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The New York Review Abroad: A breathless journey around disparate worlds

Tara Isabella Burton reviews a a hefty and often harrowing compendium of The New York Review’s foreign reportage over the past fifty years.

Winnie Mandela in 1995. Photo: Getty

The New York Review Abroad
Edited by Robert B Silvers; introductory updates by Ian Buruma
New York Review of Books, 513pp, £16.30

The greatest challenge in reading The New York Review Abroad, a hefty and often harrowing compendium of The New York Review’s foreign reportage over the past fifty years, is knowing when to stop for breath. Arranged chronologically, with minimal editorial context, the twenty-seven essays that comprise the anthology form a relentless march through the worst of recent history: rape in South Africa, extermination camps in Cambodia, suicide bombers in the West Bank. Characters – an elderly man attempting to make sense of the cult of youth in 1968 Paris, a Turkish provincial official who announces “we have no minorities” – appear, make their mark, and vanish just as quickly, subsumed into the wider narrative. At first, such rapid-fire shifts in focus induce a strange combination of vertigo and numbness – how can we invest, as readers, in so many disparate worlds?

Yet, as the book progresses, the strands of narrative start to weave together. Figures that appear in one essay as hopeful revolutionaries – Winnie Mandela, for example, in Nadine Gordimer’s 1976 “Letter from South Africa” – re-appear as more ambiguous figures: Mandela’s infamous 1986 “necklacing” speech, implicitly condoning a particularly inhumane form of vigilante violence, serves as the occasion for Ryszard Kapuscinski’s “Fire on the Road”: an account of the author’s near-death experience at hands of UPGA activists in 1966 Nigeria. Recurring questions – of collective memory, of atrocities enacted, re-imagined, forgotten or suppressed – become all the more powerful in their repetition. The story that takes shape is undeniably a brutal one, but it is, in the absence of unnecessary editorialising, also brutally honest.

Standing out most prominently against this backdrop of often-unremitting desolation are the collection’s quieter moments. Caroline Blackwood’s 1979 account of the Liverpool gravediggers’ strike, for example – its smaller scale brought into relief by the macrocosmic perspective of the essays surrounding it – is easily one of the most memorable essays in the collection, transforming a personal attempt to make sense of the culture of fifty-six gravediggers into an incisive study of the intersection of class, region, money, and identity in 1970’s Liverpool. Tiny details – the presence of a single black gravedigger in a largely inherited profession; one gravedigger’s inability to let an amateur perform a burial – become all the more compelling in the light of their seeming insignificance.

So too Susan Sontag’s 1993 “Godot Comes to Sarajevo” – another highlight of the collection – which examines the Balkans conflict through the lens of the author’s attempt to stage a production of Waiting for Godot in a Sarajevo theatre. Day-to-day concerns – rivalry among various Sarajevo theatre companies; the actors’ attempts to read their scripts in the absence of available light sources; the scrounging through leftovers at the Holiday Inn to find suitable props to replace the carrot Estragon is meant to chew on throughout the play – become far more revealing, and certainly far more memorable, than more programmatic analysis found in the anthology’s weaker essays.

Yet, at times, this personal perspective can prove problematic. While Sontag’s treatment of herself as a character, desperate to “be [more than] just a witness: that is, meet and visit…feel depressed, have heart-breaking conversations, grow ever more indignant, lose weight” is intensely compelling, other examples of authorial presence are less successful. In Ryszard Kapuscinski’s otherwise finely-crafted “Fire on the Road”, for example, the authorial voice becomes intrusive, silencing his subjects: “They do not know that I am not their enemy. They know that I am white, and the only white they have ever known is the colonizer who abased them…I am to die because Lady Lugard ordered them to carry her in a litter.”

More compelling are those details allowed to stand on their own, without the buffer of the authorial voice: few sentences in the book are as striking as the awkwardly-translated rule William Shawcross finds written on the blackboard in a former Khmer Rouge extermination camp: “You must answer in conformity with the questions I ask you. Don’t try to turn away my questions.”

One exception, however, is VS Naipaul’s 1972 “The Corpse at the Iron Gate”, a highly stylised account of the cult surrounding the corpse of Eva Peron, deceased wife of Argentinian President Juan Peron. Embracing the authorial presence – Naipaul begins by outlining the political situation in fairy-tale language, “like a story by Borges” – the essay melds the mythic and the prosaic (Eva Peron’s “thickish” ankles and “country girl’s taste in clothes”) to tell the story of a figure who likewise existed at the intersection of fantasy and reality, in a world “made deficient and bogus by its myths”, Naipaul’s essay is distinctive in its flair.

The book loses some momentum as it reaches the twenty-first century; the pace slows as history transforms into current events. Yet here, too, it is the stark and uncompromising commitment to presenting these stories on their terms that gives the narrative its strength: editorial minimalism takes on a character of its own. Thus does contributor Ian Buruma introduce Mark Danner’s account of Operation Iraqi Freedom, “Delusions in Baghdad”: “Mark Danner wrote his report in December 2003. The mission was not accomplished then. It still isn’t.”