Sunday, 19 January 2020

Book review: The Best of Granta Reportage (1993)

There are 13 pieces in this volume and each is by a different author. At one stage the volume was bought at Mary Ryan’s, a bookseller in Queensland, including Brisbane and Noosa, so it’s possible I got it while living in that state.

The back cover has a photo from Magnum by Ian Berry showing people running in a crowd. Their skin is black and the book contains, for example, a piece from Ryszard Kapuscinski’s ‘The Soccer War’ (which I reviewed here in December)  and one by Martha Gellhorn titled ‘The Invasion of Panama’ (1990; I reviewed her book ‘The Face of War’ in December). There’s also a piece by a journalist named John Simpson titled ‘Tiananmen Square’ (1989) and a disappointing piece by James Fenton titled ‘The Fall of Saigon’ (1985).

Not all the pieces in the book are equally successful. While Gellhorn and Kapuscinski are, obviously, very good, Carolyn Fourche’s ‘El Salvador: an aide-memoir’ (1983) and Marilynne Robinson’s ‘The Waste Land’ (1985; about Sellafield nuclear plant in England) are not because they lack sufficient information to let the reader focus on the core of the piece. Fenton’s piece is bad, on the other hand, for different, though related, reasons. In his case, you are not given enough reason to sympathise with the protagonist (the journalist himself) and you are, instead, faced with what at the time must have been commonplaces but which, due to the passage of time, have become arcana only known to the specialist.

I didn’t have this problem with John Le Carre’s ‘The Unbearable Peace’ (1991). Here, the subject of the article is finely drawn and the author’s position vis-à-vis that person is adequately defined. Another good piece is Richard Rayner’s ‘Los Angeles’ (1992) about the race riots in that city. William McPherson’s 1990 piece ‘In Romania’, which chronicles one man’s experience of that country in the aftermath of the collapse of its government, is also good because the author puts himself at the centre of the narrative. Svetlana Alexiyevich’s ‘Boys in Zinc’, about the Afghan war waged by the Soviet Union, is also extremely good.

The collection is uneven and some pieces are very good while others are far less so. What seems to work after the passage of time is the inclusion of the writer in his or her own narrative. This tactic helps to give the reader clues as to how to react to the drama that is being uncovered. The narrator becomes a kind of lightning rod that concentrates the mind as you read, and lets you place in context the different ideas that you encounter during that process. Overall, a worthwhile read from an era now ended.

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