A Silent Fury

Yuri Herrera’s latest book, A Silent Fury, (translated once again by Lisa Dillman) is, as the sub-title tells us, about the El Bordo Mine Fire in which eighty-seven miners lost their lives. That this happened over a hundred years ago (on 10th March 1920) might make us wonder why Herrera, whose novels have exposed and explored the crises of contemporary Mexico, should now look back in time to recount an event of which records are incomplete and unreliable:

“Traces of this history are few: the Pachuca 1920-66 case file, a handful of news stories, and a metal plaque that talks about something else.”

And yet, that is the point: Herrera is less interested in the disaster itself than in the aftermath, both the immediate aftermath in which the mine was sealed to starve the fire of oxygen while at the same time preventing any survivors (and there were survivors) from escaping, and the inadequate investigation which followed into the events of that day.

It is uncertain when the fire started but it was six o’clock in the morning that the alarm was raised and by seven the cages were being sent down to allow the men to get out. By midday however, the superintendent for the company, an American, J F Berry, was certain all the survivors had escaped, the number of dead was ten, and the fire was out – while at the same time announcing that they would seal the El Bordo shaft to ensure that “the fire was completely extinguished.” In fact, it’s possible that the shaft was sealed as early as twenty past seven – twenty minutes after the rescue attempts had begun. There’s no way of knowing now how many of those left in the mine were alive when the shaft was sealed, but it’s certain that some of them were as seven were still alive when it was opened six days later.

The cover-up begins with the investigation which is limits itself into how the fire started, not how eighty-seven men died. The judge:

“…did not instruct him [the public prosecutor] to determine whether the administrators had been criminally negligent in ordering the shafts sealed while there were people still alive inside, as, indeed, there were.”

Those investigating the fire did not go into the mine until it had been cleaned (and, in some areas, miners had begun working again) and, unsurprisingly, found everything in working order. It was now not possible to discover how the fire had started, but it was conveniently suggested that it had been caused by a worker:

“What’s certain is that the inspector fulfilled his directive: he looked at some things, neglected to look at others, and unreservedly exculpated the mine owners and administrators.” 

Herrera cannot tell the story entirely in the words of those involved, as, for example, Svetlana Alexievich does, as these words for the most part do not exist, hence the ‘silent fury’ of the title. This phrase occurs in the narrative itself with reference to the seven survivors:

“They don’t look like they just escaped from hell: their week of underground starvation is not reflected in their expressions or on their bodies, with the exception of one, the first man on the left, who seems to betray a silent fury: lips clamped together, brows arched. But, again, no one recorded what they thought or felt at that moment.”

Their unrecorded words represents a wider omission, not only of the investigation, but of history itself. It’s said that history is written by the winners, but above all history is written by those who can write, and, for much of it, that limits us to a small but powerful class who are particularly ruthless at protecting their own interests. This not unique to Mexico, or to the 1920s, but continues to this day, as we can see, for example, in what happened at Hillsborough football stadium in 1989 where ninety-six football fans lost their lives. Those responsible, and their allies, used a similar tactic of blaming the supporters and any prosecution was quickly ruled out. It’s not the most recent example, either, as the Grenfell fire demonstrates. As Herrera tells us:

“Silence is not he absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.”

It could be argued that this is not the job of the novelist, and, in the UK, when fiction writers turn to non-fiction it is often of a personal kind. Yet what Herrera is doing here is reclaiming the story for those who were previously voiceless, and who better to do that than a novelist.

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9 Responses to “A Silent Fury”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    What a powerful sounding book, Grant. And yes, a good use of fiction – if the people couldn’t, or weren’t allowed to, speak for themselves then thank goodness someone is. It does sound as if the disaster was yet another case of those in charge with the money not giving a damn about the ordinary people.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I too couldn’t help but be reminded of the Grenfell and Hillsborough tragedies given the subject of Herrera’s latest book. The passages you’ve quoted are incredibly powerful. particularly the last two…

  3. Abe @ OldBookAppreciator Says:


    “What’s certain is that the inspector fulfilled his directive: he looked at some things, neglected to look at others, and unreservedly exculpated the mine owners and administrators.”

    … sounds exactly like what the government inspectors do in Jose Eustacio Rivera’s The Vortex (about the Amazon rubber industry.)

    I guess in 1920s Latin America, the corruption was everywhere.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, though I suspect Herrera is also asking a question about whether present day Mexico (and you can apply this to any country) is much different.

  4. Dead Girls | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] powerful emotional punch, though one that may make some readers flinch. Much like Yuri Herrera’s A Silent Fury, Dead Girls gives a voice to the voiceless, and, similarly, we should be careful not to dismiss its […]

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I read this today, after finishing Lolly Willowes. I thought it extremely powerful and sadly all too relevant. I’m a massive Herrera fan admittedly, but I thought this an interesting departure for him and it makes its points well. Who gets to frame stories, regardless sometimes of plainly contrary evidence, who doesn’t.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I found it interesting to compare to writers in the UK who, when they write non-fiction (or even fiction), often focus on their own personal problems rather than social injustice (and how this leaves such events largely outwith literature).

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