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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins 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.

Friday, April 24, 2015

April 20, 2015 Issue

William Finnegan’s reality hunger is voracious. It drives his stories. For example, in his great "Silver or Lead" (The New Yorker, May 31, 2010), he travels to the dangerous Mexican town of Zitácuaro, controlled by the vicious La Familia Michoacana crime syndicate, “to ask the police some questions.” This week, in his excellent "Tears of the Sun," he journeys to the Peruvian pueblo La Rinconada, “the highest-elevation human settlement in the world,” to report on artisanal gold-mining. Not content to just describe the mines (“The dark mouths of mines now hove into view, in all sizes and states of dilapidation. Some were big enough to drive a truck into, with guard shacks and fat electrical cables and compressed-air hoses. Others were smaller than I am, crumbling, trash-strewn. All looked forbidding”), Finnegan, in the company of miner Josmell Ilasca, enters one:

The tunnel entrance was twenty feet wide, maybe ten feet high. Ilasaca produced two hard hats and a miner’s lamp from a backpack, and we headed in. “I used to work in here,” he said. “There’s enough oxygen, from old shafts that go to the surface.” He gestured toward the depths of the mountain. As the tunnel narrowed, the air got musty and the darkness, within fifty yards of the entrance, was absolute. Ilasaca was careful to light my way. He showed me mineralized veins in the walls, glittering between rough slabs of black Ordovician slate. When the quijo angled upward, he said, so would the tunnel, and it did. This had all been dug with hand tools and dynamite, he said. “Maybe two metres a day.” Back then, the lamps had been carbide, he said, burning acetylene gas. These nice bright electric headlamps we had, with battery packs that attached to your belt, were relatively new. He stopped to listen to my breathing, which was getting ragged. The tunnel ceiling had been dropping, obliging me to crouch. My thighs were burning from the effort. I was O.K., I said, just altitude weary. More coca, Ilasaca said. I had bought coca leaves that morning, from an old woman on the street in La Rinconada. Everybody here chewed them, I was told, to stave off exhaustion and hunger. I stuffed a wad in my cheek. The leaves were stiff and bitter. Ilasaca also took a wad. The quartz vein in the tunnel wall turned downward, the tunnel followed it, and at a certain depth we found our progress halted by an icy-looking pond. Ilasaca studied the vein, tapping it with his fingertips. I wondered what he saw in its fissures and glints.

“Tears of the Sun” abounds with absorbing facts, but it’s also subjective to the bone. It’s about Finnegan’s experience of La Rinconada – where he sleeps (“My unheated hotel room in La Rinconada overlooked a muddy corner where long-distance minibuses arrived and departed, and all night long the touts shouted, ‘Juliaca! Juliaca! Juliaca!’ ”), what he eats (“We were eating dinner in a tiny, freezing second-floor restaurant in La Rinconada. I was having the Cuban plate—rice and a hot dog and a fried banana—and hot, sweet yerba-maté tea”), what he sees (e.g., female gold miners, known as pallaqueras, wearing “great jumbles of skirts, vests, sweaters, trousers, improvised balaclavas, striped traditional blankets known as llicllas, dust masks, aprons, work gloves”), who he meets [miners, doctors, gold buyers, even an undertaker (“Martín Ccari, an undertaker from across the street, told me that some mine deaths could be blamed on slow response to cave-ins and other accidents”)]. And … it ends beautifully, with Finnegan descending the mountain, returning to sun, warmth, greenery:

I left La Rinconada at dawn, squeezed in the back row of a crowded minibus, bumping down the mountain. The trashed, poisoned mine country gave way slowly to hills with actual grass on them. Then there were small farms, cattle, trees. Sunshine with some warmth to it. People not bundled against the cold. The world was flooding with color. And oxygen. I found it a bit overwhelming.

Superbly vivid, vital, and real – “Tears of the Sun” is terrific. I enjoyed it immensely.

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