The Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, says in The Book of Embraces, that he walked out of his native Montevideo because he didn’t “like being a prisoner,” and that three years later, he left Buenos Aires because he didn’t “like being dead.” In this way, in the early and mid-1970s, he escaped two military dictatorships, the Uruguayan and the Argentine, and went into exile in Spain, with his wife Helena. Many of his friends were not so lucky.
Eleven years later, in 1984, after the bloody dictatorship in Argentina had ended, and the one in Uruguay was on its way out, he returned to visit Buenos Aires. He writes:
And so I walked for a while, aching with forgotten memories, searching for places and people I didn’t find, or know how to find, and finally I crossed the river, the river-sea, and entered Uruguay… Montevideo, boring and beloved, smelling of bread in the summer and smoke in the winter. And I knew I had been longing for home, and that the hour for ending my exile had struck.
Exile, and the end of exile, on many levels, is a central theme in The Book of Embraces, a work composed of intimate vignettes from the life of the author and the lives of many people whose stories he renders with the equal intimacy and awe. The stories may be equal parts beautiful and painful, illuminating moments that are ordinary or magical, violent or tender, humorous or tragic, but woven together so that none of the qualities can be separated from the others. It is exile, and the end of exile, and when you read a book like this it leaves you naked, so that you are defenseless before all of it, and so that you laugh at your own image.
Many years ago, in the early 1990s in California, I heard Eduardo Galeano read from this book, and speak to its title, saying that embraces were what he wished to create, when writing these stories, because, “we are so alone.”
The audience, one or two hundred people, fell under his spell, dead silent at times, bursting into laughter at others. When the reading was over a mob of people surrounded him, asking for him to sign their books, wanting to say to him how much his writing had meant to them. He greeted each person like a dear friend, and when the mob had dissolved, I, who had hung back until the end, could see he was exhausted. At the risk of bothering him further, I approached him and said I just wanted to say thanks. I think I said it sadly. I was in my early twenties, still a kid, and a person who had never experienced anything remotely like he had, but maybe, like all people since the expulsion from Eden, I knew something in my heart about exile. Eduardo, tired though he was, gently grabbed my head, as Uruguayans do, looked me in the eyes and planted a fatherly kiss on my cheek.
Eduardo Galeano left us two years ago, at the age of 74, but leaves behind a magnificent body of work. Every time I read The Book of Embraces, which I do every several years, I have the feeling that this great writer, through his words and stories, gently grabs my head, looks me in the eyes, kisses my cheek, and leaves me naked, with my petty defenses burning in a heap, with a fire that keeps me warm.
Jenny Jaeckel’s forthcoming book House of Rougeaux is coming out April 24th, 2018. Here’s what readers are saying:
I love a good family saga, and this is an excellent example of a well-written one. -LibraryThing
Love, love, love it! -Goodreads
At times the book is sad and heartbreaking and at other times inspiring and triumphant. -Goodreads