Stories on a String, Ventanas, and a Few Other Latin Legacies...*
I first met Galeano quite a few years ago, shortly after his return from exile in Spain where he had fled from both Uruguay's right-wing military dictatorship and, subsequently, that of Argentina's. I flew in from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, took a cab up the city's one hill, and arrived to be greeted by a weary Galeano who opened the door himself and ushered me in. He was on death watch: a friend clung to life—a worn Galeano described his friend as "addicted to life"—and so, apologizing for his weariness, he spoke in his native Spanish, while I fired questions away in my native English. At that time he was still writingPalabras Andantes (translated as Walking Words) and was working with Brazilian artist, Jorge Borges, whom he found illustrating historias de cordel (stories on a string) in the markets of northeast Brazil. Historias de cordel, Galeano explained, are hand sewn booklets filled with local news, gossip, astrological predictions, short stories, jingles, poems, politics, lord knows what else, and illustrated with handmade block prints.
I have never forgotten. Galeano turned in his chair and pulled out several little booklets from the bookshelf behind him. Handing them to me, he explained that while that part of Brazil was "lo mas pobre" it was also "lo mas rica." The booklets were crudely put together, made from coarse paper and smelling of tobacco, of the sweat of their readers and creators, of the coffee someone had drunk, of the cheap vino tino someone had spilled...
These "stories on a string" or "historias de cordel," in Portuguese, "Literatura de Cordel," and, in early Portugal, "Folhetos volantes"**—these humble looking handmade booklets and their woodcut illustrations are part of a multinational "street literature"/folk tradition, though quite separately developed. Spanish speakers have their corridos, which share some characteristics of the folhetos, but are not the same. English speakers have their chapbooks—"cheap books" —or, as suggested by Wikipedia, referring to the Oxford English Dictionary, seems to derive from the word for the itinerant salesmen who would sell such books: chapman. The first element of chapman comes in turn from Old English cēap ('barter, business, dealing'). Mark Curran, who writes extensively on "Cordel," has, in several writings on the subject, insisted that the Brazilian version is pretty much exclusively poetry, as has Candace Slater in her book, Stories on a String. But I am not so sure I didn't see a bit of prose creeping in those worn folhetos in Galeano's collection.
What preceded this afterward, in a far shorter form, is what, in that same conversation, Galeano referred to as "ventanas," short distilled paragraphs—windows—through which we glimpse a moment of life, an idea, a phantasm. Easily imagined as in a folheto, on a string, among others, this, in my opinion far surpasses the English language, "flash fiction," which strives to achieve a virtuoso effect through language, but, like a firecracker which doesn't go off, just as often fizzles for lack of imagination.
Here we have posted one of my favorite of Galeano's "ventanas."***