To hell and back

2011-06-25 13:05

Amacabre desire grips you when reading The 33. It makes you want to drop everything, catch the first plane to Chile, jump on an overcrowded truck and navigate the rockiest road you’ve ever felt to the driest place on Earth, the Atacama Desert.

More precisely, to the region’s most dangerous mine: San Jose.

Stand at the mine’s entrance and peer at the gigantic boulders that weigh 700 000 tons, 110 times that of the Titanic – that nearly a year ago rumbled, tumbled and trapped 33 Chilean miners alive, deep inside the belly of the mountain – a place twice as deep as the Eiffel Tower is high.

Jonathan Franklin’s book, The 33, is a gripping account of the miners’ experience of being trapped 700m below the surface for more than 69 days.

Living and reporting in Chile for the past 16 years, he reported on the mine disaster for The Guardian, the Washington Post and the Sydney Morning Herald.

He was the only print journalist with access to planning meetings and private conversations with the miners and their families, and he was the first to interview the leader of the trapped miners, Luis Urzua.

Franklin’s writing can at times be overly descriptive, especially when humanising the mine.

At one point, Franklin writes: “The continuing crash of rock slabs slamming to the ground and the eerie groans made by the mountain sounded like a monster being strangled.”

But it’s in the little details of the lives of those trapped – the dreary existence of those who scratch out their living on some of the richest copperfields on Earth and what these men have to do to survive – that makes this book worthwhile.

Even though we all held our collective breath for months as every step unfolded in the riskiest, most dramatic rescue operation ever undertaken, Franklin succeeds in filling in the gaps for us of the biggest human-interest story of the new millennium.

You might feel as if you know the trapped men just from their mugshots that were printed on newspaper pages for months, but Franklin’s book quickly brings you back to reality.

They are not heroes. They are just ordinary, flawed men living in a flawed world.

This book uncovers a mining culture where each man earns the “high wage” of $75 (R506) a day – because of the dangers involved in doing the work.
After a day in the mines, it’s off to the nearest town for a mixture of alcohol, women and even cocaine (at $15 a pop) to escape their breathless, perilous lives.

One of the elements that made the story so gripping was the dedication of the miners’ God-fearing families. They kept vigil for the miners’ return – against the odds.

Franklin’s book is also the story of unscrupulous big business, which considers copper to be more valuable than human life.

The book also explores the politics of how disasters and rescues can turn a president into a world leader, even a celebrity, overnight.

The 33 is an easy read, loaded with facts, but you can’t help feeling that the author felt under pressure to produce it as soon as possible.

There is a lack of good editing, but that might be due to the translation and the related difficulties inherent in Chilean Spanish and the miners’ lingo.

It is advisable to read the author’s note at the back of the book, before embarking on this journey.

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