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Children of the Days
A Calendar of Human History
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Challenging readers to consider the human condition and our own choices, Galeano elevates the little-known heroes of our world and decries the destruction of the intellectual, linguistic, and emotional treasures that we have all but forgotten.
Readers will discover many inspiring narratives in this collection of vignettes: the Brazilians who held a “smooch-in” to protest against a dictatorship for banning kisses that “undermined public morals;” the astonishing day Mexico invaded the United States; and the “sacrilegious” women who had the effrontery to marry each other in a church in the Galician city of A Coruna in 1901. Galeano also highlights individuals such as Pedro Fernandes Sardinha, the first bishop of Brazil, who was eaten by Caete Indians off the coast of Alagoas, as well as Abdul Kassem Ismael, the grand vizier of Persia, who kept books safe from war by creating a walking library of 117,000 tomes aboard four hundred camels, forming a mile-long caravan.
Beautifully translated by Galeano’s longtime collaborator, Mark Fried, Children of the Days is a majestic humanist treasure that shows us how to live and how to remember. It awakens the best in us.
I cannot thank all of the friends who made this book possible or the authors of the many works I consulted. These friends and authors would not fill a stadium, but almost.
However, I can dedicate the end result to those who had the patience to read and comment on the early drafts, which yearned to be final drafts and turned out to be almost final, because there was always something to correct or change, to take out or put in: Ramón Akal, Mark Fried, Karl Hübener, Carlos Machado and Héctor Velarde.
This book is for Helena Villagra. No words needed.
—In Montevideo, at the end of the year 2011
And the days began to walk.
And they, the days, made us.
And thus we were born,
the children of the days,
—GENESIS, according to the Mayas
Today is not the first day of the year for the Mayas, the Jews, the Arabs, the Chinese or many other inhabitants of this world.
The date was chosen by Rome, imperial Rome, and blessed by Vatican Rome, and it would be an overstatement to say that all humanity celebrates today as the crossing from one year to the next.
That said, today we ought to acknowledge that time treats us rather kindly. Time allows us, its fleeting passengers, to believe that this day could be the very first day, and it gives us leave to want today to be as bright and joyous as the colors of an outdoor market.
FROM FIRE TO FIRE
On this day in 1492 Granada fell, and with it fell Muslim Spain.
Triumph of the Holy Inquisition: Granada was the last Spanish kingdom where mosques, churches and synagogues could live side by side in peace.
That same year the conquest of America began, when America was still a mystery without a name.
And in the years that followed, in distant bonfires, the same flames would consume the books of Muslims, of Jews and of America’s indigenous peoples.
Fire was the only fate for words born in hell.
MEMORY ON LEGS
On the third day of the year 47 BC, the most renowned library of antiquity burned to the ground.
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 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.
LAND THAT ATTRACTS
Today in 1643, Isaac Newton was born.
Newton never had any lovers as far as we know, male or female.
Terrified of infections and ghosts, he died a virgin, touched by no one.
But this fearful man had the courage to investigate and reveal
the movement of the heavenly bodies,
the composition of light,
the speed of sound,
the conduction of heat
and the law of gravity, the earth’s irresistible force of attraction, which calls to us and by calling reminds us of our origin and our destiny.
LAND THAT SPEAKS
George Washington Carver dreamed about God.
“Ask of me whatever you wish,” God offered.
Carver asked Him to reveal the secrets of peanuts.
“Ask the peanut,” God told him.
George, a child of slaves, dedicated his life to resurrecting lands slain by the slave plantations.
In his laboratory, which looked like an alchemist’s kitchen, he developed hundreds of products made from peanuts and sweet potatoes: oil, cheese, butter, sauces, mayonnaise, soap, stains, dyes, inks, syrups, glues, talcum . . .
“The plants tell me,” he explained. “They’ll talk to anyone who knows how to listen.”
When he died on this day in 1943 he was nearly eighty years old and still handing out recipes and advice, still teaching in an unusual university, the first in Alabama to accept students who were black.
LAND THAT AWAITS
In the year 2009, Turkey restored the citizenship denied to Nazim Hikmet and acknowledged at last that its most beloved and derided poet was Turkish.
He could not enjoy the good news: he had died half a century earlier, in the exile that lasted much of his life.
His land awaited him, but his books were outlawed and he was too. The banished poet wished to return:
I still have things to do.
I met up with the stars, but I could not count them.
I drew water from the well, but I could not offer it.
He never returned.
Soledad, granddaughter of Rafael Barrett, liked to recall the words of her grandfather:
“If Good does not exist, we’ll have to invent it.”
Rafael, Paraguayan by choice, revolutionary by vocation, spent more time in jail than at home, and he died in exile.
The granddaughter was riddled with bullets in Brazil on this day in 1973.
Lance Corporal Anselmo, rebel sailor, revolutionary leader, was the one who turned her in.
Fed up with losing, repenting everything he had dreamed and desired, he named, one after another, all of his comrades in the struggle against the Brazilian military dictatorship and sent them to the torture chamber or the slaughterhouse.
Soledad, his woman, he left for last.
Lance Corporal Anselmo pointed out the place where she was hiding, and then he left.
He was already at the airport when the first shots rang out.
I WILL NOT SAY GOOD-BYE
In 1872, by order of the president of Ecuador, Manuela León was executed.
The president in his decree called Manuela “Manuel,” so there would be no evidence that a gentleman like himself was sending a woman, even a stupid Indian, to the firing squad.
Manuela had stirred up town and country, and caused the Indian masses to rise against forced labor and the payment of tribute. As if that were not enough, she also committed the impertinence of challenging Lieutenant Vallejo, a government official, to fight a duel before the astonished eyes of his soldiers, and in open combat her lance humiliated his sword.
When this, her final day, arrived, Manuela faced the firing squad without a blindfold. Asked if she had anything to say, she answered, in her language:
ELEGY TO BREVITY
Today in Philadelphia in 1776, the first edition of Common Sense rolled off the press.
Thomas Paine, the author, maintained that independence was only common sense given the humiliation of being a colony and the ludicrous nature of hereditary monarchy, which might as easily crown an ass as a lion.
The 48-page book spread faster than water or wind, and became one of the fathers of US independence.
In 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote the twenty-three pages of The Communist Manifesto, which began by warning, “A specter is haunting Europe . . . ” It turned out to be the most influential book of the twentieth century’s revolutions.
Twenty-six pages summed up the exhortation to outrage, Indignez-vous!, that Stéphane Hessel published in the year 2011. Those few words helped unleash earthquakes of protest in a number of cities. For many days and nights, outraged people in the thousands occupied streets and squares against the global dictatorship of bankers and warmongers.
The car coughed and sputtered.
Inside, packed tight and bouncing about, was a band of musicians. They were on their way to enliven a gathering of poor farmers, but for a while now they had been lost on the boiling roads of Argentina’s Santiago del Estero.
Bereft of bearings, they had no one to ask. Nobody, not a soul remained in that desert that had once been a forest.
Suddenly, out of a cloud of dust, a girl on a bicycle appeared.
“How much farther?” they asked.
“Less,” she said.
And off she went into the dust.
THE PLEASURE OF GOING
Today in 1887 in Salta, the man who was Salta was born: Juan Carlos Dávalos, founder of a dynasty of musicians and poets.
As the tellings tell it, he was the first to drive a Model T, the “Ford with a moustache,” in those parts of northern Argentina.
His Model T snorted and smoked as its wheels rolled forward.
It moseyed down the road. Turtles stopped to wait for it.
A neighbor came up to him, greeted him with a worried face, commented, “But Mr. Dávalos . . . at this pace, you’ll never get there.”
The driver responded, “I don’t travel to get. I travel to go.”
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.
Eleven hundred people hurried by without slowing their pace. Seven paused a bit longer than a moment. No one applauded. Some children wanted to stay, but 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?”
EARTH THAT BELLOWS
In the year 2010, an earthquake swallowed a large chunk of Haiti and left more than two hundred thousand people dead.
The following day in the United States, a television preacher named Pat Robertson explained what had happened. This shepherd of souls revealed that the blacks of Haiti were to blame, that their freedom was responsible. The Devil had liberated them from French slavery and now he was collecting his due.
THE HAITIAN CURSE
The earthquake in Haiti was the culminating tragedy of a country without shade, without water, devastated by imperial greed and the war against slavery.
The dethroned slavers explain it another way: Voodoo was and is to blame for all the country’s misfortunes. Voodoo doesn’t deserve the name religion. It is nothing but African superstition, black magic, a black obsession, the Devil’s thing.
The Catholic Church, which has no shortage of faithful believers willing to sell the fingernails of saints or feathers from the wings of the archangel Gabriel, got Haiti to outlaw voodoo in 1845, 1860, 1896, 1915 and 1942.
In recent times, evangelical sects took up the battle against superstition. They come from the country of Pat Robertson, a country that has no thirteenth floor in its skyscrapers, no row thirteen in its airplanes, where civilized Christians who believe God created the world in seven days are in the majority.
In 1919 Rosa Luxemburg, the revolutionary, was murdered in Berlin.
Her killers bludgeoned her with rifle blows and tossed her into the waters of a canal.
Along the way, she lost a shoe.
Some hand picked it up, that shoe dropped in the mud.
Rosa longed for a world where justice would not be sacrificed in the name of freedom, nor freedom sacrificed in the name of justice.
Every day, some hand picks up that banner.
Dropped in the mud, like the shoe.
THE WET LAW
On this day in 1920, the Senate of the United States approved the Volstead Act, thus confirming once again that prohibition is the best publicity.
Thanks to the law that declared the country dry, alcohol production and consumption flourished and Al Capone and his men killed and earned more than ever.
In 1933, General Smedley Butler, who had led the US Marines in sixteen medal-winning campaigns on three continents, confessed that what had inspired his men was Al Capone’s success in Chicago.
THE MAN WHO EXECUTED GOD
In 1918, in the midst of the revolutionary upheaval in Moscow, Anatoly Lunacharsky presided over the court that judged God.
A Bible sat in the chair of the accused.
According to the prosecutor, throughout history God had committed many crimes against humanity. The defense attorney assigned to the case argued that God was not fit to stand trial due to mental illness; but the tribunal sentenced Him to death.
At dawn on this day, five rounds of machine-gun fire were shot at the heavens.
In the time of the Holy Inquisition, Spaniards who bathed were suspected of Muslim heresy.
From Mohammed came the adoration of water.
Mohammed was born in the desert back in the year 570, and there, in the kingdom of thirst, he founded the religion of water-seekers.
He said what God, Allah, had told him to say: on the road to salvation, one must pray five times a day, bending down until the chin touches the ground, and before each prayer one must purify oneself with water.
“Cleanliness is half of faith,” he said.
WITH HIM WAS BORN AN ERA
In 1736, the Scot James Watt was born.
It is said he did not invent the steam engine, but in his modest workshop he was certainly the one who, without any great expectations, perfected the device that would power the Industrial Revolution.
From that point on, his machine gave rise to other machines that turned peasants into workers, and suddenly, bewilderingly, today became tomorrow and packed yesterday off to prehistory.
In 1585, at their third episcopal conference, the bishops of Mexico forbade the painting or sculpting of serpents on church walls, retables or altars.
The exterminators of idolatry had by then noticed that those tools of the Devil failed to provoke repulsion or fear among the Indians.
The pagans worshipped snakes. In the Biblical tradition serpents had been scorned ever since that business about Adam’s temptation, but America was a loving serpentarium. The sinuous reptile was a sign of good harvests, the lightning bolt that brings on the rains, and every cloud was home to a water snake. A plumed serpent was the god Quetzalcóatl, who had departed on the winding waters.
THEY WALKED ON WATER
In the year 1779, English conquistador James Cook witnessed a strange spectacle in the islands of Hawaii.
A pastime as dangerous as it was inexplicable: the natives of Kealakekua Bay loved standing on the waves and riding them.
Was Cook the first spectator of the sport we now call surfing?
Maybe it was more than that. Maybe there was more to the rite of the waves. After all, those primitives believed that water, mother of all life, was sacred, but they did not kneel or bow before their divinity. They walked on the sea in communion with her energy.
Three weeks later, Cook was stabbed to death by the walkers on water. The magnanimous explorer, who had already given Australia to the British Crown, never could make a gift of Hawaii.
A KINGDOM MOVES
On this January day in 1808, the exhausted ships that had left Lisbon two months before arrived on the coast of Brazil without bread or water.
Napoleon was trampling the map of Europe and at the Portuguese border he unleashed the stampede: the Portuguese court, obliged to change address, marched off to the tropics.
Queen Maria led the way. Right behind her came the prince and the dukes, counts, viscounts, marquises and barons, all wearing the wigs and sumptuous attire inherited later on by the carnival of Rio de Janeiro. On their heels, butting up against each other in desperation, came priests and military officers, courtesans, dressmakers, doctors, judges, notaries, barbers, scribes, cobblers, gardeners . . .
Queen Maria was not quite in her right mind, which is a nice way to say she was off her rocker, but she pronounced the only reasonable phrase to be heard amid that bunch of lunatics: “Not so fast, it’s going to look like we’re running away!”
In 1901, the day after Queen Victoria breathed her last, a solemn funeral ceremony began in London.
Organizing it was no easy task. A grand farewell was due the queen who gave her name to an epoch and set the standard for female abnegation by wearing black for forty years in memory of her dead husband.
Victoria, symbol of the British Empire, lady and mistress of the nineteenth century, imposed opium on China and virtue on her own country.
In the seat of her empire, works that taught good manners were required reading. Lady Gough’s Book of Etiquette
- On Sale
- Apr 30, 2013
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Bold Type Books