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Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano is one of Latin America's most renowned historical authors and is perhaps best known for his "Memory of Fire" trilogy. Another of his books - 'The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent' - recently made the headlines when Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez was photographed handing a copy to Barack Obama. As a result the book shot up the Amazon best seller when list. The book details the economic exploitation of Latin America by the United States. In "Upside Down: a Primer for the Looking-Glass World" Galeano explores a similar but wider theme in a captivating and poignant account that focuses upon the contradictions of 'First World' capitalism - otherwise known as the 'free market' - a system which Galeano places in what he describes as a "desolate, de-souled world, that practices the superstitious worship of machines and the idolatry of arms, an upside-down world with its left on its right, its belly button on its backside, and its head where its feet used to be."
The title of the book, as well as being a reference to geographic criteria, is in some sense a metaphor for a distorted world where "truths" are manufactured to mean the complete opposite of what is reality for most people. According to Galeano: "the upside-down world rewards in reverse: it scorns honesty, punishes work, prizes lack of scruples, and feeds cannibalism. Its professors slander nature: injustice, they say, is a law of nature." For me the metaphor is also represented by Galeano's analysis of the advertising industry which encourages maximum consumption of goods within an economic system that prohibits the participation of the vast majority (the low waged exploited labour force) from buying such goods - a socio-economic contradiction that is partially responsible for much inner city crime in the 'First World' where inequalities of wealth are most visible..
The book is a mixture of reportage and satire, history and social critique in which Galeano portrays the hopelessness of countries that reside outside Western Europe, Oceania and the United States or alternatively, the hopelessness of the vast majority of impoverished people and exploited labour who live in "the South" as he labels it. Within this broad theme, the subject matter of the book also covers such issues as child abuse, inequality, crime, racism, sexism and the globalised consumer society that in his view is set up to favour the rich and powerful who run it. There is a careful examination of how the very nature of political, economic and religious power is managed and maintained through secrecy and terror. The book is full of candid explanations such as how the countries that run the world are also the ones that sell the most weapons, and that these same countries own the most prestigious banks that launder the most drug money and harbour the most stolen cash.
Galeano makes us sombrely aware that we have reached a stage in history in which never has so much economic, scientific and technological effort been brought to bear on the production of death. What comes across from his lucid analysis is the sheer hypocrisy of the most powerful nations: the five countries with rights to exercise vetoes on the U.N. National Security Council (USA, UK, France, Russia and China) are also the world's largest arms dealers according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies. In other words, "world peace lies in the hands of the five powers that profit most from the big business of war". One implication of this statement is that as far as the world's big players are concerned, 'World Peace' is bad for business and a less profitable pursuit.
Amongst the 368 pages you will find plenty of quite astounding statistics that cut to the point. For example, the ten richest men in the world own wealth equivalent to the value of the total production of poorest 50 countries and more people die of poverty every year than the total deaths caused by the Second World War. Regarding the environment Galeano observes how "each inhabitant of the North consumes ten times as much energy, nineteen times as much aluminium, fourteen times as much paper, and thirteen times as much iron and steel as someone in the South." We perceive the totality of greed by the fact that 447 multimillionaires own a greater fortune than the annual income of half of humanity.
For all the gloom and pessimism Galeano's writing is often lyrical and poetic, and there is plenty of room for humour. As such, his analysis avoids an academic literary style and this makes the book an easy and enjoyable read as well as a highly informative one. This book is a beautifully written piece of literature as well as an explicit portrayal of the macabre mechanisms underlying present day globalisation and consumer capitalism. Perhaps some might claim that the author offers little in the way of alternative solutions, but others might argue that such solutions are all too obvious.
The book was published in 2001 and will be somewhat dated. No doubt some of the numbers will have changed a little, but one can confidently assume that the rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer, making the arguments in the book still relevant. Furthermore, the Upside Down World that Galeano eloquently portrays is the same one that existed before the current so-called 'credit crunch' and one which is desperately being resurrected by those who are still pulling the strings. From this perspective alone the book is still a highly worthwhile read.
Price: £6.80 at Amazon
One of Latin America's most honored historians and authors, Galeano (Memory of Fire) returns with more barbed and bewitching accounts of the contradictions of the First World, as filtered through the enlightened sensibilities of a Third World scholar-writer from Uruguay. He chastises the moneyed First World, which he terms the upside down world, as a culture gone amok that scorns honesty, punishes work, and prizes the lack of scruples. In a series of wickedly on-target parables, lessons and homilies that force the reader to question the state of the world as we know it, Galeano slams industrialized nations for turning their backs on critical issues of our time, including poverty, child abuse, patriarchal arrogance and political deception. In Practicum: How to Make Friends and Succeed in Life, he examines the nature of power, be it cultural, political and religious, revealing how in each area power is maintained through secrecy, money and terror. Humor, sarcasm and careful research inform his short tales of greed and tyranny in full bloom in Master Class on Impunity, which displays the author at his witty, sardonic best. Concluding his primer with the most potent of his lessons, The End of the Millennium as Promise and Betrayal, he delivers his hardest blows with stream-of-consciousness truths that match the best work of Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce and Thomas Merton: What has the world left us? A desolate, de-souled world, that practices the superstitious worship of machines and the idolatry of arms, an upside-down world with its left on its right, its belly button on its backside, and its head where its feet used to be. This is arguably Galeano's most spirited and eloquent examination of our topsy-turvy modern worldDa ticking literary hand grenade waiting to detonate in the mind of the reader.