What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

William Finnegan's "Getting The Story"

Reading Vince Aletti’s interesting “Critic’s Notebook” review of “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life,” at the International Center of Photography” (“Crime Seen,” The New Yorker, November 12, 2012), I recalled the opening section of William Finnegan’s superb South African memoir “Getting The Story” (The New Yorker, July 13 & 20, 1987; later published, in slightly different form, as Dateline Soweto, 1988), a vivid account of a trip that Finnegan, Johannesburg Star reporter, Jon Qwelane, and Star photographer, Herbert Mabuza, made to KwaNdebele, a small bantustan northeast of Pretoria under harsh state-of-emergency rule, in early July, 1986, to cover a meeting of anti-independence fighters. The piece contains this grim depiction of the KwaNdebele landscape: 

KwaNdebele had the blasted, frightened look of a war zone. The few shops we saw were all gutted, a turquoise beer hall fronted by a primitive arcade had large black tongues of charred paint licking up its walls from each arch of the arcade. More alarming than all the signs of recent violence, though, were the immense shantytowns sprawled across the bare hills, with the houses packed as densely as in any urban township. Most of the houses were makeshift concoctions of cardboard, plastic, and corrugated metal. Many were simply packing crates with a doorway and a smoke hole cut out. Rocks anchored the roofs against high winds. Clearly, there was no electricity, no plumbing, no running water; everywhere, women and girls could be seen trudging down the dusty lanes with plastic water jugs on their heads. There were obviously no jobs in the area. Hundreds of thousands of people were marooned out in these huge bush ghettos. “And they wonder why we call this country a concentration camp,” Quelane muttered. “These people truly have nothing left to lose.” 

Mabuza’s response to KwaNdebele is more sarcastic. Finnegan quotes him as saying, “All this beautiful countryside. All these friendly people.” Finnegan describes Mabuza as “one of the best black news photographers in the country.” I wonder if his work is included in “Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life.” Aletti doesn’t mention him in his review. I didn’t see his name when I searched ICP’s website. I’d like to see his photos of the liberation struggle. Apparently, he didn’t take any pictures on the day he visited KwaNdebele with Finnegan and Quelane. Finnegan writes, “Mabuaza stashed his cameras – he had not used them that day….”

Credit: The above photo is Gideon Mendel’s “Winnie Mandela Giving The ‘Amandla’ Salute” (1985); it appears in The New Yorker (November 12, 2012), as an illustration for Vince Aletti’s “Crime Seen.”

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