Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Chilean Miners Untold Story Told. Chavez Ravine Revival.

Review: Héctor Tobar. Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2014.

Michael Sedano

Sometime during their two and a half months living buried under 2300 feet of mountain, much of the time under fiber optic gaze feeding a media frenzy on the surface, thirty-three miners decide the full story of their collective survival must be told by a select storyteller. They don’t want to be seen as heroes and they want the truth.

The 33 choose novelist and journalist Héctor Tobar to write Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free. The truth Tobar tells is how 33 remarkably ordinary men survived impossible danger. Truth being told, there are heroes in the story but Tobar leaves it to readers to decide.

Journalist Tobar adopts a reporter’s disinterested voice and keen eye for illustrative detail even in deeply emotional moments. He’ll rely on quotations and dialog to flesh out anecdotes, but the majority of pages consist in description and indirect speech.

Striving for exactitude the bilingual writer adds appositional translations citing a speaker's actual words and expressions. In places, footnotes gloss on the Spanish translated into English, as in a poem a miner composes, or the colloquialism spoken as "If you fuck up I'm going to put you in jail" which was "Si vos la cagáis, yo te meto preso." Much of this makes little sense to English monolinguals, but Tobar's bilingual audience gets a kick out of some of this.

Novelist Tobar sees connections and sequences events and facts to spotlight them, often to foreshadow something significant later, sometimes an ironic parallel. These help the writer delineate themes to keep the story flowing without becoming bogged down in the enormity of each miners’ looming tragedy.

Tobar names all thirty-three, gives each an identity in the narrative. The author develops shorthand to  give men distinctiveness; one man’s sister, another’s good-bye kiss, a son, a daughter, an attitude, the football player. Like a Homeric noun formula, once established Tobar needs only a word or phrase to inject a character’s story into the ongoing complex of unfolding events.

The drama of trapped miners and the particulars of this inevitable disaster would easily lead some writers to romanticize the danger in the geology of mineral deposits erupted eons ago and the century plus history of mining this mountain. And why not? A rock the size of a skyscraper plunging into the heart of the mine seals off 33 men without killing anyone. Something like this is sui generis and will be the only story like this.

Despite knowing the men make it out, daily and minute-by-minute tension keeps readers on edge. Rescuers drill multiple holes that twist and bend through the rock before missing the chamber where the miners wait, listening as grinding sounds approach then fade into distant stone.

The cave-in is not a single trauma. First the miners are sealed off by sheer walls of stone. Then the entire two and a half months captivity, the mountain continues to explode and scream and collapse, as if every noise might bring the slab that crushes them.

Miner lore believes the devil lives in the depths of mines; one miner feels the devil breathing down his neck in the deepest part of the mine. In Milton, the devils complain the angels dropped mountains on them during the battle in heaven, and here a mountain has dropped on the 33 Chilean miners.

Easy to get carried away, but Tobar lets the story tell itself with the writer’s nudge and shove in the right directions. Reading Deep Down Dark is a rich experience. Tobar’s penetrating descriptions of the heat and wet of the mine will be as unexpected as the scale of the holes the 33, and men like them, dig through mountains, tunnels wide enough to drive pickup trucks and high enough to dump huge skiploaders into giant ore haulers that drive to the surface.

The journalist’s straightforward style keeps the narrative tight, while the novelist’s imagination sends the story flowing with cinematic ease. The reporter doesn’t point fingers where facts cry out for accusations. Instead, without saying the obvious, several pages track cascading events that are signs the disaster could have been avoided.

There’s no hysteria nor alarm in this sample from the publisher’s excerpt. Tobar dispenses three facts in three sentences, signposting in a final line into the following paragraph where the first crack appears.

Generally speaking, the diorite provides an excellent, stable structure for a tunnel, requiring relatively little reinforcement. The Ramp has been carved through this stone, and is the only true way in and out of the mine. Until recently, no one who works in the San José believed it was in danger of collapsing. Then, several months back, a finger-wide crack was discovered in the Ramp at Level 540.

Mario Gómez showed the crack to his shift supervisor as soon as he saw it. Gómez is a sixty-three-year-old miner who drives a thirty-ton-capacity truck into the mine. “I’m pulling my truck out of this mine,” Gómez said then. “And I’m not going back in, and no one else will, until you get the mine manager and the engineers…

At key points in the miner’s untold story, Tobar steps away from the hired gun’s coldly assessing eye on facts to allow himself to draw insights that explain events, like the irony he sees in trapped miners celebrating the country’s national holiday for miners:

Chile was built on the labor of men who risked their lives and suffered inside mountains and mining is tied up with Chile’s national identity: Pablo Neruda wrote poems to the miners of the north, and Chilean students still grow up reading books such as Baldomero Lillo’s Sub Terra, a collection of early twentieth-century stories about mining work. The men of the San José are miners going hungry inside a mine on the Day of the Miner, and the feelings of pride-tinged suffering this simple truth brings lead them to end their talk by singing the national anthem. p123

Adding to a reader’s belief in a brotherhood of miners, readers gain a deeper understanding of Chile’s geography and nationhood in the story’s accounts of where miners live, distances machinery must travel to the San José mine, the remoteness of the mineral-rich Atacama Desert, the numerous times miners break into chants of chi-chi-chi le-le-le wearing their national team jerseys in macabre underground pep rallies.

The heart of Deep Down Dark lies in the human condition of that randomly-selected group of men. It could have been you, all other things being equal. Empathy awakens primal fears of isolation, starvation, darkness, cannibalism. That is stuff of fiction and folksongs, and with Deep Down Dark, engrossing literary nonfiction.

“What-would-I-do?” empathy frontloads a reader’s expectations Tobar doesn't disappoint. But it's truth that needs telling. In seventeen days facing certain death los 33 formed a society, found individual resources, made errors and adjusted, just as normal people would. Then, for another two months, the 33 disparate individuals waited for rescuers to bore escape tunnels 2300 feet into the mountain that had collapsed around them.

The miners chose well in bringing Héctor Tobar into their confidence. So much of their public story lay open to all who followed the news, and anyone would draw their own conclusions about the events and the men who emerged from the San José mine. They did not want to be seen as heroes, the miners. Tobar honors that wish.

This untold story of their days of total isolation holds your attention spellbound. The miners do not come off as heroes in their own eyes and stories. They did what needed doing and they survived. Most remarkable is their ordinariness. The mine collapse yanked them out of time and their places in the world, but the world went on without them and continued after they got free.

Some of the men acted with maturity and leadership. Some emerged changed, with newfound purpose. A few of them returned to work underground.

They got out. When they returned, the taste of money they earned with their fear made their futures what each man and his loved ones made of it. That's the truth.

Culver City's Kirk Douglas Theatre occupies a revived old-time movie house so there was a good vibe in place for my only visit to this westside sucursal of downtown's elite Music Center Hill establishments. Culture Clash's Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival, directed by Lisa Peterson, fit right in with the nostalgic vibe.

With a background of Don Tosti's Pachuco Boogie Boys revving up the crowd before curtain, the audience files from either side of the house to seats arrayed in long rows. On stage, they see musicians occupy the back left corner and an essentialist set featuring center and prop-laden tables to either side.

The audience sits on a sharp slope. In a house this size there are no bad seats or sight lines. Almost. My seats and those of my eight friends were in what can only be called the sin vergüenza seats. High above the stage, the actors don't play to the peanut galleries. Except when Ric Salinas signals we sin vergüenza seat sitters to rise for the seventh inning stretch.

Nothing is getting in the way of today's fun. Especially with Culture Clash running in peak form this performance. They work their asses off to fuel the madness of this gloriously inspired comedy. Seeing the performers in puro profile, against the flat blackness of the stage the high illumination catches their breath as it aerosols out of their mouths, droplets of glistening spittle spraying out with the forceful projection of their lines.

Lisa Peterson keeps the frenetic pace pounding. Patter, set piece, more patter, a muslical interlude, another set piece. The players destroy the third wall, turning to the audience as the character, disclaiming "how else am I going to be the narrator?" or in a madcap bit of genius, Montoya wiggling his legs helplessly as he confesses he's forgotten his next line and he's too darn up in the air for someone to prompt him.

CC opens the second act with "Who's On First" which was the highlight the first time I saw this confection on the Mark Taper main stage ya hace años. The routine continues to be worth the price of admission, though in Saturday's matinee "Who's On First" came off with the polish of a long run rather than the raw irritation and spontaneity the piece deserves.

Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, Herbert Siguenza fulfilled the audience's expectations for characterization, timing, clowning, unbridled fun. Sabina Zuniga Varela fits right in as the gorgeous straight woman and indomitable guerrera. Her performance announces that Culture Clash is now los tres mas una.

The musical Rodarte Brothers, Randy and Scott, were great but made greater by the third member of the band, bassist Vaneza Mari Calderon. When the music got hot and everyone got singing, it became clear that Culture Clash needs to do a lot more singing. Dang, they were cool with all their voices raised in sophisticated rhythm.

Even clearer, this performance screams out loud for artistic director Michael Ritchie's attention. Bring Culture Clash out of exile, bring them to the main stage downtown. Baseball season's upon us, and fans attending the stadium (there's no teevee) should sit there made uncomfortable by the contradictions seen amid the silliness of CC's arch comedy.  Chicanas Chicanos are diehard Dodger fans. They party on the buried ombligos left behind when generations-old barrios like Palo Verde, La Loma, Bishop--Chavez Ravine--were razed for this parque.

Pendejos but they don't give a hoot as long los Doyers are winning.

But sabes que? There's a reminder, maybe an explanation why they shouldn't feel bad. As Chavez Ravine, an LA Revival winds toward final curtain over in Culver City, a character looks across from the stadium site to Bunker Hill where the DWP, the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, the Ahmanson Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum, and beyond, Disney Hall sit.

"How can we fight that?" the character laments. "Whack!" a hot line drive to center field and the crowd goes wild.

Unless Ritchie and the Center Theatre Group decide to hold over Chavez Ravine: An LA Revival, o mejor, move it to the main stage, audiences have until March 1 to catch this highly popular show. It's the best theatre to hit LA's Music Center Hill since Gordon Davidson retired.

The lot adjacent to the theatre displays cardboard casitas constructed by students who workshopped the play as part of the LA schools arts curriculum.

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