A check on the new acquisitions shelf at Greater Victoria Public turned up the 2006 revised third edition of the Granta Book of Reportage. Most of the pieces were in the first edition in 1993. Most of them are long, most are immediate and thoughtful and all are well-written. The thinking tends to represent the conventional wisdom of the British Left intelligentia, Germaine Greer’s coverage of Women and Power in Cuba being nearly effusive in praising a Marxist, egalitarian social experiment. Some pieces were translated from East European publications. Ryszard Kapusicinski covered the 1969 soccer war between Honduras and El Salvador. Svetlana Alexiyevich’s piece “The Boys in Zinc” (the bodies came back in zinc lined coffins) distills the Russian occupation of Afghanistan into a series of short first person fictional narratives.
John le Carre wrote a penetrating character study of Brigadier Jeanmaire, which extends into a meditation on the military traditions and pretensions of the small European powers during the Cold War. Ian Jack covered the inquest into an antiterrorist operation by the SAS in Gibraltar, when SAS soldiers gunned down three IRA operative who were in Gibraltar with a plan to plant a bomb. They had not planted a bomb, and there were questions about whether British Intelligence psyched the SAS commandoes into committing an extrajudicial execution by convincing them to cut the three IRA operatives down before they could detonate a possible bomb by radio control.
Jack also wrotes the introduction to the revised edition, with some interesting comments on the state of journalism in the era of the revision of the broadsheets after Rupert Murdoch’s economies began to bite. Journalism has become show business, with a corresponding emphasis on telling stories instead of reporting facts, and sentimentalty having become the dominant mode of telling and selling stories. He points out that in 1996, the Financial Times was alone in publishing a headline: “Dunblane in Grief after Gunman Kills 17 at School”, when every other British broadsheet sold papers with tabloid headlines like “Massacre of the Innocents”.
There is an excellent piece by Elena Lappin about Binjamin Wilkowmirski. In real life Wilkomirski was a Swiss child, surrendered for adoption by his birth mother, a musician and a fantasist who started to claim that he was a Latvian child survivor of the Holocaust. He began to associate with Holocaust survivors, searching for information about his relatives. He learned details that made him appear to know things that only a survivor would know. He adopted mannerisms and language. Eventually he wrote a memoir of his childhood, which was published by a reputable pubisher of Judaic material. This piece studies of how he fooled so many knowledgable people. This story is different than the recent and notorious James Frey affair, which was a story of presenting fiction as autobiography to better market a book. The Wilkomirski affair involves a puzzle, presented through a summary of his background and the evidence, and interviews with him, his main supporters, and and few people who had met him, with a minimum of speculative psychological commentary about the accuracy of memory or the value of sincerity. Lappin ends with observation that compared to the Holocaust “Swiss history has nothing remotely similar to offer, nothing so dramatic to survive, or to explain to a man where he came from, or how he is.”