April 20, 2009
Chávez, the New Oprah, Makes Another Bestseller
By Robert Mackey
Demonstrating a heretofore unknown capacity for speed-reading, Americans rushed to Amazon.com over the weekend to post new reviews of the 317-page book — Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent” — President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela gave to President Obama at the Summit of the Americas on Saturday. As one of the readers engaged in the discussion of what is now the second most popular book on Amazon’s Web site noted:
Who would have believed that so many people could order the book, get it delivered, and read it overnight! Who says Americans have become a nation of illiterates?!?
Then again, as some other reviewers of the reviewers on Amazon have suggested, it just might be that some of the people flooding Amazon with negative evaluations of the book saved time by not actually reading it before speed-writing their responses to it. There is no doubt that people have been ordering the book from Amazon — the BBC reports on Monday that it was Amazon’s 54,295th most popular title on Friday but had shot up to number two on the company’s bestseller list by Monday morning — but, given that the online bookseller estimates that it takes one to three weeks after an order is placed for this book to be shipped, it seems unlikely that any of the newest reviews were based on careful evaluations of the arguments put forth by the Uruguayan author.
The book’s new popularity has even spawned a separate discussion thread on Amazon headlined: “What’s With All The New Reviews? Did A Bunch Of People Read It In The Past Couple Of Days??” One of the book’s haters responded there by arguing that it was unnecessary to read the book to form an opinion about it:
Basically, it sounds like another ‘All evil comes from European-descendant white people’ and Latin America would be a paradise if we’d never arrived (never mind the human sacrifices going on at the time of the Spanish arrival and the massive corruption that is currently ongoing in utopias like Venezuala). I haven’t read it, though; why read Karl Marx through another ethnic lens when I have the original source on the bookshelf, along with a few other filtered versions?
On the other side of the argument, a reader identified as one of Amazon’s top 500 reviewers wrote on Sunday that while he thinks “Chavez is a boor and a buffoon, and it could be taken as a gesture of supreme condescension that he gave the well-educated American president one of the standard texts of Latin American studies,” he still hopes that Mr. Obama will read an English translation of the book since “Even English readers who will dismiss his analysis as ‘economic determinism’ should be ready to meet Galeano, on his own terms, as a vivid example of the Latin American world-view.”
President Hugo Chavez showed a book by John Kenneth Galbraith to Venezuelan business leaders in Caracas in June, 2008.This is not the first time that an endorsement from Mr. Chávez has had this sort of effect on a book’s fortunes. In 2006, as Motoko Rich reported in The Times, days after Mr. Chávez held up a Spanish translation of Noam Chomsky’s “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance,” during a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, the English version “hit No. 1 on Amazon’s best-seller list” in the United States.
North American readers may be less aware of the fact that Mr. Chávez apparently likes giving and getting books from other world leaders, and has also been photographed exchanging reading material with the presidents of Yemen, Russia, Cuba and Colombia in recent years.
While “The Open Veins of Latin America” itself is not available to read online, Isabel Allende’s introduction, which accompanies the English translation and was written in the 1990s, is on the Web, and that may give a better sense of what the book means to its proponents is about beyond the simple “anti-capitalist” handle that has been attached to it in the last few days.
You can also see and hear the Uruguayan writer speak for himself in a long interview with Mr. Galeano conducted by Amy Goodman and Juan Golnzalez in 2006, which is available in both video and audio versions on the Web site of the program “Democracy Now.”
Not having read it myself, I am unable to offer readers any better review of this work by Eduardo Galeano — although his book about the game that dominates many lives in Latin America, “Soccer in Sun and Shadow,” is a great read. Samples of that book’s English translation are available online, in Google Book Search. One version of a chapter of that book published in an academic journal gives a sense of how Mr. Galeano writes, and sees the world:
The history of soccer is a sad voyage from beauty to duty. When the sport became an industry, the beauty that blossoms from the joy of play got torn out by its very roots. In this fin-de-siecle world, professional soccer condemns all that is useless, and useless means not profitable. Nobody earns a thing from that crazy feeling that for a moment turns a man into a child playing with a balloon, like a cat with a ball of yarn, a ballet dancer who romps with a ball as light as a balloon or a ball of yarn, playing without even knowing he’s playing, with no purpose or clock or referee.
Play has become spectacle, with few protagonists and many spectators, soccer for watching. And that spectacle has become one of the most profitable businesses in the world, organized not for play but rather to impede it. The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy and outlaws daring.
Luckily, on the field you can still see, even if only once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.