Feb/Mar 2013

As the World Burns

Matthew Power


A casual browser could be forgiven for feeling somewhat misled if they picked up The New York Review Abroad in hopes of a diverting beach read. That one word—abroad—with its echo of Twain’s satires, invokes a certain romance and lightness, a gap-year adventure in the great world. But these aren’t the qualities on offer in this immensely powerful and troubling collection of reportage, which includes twenty-eight pieces that span the fifty-year existence of the celebrated journal of ideas. They amount to an anti-escapist grand tour of twentieth-century horrors: Cambodia, Bosnia, Tibet, Palestine.

The chronological sequencing of the dispatches here creates the cumulative effect of rendering recent world history as a storm surge of tragedy, propelled by small acts of humanity and large acts of hubris. As Susan Sontag observes from besieged Sarajevo in perhaps the finest piece in the collection: “No longer can a writer consider that the imperative task is to bring the news to the outside world. The news is out.” The job is rather to serve a higher ethic, to probe for a complex and often fleeting truth in the ceaseless flow of events.

The collection opens in 1967 with the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy, who confesses she went to Vietnam “looking for material damaging to the American interest.” She has no trouble finding it. Led by the military on a theatrical tour of the combat zone touting what she calls the “American dream of what we are doing in Vietnam,” McCarthy perceives the doomed nature of the war long before its US promoters did.

The political leaning of the works, while frequently liberal and invariably cosmopolitan, is scarcely monolithic—rather, the default is toward critical engagement with human realities on the ground. So, for instance, the English poet and novelist Stephen Spender’s dispatch from the burning barricades of the 1968 student uprising in Paris issues a strong note of caution to the youthful revolutionaries:

Although the young today do have reasons for distrusting the older generation, anything that is worth doing involves their having to get old. . . . And if ten years from now they have become their own idea of what it is to be old, then what they are fighting for will have come to nothing.

The voices of observers can be cruel at times, as in V. S. Naipaul’s dissection of Argentine society and the failed Peronist dream in the dark years preceding the country’s Dirty War; Naipaul decries an “artificial, fragmented colonial society, made deficient and bogus by its myths.” At other times, reported essays draw the reader into the sweat-soaked immediacy of an international crisis. In one such dispatch from the civil war in Nigeria involving repeated run-ins with government soldiers at roadblocks, Ryszard KapuŽsciŽnski explains, “I had to do it myself because I knew no one could describe it to me. And I cannot describe it myself.” It’s rather amazing he survived to describe it at all.

A self-conscious tension threads itself through these essays, as outsiders attempt to interpret alien cultures and face up to ungraspable horrors like torture and genocide. They frequently find themselves up against the limits of their craft. Reporting from El Salvador’s bloody civil war, Joan Didion describes scratching out notes in a posh and oblivious San Salvador shopping mall: “I wrote it down dutifully, this being the kind of ‘color’ I knew how to interpret . . . the detail that was supposed to illuminate the story. As I wrote it down I realized that I was no longer much interested in this kind of irony, that this was a story that would not be illuminated by such details.” Such exhausted reportorial irony is about as close as this collection comes to anything resembling comic relief.

The writers are mostly Western writers parachuting in to foreign trouble spots, and, like Didion, can find themselves self-consciously wrestling with cultural differences. But in several of the most powerful pieces collected here, writers evoke far more intimate connections. South African Nadine Gordimer’s essay on the deaths of children during the 1976 antiapartheid protests captures their experience in searing detail, but she also understands that no matter how deep her empathy may run, her whiteness profoundly isolates her from the basic terms of their struggle. In other cases, correspondents write firsthand accounts of lived history. Chinese dissident Kang Zhengguo chronicles his wrenching and surreal experience at the hands of state interrogators, and Egyptian journalist Yasmine El Rashidi recounts her effort to cast a vote in the country’s first elections after its 2011 revolution.

Sometimes Western writers also step out of the role of mere observer, as with Sontag’s extraordinary account of staging a performance of Waiting for Godot with a troupe of undernourished performers in a Sarajevo theater lit by candles as Serbian shells fall outside. As Sontag relates this small struggle, it becomes clear that the play is a perfect metaphor for the tragic situation of the beleaguered city, which is waiting for the United States and NATO to intervene on its behalf.

Reading these pieces, one gets a Cassandra-esque feeling: We know what is going to happen, and it is rarely good. And the storm surge of history washes right up to the present moment. Mark Danner’s assessment of the failings and lies of the US war in Iraq is rife with reminders of Mary McCarthy’s observations four decades earlier in Vietnam. His piece, written in 2003, when the war had only caused a tenth of its present casualties, is all the more upsetting for how accurate it has proved to be.

This collection is not a rough draft of history; it is something much more than news, and longer lasting. Call it moral reportage, or long-form conscientious objection. The voices gathered here are as essential as they are disturbing.

Matthew Power is a contributing editor at Harper's and a three-time finalist (in 2005, 2006, and 2007) for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in the International Reporting category.

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