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O Magazine

Illustration by Manuel Clavero

Capote Spoke Spanish:
El Dorado of Latin American Chronicles

By Carlos Torres

The soviet echoes of its walls, and the tons of concrete that make up the Faculty of Journalism at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid were not a coincidence. The building, instead of being like Quino’s helmet-colander, which avoids bullets but lets ideas in, is a granite bunker the only mission of which is stopping the entrance of any new trends. I spent five years as a student within those walls and I never heard anything about Gatopardo, El Malpensante or Etiqueta Negra. What are Journalism faculties for, then, if not to show us the way in the midst of the jungle? The best thing some of the few decent professors did was to recommend us reading García Márquez’ Noticia de un secuestro. With a bit of luck, the most restless of my colleagues ended up reading Mailer, listening to Capote’s chameleonic music, losing their voices talking about Talese or burning with Hunter S. Thompson’s fear and loathing. At the time we were tempted to believe that this kind of things could only be done by yankees in the New Yorker.

It’s true, though, that we shouldn’t fall into victimization and blame all our ignorance on the university institution. First, because there seems to be some exceptions, such as, for example, the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, in which things are quite different; and, second, because the responsibility is only ours. Today, we have enough resources at hand as journalists to know about the chronicles being written in Mexico or Argentina. Why, then, is the audience for Latin American non-fiction so scarce in Spain? There’s no excuse: at this point in globalization, we have spent enough time on the Internet so as to have discovered already the narrative journalism and great voices coming form Latin America. After all, as Leila Guerriero said in an interview with Cadena Ser: “new journalism is older than hunger”. In Spain, Pla already practised it at the beginning of the century, and Chaves Nogales did the same before the Civil War. Although many journalists hadn’t heard about the latter until Guardiola appeared in a press conference with his book about Belmonte under his arm.

It makes no sense for a reader to enjoy Jimmy Breslin’s Digging JFK Grave Was His Honor, but not Álex Ayala’s Sillerico, el hombre que viste a Evo. Both chronicles go to the periphery to find the hints that the man of his time has left in his close environment: the man who digs the grave of the US’ most famous president or the tailor who creates the pullovers that Morales wears and which became world-famous. Chronicles are like an ocean in which journalists can immerse themselves to discover what’s important to rescue from the bottom. Besides, it’s not only important what is going to be told, but how. If Hunter S. Thompson went flat out for his articles, so does Gabriela Wiener in Swingerlandia: the Peruvian convinced her husband, soon after they were married, to accompany her to find out how swingers clubs work so that she could write her article. But this isn’t the only example of Latin American journalism being the avant-garde of the genre; because if Gay Talese told the secrets of a whole society taking the constipation of Sinatra as his starting point, the master Salcedo Ramos tells all the ins and outs of Colombia in his La eterna parranda de Diómedes Díaz. The Colombian journalist has a special instinct to find exceptional characters and stories: from someone kidnapped by the FARC to the referee who dared to send Pelé off. Sometimes it’s as if magic realism rises from Márquez’ tomb.

Who are they and what to read?

Chronicles are, at this day and age, the last refuge and resistance act of slow journalism, and Latin American chroniclers a kind of international brigadiers fighting from their trenches against the fascism of always being in a hurry. Salcedo Ramos, Mario Jursich or Juan Gabriel Vásquez, in Colombia; Roberto Navia and Álex Ayala, in Bolivia; Villoro in México; Leila Guerriero, Martín Caparros, Leonardo Faccio and Diego Fonseca in Argentina; Villanueva Chang, Gabriela Wiener, Daniel Titigner in Perú… And we have some fighters here as well, of course: Ander Izagirre, Alberto Arce, the young Virginia Mendoza with her Armenian chronicles… These are only some of the names that should be talked about in all editorial offices across Spain.

If I knew nothing about Spanish chronicles yet, I would choose the compilation that Diego Jaramillo did for Alfaguara, or else Mejor que ficción, the book that chronicler Jorge Carrión compiled for Anagrama. The latter, besides, has recently published Los vagabundos de la chatarra (Norma Cómics), a graphic novel that, along with Paco Roca’s Los surcos del azar (Mondadori), are two of the most stimulating graphic chronicles written in Spanish in recent years. Carrión’s book includes as well an interesting Diccionario abreviado de cronistas latinoamericanos that can be very useful for the reader to explore new paths on his/her own.  Because, as the author explains in his foreword: “chronicles aren’t a genre, they’re a debate”.

If after stuffing myself with all these authors I’d still feel peckish for more, I’d move on to Los suicidas del fin del mundo. In this book by Leila Guerriero, published by Tusquets, the Argentinian chronicler tries to understand why the number of suicides is so high in a remote village in Argentina. If you’re interested in these kinds of stories, you should enter in your searcher Las tribus de la Inquisición, the chronicle about the villages in Bolivia in which lynching is still legal and for which Roberto Navia won this year the Rey de España prize for Journalism.

The elbow profile

Would you read a profile about the caretaker from your building, who you barely knew? Would you give a chance to José Tomas’s biography even if you weren’t a fan of bullfighting, or to Joseph Stiglitz’ if you didn’t care at all about economy? As an editor, would you publish a profile about elbows, or about the rain? The answer is yes. Julio Villanueva Chang is the inventor of the most remarkable artefact in Spanish speaking journalism: the Peruvin magazine Etiqueta Negra.

Etiqueta Negra can look the New Yorker in the eye without having to lower its head. Authors such as Villoro, John Lee Anderson, Susan Orlean and a never-ending list of the best world chroniclers have been featured on it. It’s understandable, then, than ten of the authors selected for the Gabriel García Márquez journalism prize this year come from its pages. And this is so mostly because of its director’s obsession to work the texts with the authors until there is no edge left to polish. The chroniclers writing for him are people who sacrifice a great deal of their time for the sake of the reader, like Leonardo Facci, who spent days on end phoning Messi’s house in Rosario until Messi’s sister answered the phone and gave him more useful information in one chat than hundreds of thousands of press conferences of Barça’s number ten. Or Ernesto Ferrini, who went a long time without sleeping to be able to bombard Cicciolina with a one hour and a quarter worth of questions. The chronicle is a genre for patient people who try to turn the information storm we’re permanently subjected to into something we can understand.

Etiqueta Negra, una revista para distraídos, can’t be bought in Spain yet, although it’s possible to access some of its open profiles and chronicles or read the digital version through a Peruvian app. There are other great magazines such as Gatopardo (Mexico) or Soho (Colombia), that can be bought to be read on a tablet, and others like El Malpensante (Colombia) or Revista Anfibia (Argentina) that offer some full articles on their web sites.

The Spanish way

Although the chronicle as a genre is undergoing a kind of revival in most bookshops, in Spain the phenomenon is far from what it amounts to in Latin America. We still haven’t got a magazine 100% devoted to the genre. But, fortunately, the catalogue of Libros del K.O., the retrieval of classical titles of Libros del Asteroide or the decision of Pepitas de Calabaza of publishing Salcedo Ramos in our country, are signs that we’re going in the right direction. Besides, the appearance of Carrère’s Limónov or the non-fiction paths taken by authors such as Javier Cercas or Muñoz Molina with their latest books foretell a promising future for the genre. Jot Down and El País Semanal publish every now and then some chronicles within their pages, there are also good feature articles in El Estado Mental or Tinta Libre and even newspaper El Mundo devotes a section to them each Sunday. The problem here is not so much the lack of journalists with enough talent to devote themselves to the genre, but rather the difficulty of convincing a newspaper to finance what a good chronicle costs. There are enough reasons, like the fact that writer from Navarra Daniel Burgui has been nominated for the García Márquez journalism prize for his feature article Mi marido me secuestró; that Basque Ander Izagirre won the last European Press Prize for his report on Así se fabrican guerrilleros muertos, or that Alberto Arce got the Overseas Press Club prize for his post of correspondent in Tegucigalpa (an experience that can be re-lived in his book Novato en nota roja), to make editors see how profitable it can be for a publication to count on high quality professional narrators. In Barcelona, the wonderful magazine Orsai by Argentinian Hernán Casciari was published until it had to close down, and the new crowdfunding times invite us to think that the horizon will bring new proposals. So, reader, don’t let them give you haste for observation, anecdote for experience, viral for analysis or impact for aesthetics. We’re also part of the problem: in this hastened times, it’s our responsibility to demand chronicles.