tue 27/10/2020

Yuri Herrera: A Silent Fury review – the fire last time | reviews, news & interviews

Yuri Herrera: A Silent Fury review – the fire last time

Yuri Herrera: A Silent Fury review – the fire last time

Lessons for today in a Mexican tale of corporate murder and deceit

Slow-burn passion: Yuri Herrera

History, as protestors around the world currently insist, can be the art of forgetting – and erasure – as much as of memory. Although it explores a single incident from a century ago, Yuri Herrera’s brief, forensic but quietly impassioned account of a Mexican mining disaster may speak directly to the movements that now seek to reclaim a buried past from beneath official records.

History, as protestors around the world currently insist, can be the art of forgetting – and erasure – as much as of memory. Although it explores a single incident from a century ago, Yuri Herrera’s brief, forensic but quietly impassioned account of a Mexican mining disaster may speak directly to the movements that now seek to reclaim a buried past from beneath official records. Over his three previous novels, above all in the award-winning Signs Preceding the End of the World, the author has poured the molten conflict and change of contemporary Mexico (and Latin America) into individual moulds derived from epic, myth and fable. Pitched somewhere between reportage and fantasy, his fictional writing can recall the hallucinatory rigour and strangeness that descends from the most influential of modern Mexican classics – Juan Rulfo’s 1955 novella Pedro Páramo.

In contrast with these works, A Silent Fury reads, mostly, like a sober non-fiction study of the tragedy that struck Herrera’s home city of Pachuca on 10 March 1920. Early that morning, an underground fire at the American-owned El Bordo metals mine led to 87 deaths by gas asphyxiation, with the victims’ bodies then burnt and disfigured beyond recognition. Seven miners trapped in one shaft survived in an air pocket for six days. Herrara investigates the formal records and reports of the disaster, reading between the lines to tease out what they omit as well as what they say. He draws too on oral traditions, and the indelible traces this calamity left in the stories of local people. A Silent Fury asks, in its discreet but compelling voice, who gets to make history – especially the history of suffering and loss. It considers how the exclusions and oversights in formal accounts can be corrected by other sources, other memories. With its interrogation of historical documents, its analysis of press reports and legal depositions, this short book does at intervals read like a scholarly paper – in fact, some of its material derives from Herrera’s PhD research. But, beyond this dry objectivity, we occasionally glimpse the novelist’s sensibility at work. He hints at the terrifying ordeal of the survivors, and the grief of the womenfolk gathered at the mine gate, while imagining the horror as “pieces of men, charred and disintegrating” finally emerge from this pit of hell.

The El Bordo disaster was a cover-up in every possible sense. Within a couple of hours, the owners sealed the mine entrances and declared the fire extinguished. Yet it was still burning, with scores of men still trapped inside, already condemned to a lingering death. By midday, the bureaucratic machinery of excuse and disinformation had already lumbered into action, abetted by the city’s papers and the courts. It depended on reducing the powerless victims and their families to silence. Even the few survivors found that “no-one recorded what they thought or felt”. To get their meagre compensation, the women had to testify in detail to their domestic lives, but they needed a man of standing to vouch for them. The records scrub out their own words. Meanwhile, journalists, magistrates and mine investigators fashion a “neutral universal voice”. It inters the sorrow and anger of the mining community and, of course, lets the owners completely off the hook. Herrera does locate a few “voices of dissent, pain, or even rage” that dare to challenge the official lines, but these soon fade away. Inspector García concludes serenely that “a worker was to blame”. The Pachuca mines were booming and “there was a need to close the file on this story”.

A century on, Herrera has reopened it. Despite its flashes of drama, A Silent Fury reads almost like the working notes for a novel, or a critical case-study of history-making as the alibi of abusive power. Lisa Dillman’s English version adroitly captures its scholarly scruple and veiled ardour. From photographers to engineers to judges, the professionals who re-define El Bordo all acted as “translators who read the stones and corpses”. With oral legacies and his own insight to help him, Herrera translates the past anew to tell “this story of murder, plunder, and the determination to escape oblivion”. It makes for a modest, quietly-spoken book – but a memorable one. Sometimes you wish that Herrera would let imagination – even indignation – rip, but that’s not his purpose here. For him, the lies of power that effaced the truth about life, and death, at El Bordo still flourish. And not only in Mexico, readers here may add. Three years ago today, Grenfell Tower burned.

 

  • ‘A Silent Fury: the El Bordo Mine Fire’ by Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman (And Other Stories, £8.99)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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