The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Hughes Galeano is an odd book to review. Not that the book is particularly bizarre, though it does have its moments. I more mean that the nature of the book is difficult to pin down, being a literary collage and all, and thus is a little trickier to discuss.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Sandra Cisneros.)
So, what is a literary collage? I didn’t find much about that in any of the discussion of The Book of Embraces that I had seen, but it is fairly self-evident. Rather than following an overall narrative, the book is made up of a collection of different kind of fragments.
We have some fable-like stories:
A man from the town of Neguá, on the coast of Columbia, could climb into the sky.
On his return, he described his trip. He told how he had contemplated human life on his. He said we are a sea of tiny flames.
There are also political discussions:
At the end of 1987, Héctor Abad Gómez reported that a man’s life was worth no more than eight dollars. When his article was published in a Medelliín daily, he had already been assassinated. Héctor Abad Gómez was president of the Commission on Human Rights.
as well as poetry:
Bankruptcies are socialized while profits are privatized.
Money is freer than people are.
People are at the service of things.
Nor is this all. There are autobiographical slices, history, and even some of the author’s wife’s dreams:
Helena dreamed she was trying to close her suitcase and couldn’t, and she pushed down on it with both hands and knelt on it an sat on top of it and stood on top of it, and it wouldn’t budge. Mysteries and belongings gushed from the suitcase that wouldn’t close.
All these different kinds of fragments are all woven together into the larger whole that is The Book of Embraces. Some are tragic, some full of wonder. Some are so quietly beautiful as to be tiny little marvels.
But…what does it all add up to? These pieces aren’t just jammed together. The parts do add up to a greater sum; it is just a little more difficult to pin down exactly what that greater sum is.
I’ve seen some commentators say that the elements The Book of Embraces combine to create a portrait of Galeano’s mind. Perhaps that is the case. On the other hand, perhaps it is a microcosm of what it is to live in the places and times Galeano experienced. To be honest, I’m not quite sure. Frankly, I’m not even sure that it really matters.
After all, whatever these extremely varied pieces exactly add up to, it is a beautiful thing to read. The fables like elements bring softness to the accounts of brutality. At the same, the reportage of the atrocities of Latin American dictatorships contributes a serious context to the fables. The pieces are wildly different, but they function together in an interesting way. Really, this isn’t something that should be explained anyway. You should read The Book of Embraces yourself and see firsthand what it all adds up to.