Inside Latin America


By John Gunther. Harper & Bros. $3.50.
To bestow praise on another one of John Gunther’s ‘Inside’ books is carrying coals to Newcastle. This reviewer, therefore, may be forgiven by the gracious reader when he attempts to render homage to Mr. Gunther’s reportorial genius in a more personal vein. I recently returned from a seven months’ exploration of South American politics which I undertook in search of information very similar to that of our author, albeit with a more specialized interest. Needless to say, I never harbored the hopeless ambition of becoming a competitor of the journalistic Marco Polo of our time; but I happened to interview some of the same political figures and I had to deal with many of the same issues and ‘isms’ that had been under his microscope — that is, constitutions, political parties, Fifth Columns, Nazi plots, wheat surpluses, the foot and mouth disease, the bomberos (fire brigades), President Ortiz’s cataract and diabetes, and countless other items which in their totality serve for the sociological analysis of political civilization. It appears that this masterpainter of thumbnail sketches, this professional unraveler of political mysteries, is an international power in his own right. If the press is the fifth estate, he is the sixth, all by himself. The traveler following John Gunther is told, in an awe-inspired whisper, ‘Here slept John Gunther.’
All this is said without malice and with ungrudging admiration for one who has, within five months, traveled 25,000 miles and visited twenty countries in which he has spoken to eighteen Presidents and nineteen Foreign Ministers. No man of political importance can afford to be left out or to miss the opportunity of being interviewed, with all the concomitant reverberations among the world-wide public of the ’Inside’ books.
Mr. Gunther has developed a special technique in going after his information and in getting what he is after. I have spoken to people who have seen him in action. He was in one capital, so the story goes, less than a week, but he marshaled his forces like a general, he tapped, with unfailing skill, the proper sources of information, and his technique of interviewing — frequently conducted, as it seems, through interpreters, — was described as a combination of instinct, knowledge, and the talent of making the object feel at ease. Only one who has gone through similar experiences can fully appreciate Mr. Gunther’s accomplishments in weighing conflicting evidence, in drawing his conclusions, and in placing them lucidly and with that inimitably secure and light touch before the ignorant reader.
Mr. Gunther’s judgment is incorruptible; the villages of Potemkin, some of them faithfully attended by North American travelers and ‘goodwill’ missionaries, do not deceive him. Moreover, a less consummate journalist might yield to the temptation of substantiated gossip. There is one word that is the same in Spanish and in Portuguese, and which has, as I found out, a direct bearing on politics in Latin America (and elsewhere, I have been told) — that is amor. Mr. Gunther must have heard a good many stories about the rôle this word plays in the life of some important contemporaries, but he is discretion itself.
It is obvious that one may disagree with Mr. Gunther in points of interpretation or in placing the accents. In my own opinion the atmosphere in Chile and in Argentine smells much more of revolutionary powder than he seems to admit. The progressing rivalry between Brazil and Argentina over the leadership of the continent is perhaps a more dangerous stumblingblock for hemisphere solidarity than he brings out. But, though I had eagerly wetted my pencil tor chalking up some bad marks for actual errors, — a favorite pastime of a reviewer who otherwise respects the author’s soundness, — I found some, but not enough to brag about. This constitutes no mean achievement in a book crammed with controversial material. What one misses, however, in this as in the preceding ‘Inside’ books, is what may be called ‘the cultural landscape.’ It is difficult to appraise adequately a political civilization and the character of the people living under it without reference to the artistic, literary, and spiritual surroundings from which it has grown. The lovely Baroque churches in Minas Geraes, the University centres in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Peru, what the bookstores offer, what the newspapers write about, are often of greater significance than the letters of the constitutions and the proclamations of party leaders. But evidently a book of this nature cannot be three-dimensional.
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