writing that provide a collage or a kaleidoscope view of the author’s life and the state of affairs in Latin America during the 60s-late 80s. Some pieces are historical, some are political, some are autobiographical, some are stories other people told him, and some are just small beautiful thoughts.

At the beginning of the book Galeano put this: “Recordar: To remember; from the Latin re-cordis, to pass back through the heart.”

As an older man Galeano is passing the events and experiences of his life back through his heart, and he is embracing all of it – joys and sorrows. My knowledge of events in Latin America over the past century is spotty at best, so it was eye-opening for me to read of revolutions and dictatorships and torture and exile happening in so many different countries. Galeano wrote about these terrible events just as gently, though, as he wrote about his wife’s dreams or told a tale that celebrated art. Yet while his writing was “gentle” there was also a force behind it that made almost every piece impact me.

There are a lot of things that made me sad in this book, but the fact that Galeano could reach this point in his life, look back, and then look forward and say he is not finished with living makes me glad.

I still have a long way to go. There are moons at which I have not yet howled and suns which have not yet set me alight. I still have not swum in all the seas of the world, of which they say there are seven, nor all the rivers of Paradise, of which they say there are four.
In Montevideo, a child explains:

“I never want to die, because I want to play forever.”‘

I am also glad that I have discovered Galeano and intend to read some of his other work – of course!

On one other note I was extremely satisfied as well, and this was to discover how close Galeano and Cedric Belfrage, his translator, were. I often wonder, when I read translated works, how faithful to the original they are – not just in words, but in tone. There can be no doubt about Belfrage’s translation. In a note at the beginning of the book Galeano wrote this about Belfrage, who died shortly after finishing The Book of Embraces:

I would recognize myself in each of his translations and he would feel betrayed and annoyed whenever I didn’t write something the way he would have.

That’s lovely. It makes me feel that I am not missing as much by being such an English only reader. However, I would very much like to someday read a non-English book in it’s original language. Learn Spanish (or Russian, or French) is still on my to-do list!


  1. “There are moons at which I have not yet howled”

    That’s just beautiful!

  2. I had to smile at the image of you in the library, desperately searching for something by an Uruguayan author. Librarians probably see some funny things!

    This sounds like a real gem, though. Galeano’s note about the translator is so lovely and touching!

  3. Sarah, I was really looking forward to your Onetti review. What a bummer on that count! However, I’m delighted you found another Uruguayan author to take his place–and I just checked out another book from my own library where Galeano wrote the forward. How’s that for a big New England library coincidence! Thanks for the tip on what sounds like a really cool book. Your blog continues to impress!

  4. Richard – I still plan to read “The Shipyard” as soon as I get it since I too was bummed about skiping it. Thanks for the lovely compliment and thanks for continuing to visit my blog. 🙂

    Emily – From my own experience as a ‘librarian’ (summer job in my teens!) I have to agree that librarians encounter some odd requests. Thank goodness there are books to answer all our questions – or at least some of them…!

    Eva – The book is full of beautiful lines like that. Wonderful writing.

  5. […] 4. June (Original choice: The Shipyard by Juan Carlos Onetti – Uruguay) The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano – Uruguay […]

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