In a break from its normal procedure of unearthing, burnishing and repackaging neglected classics of fiction, the New York Review of Books has turned its attention to something equally admirable though entirely different and rather wonderful. “The New York Review Abroad: Fifty Years of International Reportage” is a fascinating collection of insightful accounts of pivotal events by celebrated writers. It is essential reading for both aspiring foreign correspondents and established reporters keen to hone their craft. As the book traverses a number of milestones, from Vietnam to the Arab Spring, and distills their essence into seldom more than 20 pages, it also makes required reading for anyone interested in the geopolitical seismic shifts that have shaped modern times and changed the way we live.
Acute observations are everywhere. In the first piece, Mary McCarthy reveals that smog-infested Saigon in the 1960s “is like a stewing Los Angeles,” and that “The Americanization process smells better out there” — that is, in the field — “even when perfumed by napalm.” English poet Stephen Spender visits Paris in 1968 and witnesses the loosening of moral restrictions and attempts at another revolution, and finds his observations hardening into realizations the more he listens to the many “naïve, chaotic and stupid and dull” arguments to unify students and workers.
These two accounts shine because McCarthy and Spender are not passive spectators but active participants, mingling with key players to obtain an authentic sense of perspective. The best reports here evince similar involvement, from V.S. Naipaul mixing with Argentines to get his head around the cult of Peronism, to Ryszard Kapuscinski almost being burned alive while chronicling Nigeria’s civil war. Risk-taking is par for the course, as Susan Sontag discovered when she employed local talent in Sarajevo to stage a production of “Waiting for Godot” — or, “Waiting for Clinton,” as she later termed it, her actors and audience dodging snipers’ bullets and mortar shells while the outside world looked away.
Not that the writers here ever shy away from violence. Joan Didion’s unflinching eye records the body dumps in the grisly Puerta del Diablo, El Salvador, where “Terror is the given of the place”; William Shawcross dispassionately captures the horrors of Cambodia and convincingly explains why photos of Khmer Rouge victims before death are more disturbing than those taken after. Sometimes the smallest, subtlest details are the most powerful: The postscript to Nadine Gordimer’s “Letter From South Africa” contains the image of black township women collecting water for their children “to wash the tear gas from their eyes.”
The longest and best piece here is Timothy Garton Ash’s bravura journal of Czechoslovakia’s “swift, nonviolent, joyful, and funny” Velvet Revolution. Whether charting the fall of dictatorships or the rise of suicide bombers or the seemingly irremediable tragedy that is AIDS in Africa, this book brims with consistently excellent, clear-eyed reporting from great writers who were there to watch history being made.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.