In his seminal non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, Truman Capote chronicled the murder of four members of a family in a small-town Kansas farming community in 1959. Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie and two of their children were murdered by two ex-convicts who mistakenly thought there was a safe in the house with large amounts of money. The murderers were arrested, convicted and sentenced to death.
Capote’s book, first published as a series of New Yorker articles in 1965, is interested in the story behind the headline news. In Cold Blood is not a whodunnit but a why and wherefore. Capote spent six years researching the book, conducting interviews with investigators and townspeople that resulted in thousands of pages of notes. (He had help from his friend and fellow author Harper Lee.)
Though in recent years some of the facts of In Cold Blood have been disputed, it is still considered a genre-defining delineation of a family and community traumatised by a violent crime.
With little information about the number of miners still inside or alive, the officials in charge decided to seal the shaft to stop the fire from further damaging the structure
The rigour that is so integral to the genre of narrative journalism is clear from the opening pages of Yuri Herrera’s A Silent Fury. Giving further weight to the book is the fact that, unlike Capote, Herrera is looking to right a wrong.
In March 1920, in his hometown of Pachua, Mexico, a fire at the El Bordo mine killed 87 men. An "expert" (heavy on the sarcasm) report into the disaster concluded that the Compañía de Santa Gertrudis, the largest employer in the region, and a subsidiary of the United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company, was without blame. If anything, it suggested that the fire was caused by one of the workers who died. Herrera's mission is to reclaim the voices of the dead and point the finger at the real culprits. The searing details are delivered in sparse, lucid prose that allows the horrific facts to speak for themselves.
With little information about the number of miners still inside or alive, the officials in charge decided to seal the shaft to stop the fire from further damaging the structure. Amid all the staged photographs and official reports of exemplary responses, Herrera unearths a single statement taken by one reporter from an eyewitness, the miner Delfino Rendon, who first raised the alarm and tried to get people out: “Twenty minutes after the miners’ rescue began, out of the blue the supervisors gave the order to halt operations, and the entrances were closed.”
The style of A Silent Fury is similar to the witness literature of Primo Levi. Both writers interrogate the facts and the humanity or lack thereof that underpins them. The recent TV drama Chernobyl is another touchstone – a story that outlines so vividly the combination of absurd bureaucracy, corporate corruption and the ugly need to cover up mistakes that puts human beings at the centre of such disasters.
As with Chernobyl, what makes Herrera’s book so impactful is the skilful use of narrative technique. The book is beautifully paced – the huge twist at the end of the second chapter is a case in point – and the more we learn about the cruelties of the mining company in the aftermath of the fire, the more we come to care for the lives and families they destroyed.
The book shows what was lost and the legacy that Herrera says is still palpable within the city today
The company, faceless as always, seems to double down on the dehumanisation in the wake of the tragedy. It stages photographs to sway public opinion. It makes it difficult for the undocumented spouses of the dead to claim compensation. It buries the bodies in a mass grave outside the town, “with the aim of preventing an epidemic brought on by so many corpses passing through the city of Pachuca … There is no record of what the family members felt at not being allowed to bury their loved ones where they wished.”
This is Herrera’s first work of non-fiction, but he has already made a name for himself with novels such as the award-winning Signs Preceding the End of the World and The Transmigration of Bodies, which was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award in 2018.
The combination of forensic reporting – A Silent Fury is based on research Herrera undertook while obtaining a PhD in Hispanic Languages and Literatures at UC Berkeley – and the author’s personal connection to the place results in a precise, devastating read.
With an excellent translation by Lisa Dillman, the book leaves the reader without doubt as to culpability of the company. It shows what was lost and the legacy that Herrera says is still palpable within the city today. On March 10th, 1920, the shafts of the El Bordo mine were sealed without consideration for the men below ground. A hundred years after the tragedy, Herrera succeeds in setting their stories free.