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Children of the Days:

A Calendar of Human History

By Eduardo Galeano,

translated by Mark Fried

Nation Books

432 pages, $26.99

By Jeff Simon

News Book Reviewer

It’s a funny thing about presidential libraries – no, not the shrines to their administrations that they build in self-deification like Roman emperors intoxicated by history’s mirror or Shelley’s Ozymandias warning posterity to “look on my works ye mighty and despair.”

We’re talking here about the real presidential libraries, the ones where presidents might actually deposit books famously given to them as presents. They’ve done well in an era that many were afraid was post-literate.

Whatever one thinks of Bill Clinton’s sloppy, pizza-flavored dalliances with Monica Lewinsky, one has to have a high regard for her taste in writers to pique the presidential erotic interest. She gave him Nicholson Baker’s famous phone sex novel “Vox.”

Were the former president to drift outside the undeniable strain of comic erotica in Baker’s oeuvre, he’d find a very serious writer indeed –the pacifist who, in “Human Smoke,” made the argument that World War II (and Winston Churchill especially) unnecessarily engendered the Holocaust, and the Gutenbergian critic of the digital era in “Double Fold” who decries the vanquishing of paper in libraries as a defeat of civilization itself.

In 2009, the late Hugo Chavez famously gave Barack Obama Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America.” Chavez, too, may have had narrow reasons for giving the book to a sitting president but there too there is nothing remotely narrow about the oeuvre of the writer who was being introduced to the keeper of the White House library.

If, in fact, the Nobel Prize for literature weren’t a shadow of its former splendid self (and not what is an annual disappointment and error in Swedish academic judgment), the works of the great and utterly uncategorizable Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano would be recognizable as a Nobel laureate’s canon if ever there was one: the trilogy “Memory of Fire,” “The Book of Embraces,” “Voices of Time,” “Mirrors,” and now this typically Galeanovian declaration of terminal skepticism about human history, arranged as a calendar.

Galeano is now of ripe Nobel laureate age – he’ll be 73 in September – should the Swedes ever decide to render the great dynamiter’s guilt prize honorable again.

Galeano’s genre is his own – a mixture of fiction, journalism and history that, as always, is conveyed in orderly fragments of various sizes and is best understood as an outgrowth of his first midteen self-expressions as a socialist cartoonist.

If you think of every short individual Galeano piece in the mammoth collection of them that comprises his life’s work as a kind of verbal cartoon – or a set of variations on a verbal cartoon – then you understand both the striking singularity of his work and its innovation.

It has brought him so much political opposition in his life that, at one point, “Open Veins” (Chavez’s gift book) was banned by several South American governments including Uruguay’s and, at another, he had to take refuge (as have so many other Latin American writers) in Spain.

Galeano’s books are, typically, schemes that allow the writer to collect many short pieces interrelated by theme and variations on the theme.

In “Children of the Days,” he gives us, as promised, a “calendar of human history.”

But, as implied to anyone who knows his work, it’s unlike any calendar to be known by anyone anywhere.

Our beginning January 1, he hastens to explain, “is not the first day of the year for the Mayas, the Jews, the Arabs, the Chinese or many other inhabitants of the world.” Rather, “the date was chosen by Rome, Imperial Rome and blessed by Vatican Rome.”

“That said,” though, says Galeano, “today we ought to acknowledge that time treats us rather kindly. Time allows us its fleeing passengers, to believe that this day could be the very first day, and it gives us leave to want today to be as bright and joyous as the colors of an outdoor market.”

We can want all manner of things.

But on Jan. 13, Galeano is happy to remind us that “in the year 2010, an earthquake swallowed a large chunk of Haiti and left more than two hundred thousand dead. The following day in the United States, a television preacher named Pat Robertson explained what happened. This shepherd of souls revealed that the blacks of Haiti were to blame, that their freedom was responsible. The Devil had liberated them from French slavery and now he was collecting his due.”

All that he writes of May 23 – last Thursday in our current year – is this: “In 1937, John D. Rockefeller, owner of the world, king of oil, founder of Standard Oil Co., passed away. He had lived for nearly a century. The autopsy found not a single scruple.”

Just in case you want to know, Galeano tells us that on Dec. 31 in Rome, the year 208, “Quintus Serenus Sammonicus wrote Liber Medicinalis, a book in which he recorded his discoveries in the arts of healing.”

And “among other remedies” he proposed an infallible way to avoid tertian fever and keep death at bay: by hanging a word across your chest day and night.

“The word was ‘abracadabra’ which in ancient Hebrew meant and still means ‘Give your fire until the last of your days.’”

Galeano’s fire is unquenched. He keeps giving it to us in abundance.

Jeff Simon is The News’ arts and books editor.