“Upside Down” by Eduardo Galeano

The author of "Memory of Fire" delivers a scathing, mischievous indictment of North America's hypocrisy and consumer culture.

Topics: Globalization, Books,

Thinking of voting for Ralph Nader but wondering what the point is beyond keeping your conscience clean? To galvanize your disgust with the Establishment, you could do no better than to read “Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World,” Eduardo Galeano’s ferocious, poetic, mischievous and chilling survey of political and economic systems of control around the world. The eminent Uruguayan author’s anecdotes and parables address globally rampant pollution, poverty, vice and violence; the ever vaster gap between the powerful and powerless; and, above all, the tortuous public rhetoric that fails to disguise governmental and corporate culpability for these crises.

“Twin totalitarianisms plague the world,” Galeano writes balefully, “the dictatorships of consumer society and obligatory injustice.” Morality and memory have been displaced by misery and the palliative of TV:

Consumer culture, a culture of disconnectedness, trains us to believe things just happen. Incapable of recalling its origins, the present paints the future as a repetition of itself; tomorrow is just another name for today. The unequal organization of the world, which beggars the human condition, is part of eternity, and injustice is a fact of life we have no choice but to accept.

Galeano discusses patterns of abuse, not only of the poor by the rich within individual countries but of “developing” countries (in Galeano’s shorthand, the South) by the industrial powers (the North) — the same issue that drew angry thousands into the streets in Seattle and Prague. Although as many economic statistics can be brandished to support globalization as to condemn it, Galeano’s dire analysis of specific large problems is still scarily persuasive.

Take the environment: “Each inhabitant of the North consumes ten times as much energy, nineteen times as much aluminum, fourteen times as much paper, and thirteen times as much iron and steel as someone in the South.” But the United States assumes no responsibility for the environmental disasters wrought by all that consumption. “Explaining why the United States refused to sign the Convention on Biodiversity at the Rio summit in 1992,” Galeano writes, “President George Bush was unequivocal: ‘It is important to protect our rights, our business rights.’” In short, Galeano asserts with fitting exasperation, the chemical companies, oil companies and car companies dictate U.S. environmental policy. Of course, this is a truism that remains too subtle for the American masses, like the notion that wrecking nature is not just an accidental side effect of these industries but central to their interdependent existences.



Galeano makes a similar point about international peacekeeping initiatives and the arms trade:

Statistics compiled by the International Institute of Strategic Studies show the largest weapons dealers to be the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia. China figures on the list as well, a few places back. And these five countries, by some odd coincidence, are the very ones that can exercise vetoes in the U.N. Security Council … In other words, world peace lies in the hands of the five powers that profit most from the big business of war.

And who are we arming? “The armed forces that most systematically violate human rights, like Colombia’s, are those that receive the most U.S. aid in weapons and technical support.”

“Upside Down” isn’t anti-American per se; what it rails against is hypocrisy, showing by reams of interwoven examples that governments in general, in the first world and the third, are not in the business of ethical integrity. Galeano focuses on corruption, human rights abuses and exploding poverty in Latin America: Police death squads in Brazil and Argentina, for instance, gun down homeless children by the hundreds each year. He makes me feel very, very lucky to live on the fat side of the Rio Grande — not proud but lucky, and profoundly depressed.

Analyzing the global free market by its effects on the global populace, most of whom, Galeano says, keep getting poorer and more desperate (“Every year poverty kills more people than the entire Second World War, which killed quite a few”), the author offers little hope for change, though he does support those who challenge the intolerable status quo, like the Indians of Chiapas, Mexico. He writes as neither oracle nor guide, but as furious witness:

There are successful countries and people and there are failed countries and people because the efficient deserve rewards and the useless deserve punishment. To turn infamies into feats, the memory of the North is divorced from the memory of the South, accumulation is detached from despoliation, opulence has nothing to do with plunder. Broken memory leads us to believe that wealth is innocent of poverty. Wealth and poverty emerge from eternity and toward eternity they march, and that’s the way things are because God or custom prefers it that way.

Mark Fried, the translator of “Upside Down,” has rendered Galeano’s acidly humorous text into exceptionally graceful English, and the accompanying century-old engravings by Mexican artist Josi Guadalupe Posada — lots of shrieking skeletons and bloodthirsty goblins — provide exactly the right macabre ambience. The lesson of this primer? Galeano’s excoriating vision might make the most cynical realpolitiko wonder whether the strength of the dollar is, in the end, worth our racing the world to hell.

Greg Villepique plays guitar in the band Aerial Love Feed.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>