The Other Journalism

Article excerpt

On the morning of November 16, 1959, Truman Capote was flipping through the pages of The New York Times when he stopped on page 39 to read a UPI news story from Holcomb, Kansas, headlined "Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain." Capote had been looking for ideas to turn journalism into a "serious" literary art form, the "nonfiction novel," and this crime in Holcomb seemed to him to be a perfect opportunity to accomplish his objective. The result was his celebrated book In Cold Blood.

Three years earlier, on the night of June 9, 1956, Rodolfo Walsh, a young writer in La Plata, Argentina, was playing chess in the Club Capablanca when the sounds of explosions and shotguns interrupted his game. The noise came from the Plaza San Martin, the site of the heaviest fighting of a doomed army insurrection in support of Juan Domingo Peron against the military regime of General Pedro Enrique Aramburo. That night, Walsh later learned, the police executed a group of civilians in a garbage dump--five were killed, one was seriously wounded, and rive more managed to escape. The police had arrested the 11 men as they listened to a boxing match on the radio in the house of a man allegedly involved in the uprising.

For a while, Walsh thought he could forget the episode and continue writing detective stories. But six months later, on December 18, a friend told him the story of Juan Carlos Livraga, a victim of the clandestine execution, who had been shot in the face but survived. Soon after, Walsh began publishing stories in the opposition press about Livraga's case. He tracked down other survivors, changed his name, bought a gun and went into hiding. His nonfiction novel based on the case, Operacion masacre, was first published in December 1957, eight years before In Cold Blood.


Today, both Capote and Walsh are considered, in their respective countries, pioneers of the nonfiction novel. In truth, neither writer invented this art form, although both influenced its development. Unlike Capote, however, Walsh was not trying consciously to create a new literary genre when he wrote Operacion masacre. He wrote the book out of indignation--to denounce a crime unrecorded in the mainstream press and to serve the cause of justice. "I researched and narrated the tremendous facts," Walsh wrote, "to give them the widest possible publicity, to make them inspire fear, to never let them happen again."

While Capote remained only sporadically interested in journalism, Walsh was a journalist throughout his life and turned his reporting and writing into politically explicit tasks. His work has had a growing influence on contemporary journalism in Latin America because it exemplifies a key challenge faced by independent journalists: the need to overcome the silence of the mainstream press--the result of fear or collusion--about crimes committed by the state apparatus.

"During many months I have seen the voluntary silence of the whole 'serious press' about this heinous massacre, and I have felt ashamed," Walsh wrote in the introduction to the first edition of Operacion masacre. In 1964, in the preface to the second edition, he expressed even greater disillusionment: "One believes that a story like this one--with a dead body that speaks--is going to be disputed in the news-rooms; one believes that this is a race against time, that at any time a big daily will send a dozen reporters and photographers like in the movies...It is like a joke because, seven years later, one can review the newspaper archives, and this story dial not exist then, nor does it exist now."

Walsh's book became one of the first major contemporary examples of what one might call Latin American "new" journalism. This informal literary and journalistic movement denounced state crimes that went unreported by the region's mainstream press and influenced the development of independent journalism in Latin America. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor (1955), for instance, denounced the Colombian navy for the deaths of a group of sailors who were washed overboard with ill-secured contraband from a navy destroyer. …