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.

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.”

Winnie Mandela in 1995. Photo: Getty

Tara Isabella Burton's work has appeared in The Spectator, Guernica Daily, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she won The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge