Eduardo Galeano: Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World

Eduardo Galeano
Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World
Metropolitan Books


GREAT CULTURAL HISTORIANS are rarely celebrated for the quality of their bibliographies. Take Eduardo Galeano's newest work, Upside Down, which contains a tightly spaced, ten-page bibliography that encompasses everything from academic studies and newspaper clippings to government and nonprofit reports. Certainly, the research here seems to be far-ranging and meticulous. Yet in Galeano's hands, such dry material is anything but boring and instead builds on a literary career spent culling the ideas and ephemera of culture in search of the stark juxtaposition and the glimmering idea. A Uruguayan historian who began his journalistic career at age 14, Galeano has written more than 20 books, including Memory of Fire, a three-volume history of the Americas taken in part from indigenous mythology, and Soccer in Sun and Shadow, a poetic social history of that world sport. Upside Down departs from these histories to present a concise dissection of capitalism's ills and hypocrisies.

Well-known for his unusual fusion of political outrage and mischievous humor, Galeano presents his analysis as a series of "lessons" from a "looking-glass school" that trains its students in the rules and double-talk of free-market capitalism. Chapters like "Injustice 101," "The Teaching of Fear," and "Crash Course on Incommunication" instruct readers that "the upside-down world rewards in reverse: it scorns honesty, punishes work, prizes lack of scruples and feeds cannibalism." (The whimsical-serious nature of these lessons is heightened by the delightfully macabre woodcuts of Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada, whose skeletons in top hats, impish demons, and fearsome birds provide counterpoint to the text.)

Galeano has been associated with socialist and leftist movements for most of his career--he was exiled from Uruguay and Argentina during two military dictatorships--so it's not surprising to find his work peppered with statements like, "The world economy is the most efficient expression of organized crime." But if the tone occasionally grows hectoring, it's hard to fault the author. Who could help declaiming in the face of such ghastly facts? Consider these tidbits:

--A 1997 UNICEF report reveals that there are at least 100,000 child prostitutes in the United States.

--An internal police report leaked to Amnesty International shows that six out of every ten crimes in Mexico City are committed by the police.

But Upside Down's real power comes from Galeano's juxtaposition of these facts with innumerable vignettes, jokes, and lists, which are boxed separately from the regular text. Here we find a tally of toys found in a shop window, day jobs held by underpaid Argentinean university professors, and ads from the prison trade magazine Corrections Today. Balancing statistic with incident, calamity with humor, Galeano creates a bold mosaic that eschews pessimism even as it denounces our world's infamies.

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