"Century of the Wind" by Eduardo Galeano is the third and last volume of the Memory of Fire trilogy, a riveting account of Latin American history. Galeano doesn't skip over difficult events but surprises readers by helping them feel the significance of every historical moment. He oversteps boundaries by breathing life into a “boring subject.” In the preface of “Century of the Wind,” he even states that the book does not conform to any literary form, such as a “narrative, essay, epic poem, chronicle, testimony,” claiming that “perhaps it belongs to all or to none.” This book has easily become one of my favourites, and I'm embarrassed to say that it was recommended by a university professor I often complained about.
The class was called WRI490: Creative Writing in Research. It was held online in my last semester at the University of Toronto, and had less than 15 consistent attendees. The professor had discipled us with a strict rod, emphasizing that good writers write even when it's difficult to do so, not just when they "feel" like it. He spoke of our potential in equal amounts that he challenged us to participate in difficult discussions. Not many were up for the task and dropped the course.
In hindsight, I appreciate this professor immensely. He's right — writing isn't easy. It requires a tough skin and consistent practice, like any other craft. One of the exercises he had us do was write weekly reflections on a lengthy assigned passage from "Century of the Wind." Overwhelmed by a full course load, and dwindling motivation as graduation approached, I didn’t complete all my readings, but over a year later, I can still recall the enrichment I gained from writing those reflections.
I’m currently writing a new creative non-fiction story that will be published in Medium Magazine this March 2022. It is part of my process to revisit old works that have made me into the writer I am today. I highly recommend this book for an all-encompassing view of Latin American history, and for anyone who wants to amplify their writing through the importance of sound and pace, two tools I learned from master Galeano. Below is the first reflection I wrote on it.
January 17, 2021
There were some who spent the savings of several generations on one last spree. Many insulted those they couldn't afford to insult and kissed those they shouldn't have kissed. No one wanted to end up without confession. The parish gave preference to the pregnant and to new mothers. This self-denying cleric lasted three days and three nights in the confessional before fainting from an indigestion of sins. (Galeano, 3)
The first sentence in Galeano’s “Century of the Wind” uses the sultry sounds of the letter “s” to introduce the history of San José de Gracia in 1900. The slithering sound of the “s” in words like “spent,” “savings,” and “spree” invokes an eerie atmosphere that also reflects the desperation of citizens who feared the end of the world. Galeano starts the first sentence with words that slide off the tongue. An intentional decision, and one that lures the reader into a historical reality that causes the reader themselves to feel desperate. This desperation, triggered below the reader’s consciousness, chains the reader to the words, even if the words aren’t fully understood. In the first sentence, we don’t yet know who the “some” refer to. We also don’t know why the “some” spend all their savings. There are too many unanswered questions, but the sounds of what we don’t yet understand, assures us. Surely an author who is skilled in selecting words that evoke such emotions has a purpose. And surely Galeano holds true to his word as he walks us through a superstitious city who hold their breath, only to realize that all their savings were spent and life continued on. The sounds of words are powerful to the atmosphere of the story. Select wisely.
Breath held, eyes closed, teeth clenched, the people listened to the twelve chimes of the church clock, one after the other, deeply convinced that there would be no afterwards.
But there was. For quite a while the twentieth century has been on its way; it forges ahead as if nothing had happened. (Galeano, 3)
Galeano again uses alliteration, the repetition of the same letter or sound in nearby words, when he writes “chimes” and “church clock.” But even more noticeable, is his use of punctuation to control the flow of the sentence. There are five commas in the sentence above. This slows the reader down. It causes the reader to feel as if time stood still, just like the citizens in San José felt, with their breath held and eyes closed, because they thought judgment day was near. Imagine if the sentence above was written, The people listened to the twelve chimes of the church clock that rang one after another, with their breath held, eyes closed, and teeth clenched, because they were deeply convinced that there would be no afterwards. Because of its length, the sentence still invokes breathlessness. But the breathlessness comes much later in the sentence, and the primary focus of physical feelings at the start of the sentence is gone. Galeano sets the pace of the sentence but also chooses what images the reader should see first, and last, because those are things remembered best. Lastly, “breath held, eyes closed, teeth clenched” uses parallelism through the repetition of the two-word pairings. This creates a rhythm and a poetic pace, which also slows down time and invites readers to experience the historical reality in 1900.
Elisa is a Vietnamese-Canadian writer and editor. Her work focuses on familial love, self-discovery, and immigrant experiences.