The New Boom: Latin American Non-Fiction?

I actually don’t like terms like the Boom, but El Pais had an interesting conversation about a new collection coming out from Alfagrara: Antología de crónica latinoamericana actual. (You can read an excerpt here – the 42 page introduction) It is an anthology of stories from newspapers and magazines that focus on the way journalistic writing has developed as its own art form among Spanish speaking journalists. I know there have been many excellent journalists in the past so I don’t want to over state the boom idea. But the focus on journalistic narrative, apparently, has undergone a resurgence of interest. The name English speakers might recognize is Alejandro Zambra. El Pais explains the phenomenon:

1. De acuerdo,  la palabra boom huele. ¿Lo dejamos en “explosión controlada de la crónica latinoamericana”? Lo dejamos. Pero también diremos que en los últimos años han proliferado en América Latina las revistas, las colecciones, los talleres y hasta los premios dedicados a la crónica. Además, ahora se publican en España dos amplias selecciones dedicadas a ese género híbrido que llaman periodismo narrativo. Hoy mismo llega a las librerías Antología de crónica latinoamericana actual (Alfaguara), coordinada por Darío Jaramillo Agudelo. El 1 de marzo lo hará Mejor que ficción. Crónicas ejemplares (Anagrama), a cargo de Jorge Carrión. El próximo sábado Babelia -que ya dedicó una portada al género– se ocupará de ambos libros y del fenómeno que representan. Hoy Papeles Perdidos ofrece dos crónicas incluidas en la selección de Jaramillo: El sabor de la muerte, del mexicano Juan Villoro, y Bob Dylan en el Auditorium Theater, del dominicano Frank Báez.

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Ten Days In A Madhouse by Nellie Bly – A Review

What shocks one generation can seem so tame  to another, or in those shifting ironies of time what seemed natural is now the shocker. Over the last 100 years in the United States that shifting shock has most often come with the changes in race  and gender relations. But the shifts have also come in the way mental health is approached and some 120 years since its publication Ten Days in a Madhouse is a reflection of those changes and while some part of the writing may seem dated or at best a piece of history much like Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, Ten Days is not that distant from our time and its subject and the manner of its writing are worth a look.

Briefly, Ten Days in a Madhouse is Nellie Bly’s (Elizabeth Jane Cochrane Seaman) account of her ten days in a madhouse in New York in 1887. Bly, in an act of stunt journalism that wold make her famous, pretended to be mildly insane so she would be sent to an asylum to see first hand what one was like. To begin the process she goes to a rooming house and one night she stays up all night staring at the wall. The stare fest alerts her roommate and scares the homeowner and the next day she fixates on her lost trunk and insists on finding it. At the same time she continually talks about too many foreigners and never having worked, which both seem strange to the working class people she is rooming with. These three things are sufficient for her to land before a judge and eventually in the madhouse where she endures the arbitrary and vindictive rule of the nurses who are little better than street toughs. At the end of ten days a lawyer from her paper the World secures her release.

What strikes a modern reader are two things. The first is the obvious arbitrariness of the commitment and cruelty of the nurses. For the women who are trapped in the asylum there seems to be no way to escape. They have no way to demonstrate their sanity and some are quite sane, only having suffered what might now be diagnosed as a bout of depression after a traumatic experience or a nervous breakdown. To say one was sane was to say one was insane. Many of the women Bly encounters should not be in the asylum by modern standards and it easy to see the asylum as yet another version of Kafka’s Trial or Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But one should not let the smugness of a century’s worth of experience suggest that what she was writing about is no longer a problem. Instead, the arbitrariness and, more importantly, what constitutes madness is at the same time silly yet as strange as what could be called mad now. Saying one would not work or that there are many foreigners are quite observational, yet said amongst the working class of New York it seemed a form of obstinance. And in the obstinance you really see the shifting notions of what is strange.

The second area of discord is what Bly takes as normal. She continually winks at the reader, which is mostly stylistic, but then throws in comments that say she is worried about her hair. In a piece of serious journalism it seems a little strange. Yet her preoccupations tell as much about what is normal as is strange. And the reversal comes in how she characterizes women. In the world these events take place women are delicate and there is a continual paternalism.

Given these discords the book can seem at once a Guild Age curiosity and an annoying reflection of time thankfully past. What makes the book valuable is not so much what Bly was reporting, but what she thought of it. There is an earnestness that is not jaded, even though she is doing a stunt, and her solutions for fixing the asylums are hopeful if vague. In her conclusions you sense a belief that these problems are easily fixable if they are just addressed. Though her language is a bit more cluttered, she writes clearly and it serves well to show those shifts in attitude of the last 120 years. In those shifts, too, you can see how arbitrary the care of the mentally ill can be. In reading the book, one should not come away smug, but reminded.

War’s End – A Review

Joe Sacco is a writer whose work has always seemed to show the great power of the Graphic Novel. His comic journalism (not a disparaging description) is some of the best work I’ve seen in the field (and thankfully avoids the self obsessed woe is me story of other graphic novels). His artistry is in the comic genre, tending towards the caricature with people, but his drawings are realistic and detailed in a way that strives to document and highlight the story at hand. The stories in War’s End: Profiles From Bosnia 1995-1996are those of Bosnia at the end of the war. This is the third of his books in Bosnia, obviously not as strong as his master work Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995, but still showing his deft ability to write about war and yet never forget that for good or bad, he as a journalist is part of the story.

Soba, the first story, is not so much a story of war, but aftermath, an exploration of PTSD and rootlessness that comes after war. Yet it is more than just the soldiers coming back from the front, but a whole generation, a whole society that thought it was civilized and modern. What Sacco finds is the self destruction and disappointment that often comes with at the end of such wars. It is a solid, if brief, examination of the all to common and I think not repeated enough result of intense combat.

The second story, Christmas with Karadzic, isn’t as strong, but it does show that Sacco is aware of himself as participant and doesn’t try to deceive himself that he is an impartial professional. During the Christmas of 1995 he with several other journalists goes to interview Karadzic. It is not a particularly perilous journey, but it has its adventure and adrenaline. They get the scoop in the Republica Serbska and return to Sarajevo. Joe finds that he loves it; it was exciting and the other journalists, who live on cigarettes and tips, give him a rush. It is a two edged sword, because the idea is they are sending facts back to the papers, but it is as much an adventure as anything else. The willingness to show the reporters as part of the story is what makes Sacco interesting.

It is too bad that he has said that he probably can’t keep writing books like this because he can’t keep doing the journalism. Hopefully, the next one will be as interesting.