Transcript for Eduardo Galeano on "Children of the Days"

Jim Fleming: In all this talk about the future, we should probably remember that the past tends to repeat itself. It's one of the themes that runs through “Children of the Days,” the latest book from the lauded Latin American author Eduardo Galeano. The book has an entry for every day of the year. They range from tales of ancient Egypt to the story of a human cannon ball launching over the US-Mexico border. Steve asked Galeano what inspired the book.


Eduardo Galeano: It's a strange book. It's born from a sentence I heard years and years ago in a Mayan community in Guatemala. One night some of the comrades were speaking about the Mayan culture, the only one in the Americas in which time is the mother and father of space, and he ended saying, "We are all daughters and sons of days." And so I began to think in a possible book, if we are sons and daughters of time, then we are made of atoms but also made of stories, each one of us--you and I. We contain a lot of stories. So today, maybe, able to tell the stories we contain.


Steve Paulson: We should give some examples. So what you do is you pick… Every day there's a historical anecdote. Your January 3rd episode marks the day when the greatest library of the ancient world, the library of Alexandria of Egypt, was burned to the ground.


Galeano: On the third day of the year 47 before Christ, the most renowned library of antiquity burned to the ground.


Fleming: After Roman legions invaded Egypt during one of the battles waged by Julius Caesar against the brother of Cleopatra. Fire devoured most of the thousands upon thousands of papyrus scrolls in the library of Alexandria. A pair of millennia later, after American legions invaded Iraq during George W. Bush's crusade against an imaginary enemy, most of the thousands upon thousands of books in the library of Baghdad were reduced to ashes. 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 10th century. This prudent and tireless traveler kept his library with him. 117,000 books aboard 400 camels formed a caravan a mile long. The camels were also the catalog. They were arranged according to the title of the books they carried. A flock for each of the 32 letters of the Persian alphabet.


Paulson: That's an astonishing story. 117,000 books on 400 camels in a caravan a mile long.


Galeano: Yes. It was the only safe library.




Paulson: So where do you find a historical anecdote like that? How did you do the research to find these bits of forgotten history?


Galeano: They come. The stories come and touch me, touch my shoulder or my back and say, "Tell me. I deserve to be told. I'm sure that you're able to write it. Tell me, tell me." I have a long line of candidates of days that want to be told.


Fleming: August 9. International Day of Indigenous Peoples. Rigoberto Manchu was born in Guatemala four centuries-and-a-half after the conquest by Pedro Alvarado and five years after Dwight Eisenhower conquered it once more. In 1982, when the armies swept through the Maya's highlands, nearly all of Rigoberto's family was wiped out. Erased from the map was village where her umbilical cord had been buried so she would set down roots. Ten years later, she recieved the Nobel Peace Prize. She declared, "I receive this prize as an homage to the Maya people even though it arrives 500 years late." The Mayas are a patient people. They have survived five centuries of butchery. They know that time, like a spider, weaves slowly.


Paulson: So this is really a book about remembering, right? And it's particularly remembering forgotten history.


Galeano: Yes. I am to recover, to rediscover, the human rainbow which is so bright and beautiful and colorful, but it's just being mutilated by a long, long time of racism, and machismo, and militarism and so many other -isms. No, we are blind. We are not able to see each other and discover in each other, in your neighbors, in everybody, including yourself, all these hidden bright colors, luminous colors, especially because this mutilated memory has deleted from the past.


Paulson: Well, of course, there's that saying that history is written by the winners.


Galeano: Yes, which is true. In the official memory we have so many women that should be there and are not, and black people, and Indians, and an enormous list of xxx that should be instead of xxx that should not be left out.


Fleming: May 30. On this day in 1431, a 19-year-old girl was burned alive in the old market place in the Old Marketplace at Rouen. She climbed the scaffold wearing an enormous cap which said: Heretic, recidivist, apostate, idolatrous. After she was burned to death, her body was thrown from a bridge into the Seine so the waters would carry her far away. She had been condemned by the Catholic Church and the kingdom of France. Her name was Joan of Arc. Heard of her?


Fleming: January 24. Civilizing Father. On this day in 1965, Winston Churchill passed away. In 1919, when presiding over the British Air Council, he had offered one of his frequent lessons in the art of war. "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favor of using poison gas against uncivilized tribes. The moral effect should be so good and would spread a lively terror," and in 1937, speaking before the Palestine Royal Commission, he offered one of his frequent lessons on the history of humanity. "I do not admit that a great wrong has been done to the red indians of America or the black people of Australia, by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, has come in and taken their place."


Paulson: So is part of your project, with this book that we've talking about Children of the Days, but more than that with a lot of your other books, is it to bring back the history of Latin America in particular?


Galeano: Basically said, yes. But I'm not only trying to recover Latin America's memory, but I'm trying to receive and give stories happening in all places of this world. And this is giving me, and I hope perhaps it will give other people, certainty, that I maybe, and you maybe, and all of us maybe compassion of people born in very, very distant places and contemporaries of people who lived centuries or millenniums ago. Sometimes it happens when I read an old, old, old poem by some Chinese poet written much before Jesus Christ was born and I feel that this man was my brother and is still my brother each time I read this poem. I believe in the universality of the human condition, not in globalization which is the universality of money. I mean the universality of the rest of us that we love justice and that we love beauty.


Fleming: January 12. The rush to get there. On this morning in the year 2007, a violinist gave a concert in a subway station in Washington, DC. Leaning against a wall alongside the usual litter, the musician, who looked more like a local kid, played the works of Schubert and other classics for three-quarters of an hour. 1,110 people hurried by without slowing their pace. Seven paused a bit longer than a moment. No one applauded. Some children wanted to stay but they were dragged off by their mothers. No one realized he was Joshua Bell, one of the most esteemed virtuosos in the world. The Washington Post had organized the concert. It was their way of asking, "Do you have time for beauty?"


Eduardo Galeano's latest book is called Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History. You can hear Steve's extended conversation with him and more readings from the book at our website,

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