The 33 miners trapped 2,300 feet underground in the Copiapó, Chile, mining accident of 2010 faced an unbearable burden. In the final days before their rescue, they worked out an agreement to pass on that burden, and their story, to someone they trusted to tell it.
That person was Héctor Tobar.
Tobar is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a novelist. He also speaks Spanish. Those were the criteria decided upon by the literary agency handling the miners’ story when they were trying to find an author, and Tobar just so happened to meet all three.
“I was just fortunate that I was one of those few people who met that list of qualities,” Tobar said.
Tobar told their story in Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle that Set Them Free, which is one of two Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selections for Week Six. Tobar will discuss his work today at 3:30 p.m. in the Hall of Philosophy for Week Six’s CLSC Roundtable.
Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, said when she read the book, it felt like a natural choice for Week Six, the theme of which is “Vanishing.”
“It goes wonderfully with the week on vanishing, because they didn’t vanish and could have,” Babcock said.
Besides the more obvious “vanishing” of the miners, Tobar said another aspect of vanishing in the book he wanted to portray was the idea of the plight of laborers “not being seen.”
“It’s something that is among poor people in Latin America — their labor is essential to the function of the economy, but in many cases we don’t see how they suffer in that labor,” Tobar said. “And so these men would literally vanish from the face of the earth every day, into the mountain, and the conditions in which they worked were never really part of the debate in Chilean society about inequality.”
The miners worked in very rough conditions: high heat and high humidity, with the temperature often being so high that they couldn’t eat, Tobar said.
“This is something that was invisible to people until this accident took place,” Tobar said. “And then, for 69 days, we didn’t know if they were alive — they’d disappeared into the earth.”
In the years that have passed since the accident and rescue, the miners have been forgotten in a way again — mostly because they became global celebrities when they were rescued, Tobar said.
“And now, apart from the book, many people have forgotten what they went through,” he said. “I think the men feel that way in Chile, where they’ve gone from being national celebrities and heroes, to people not really treating them with respect and treating them with ridicule.”
Tobar said depicting those multiple meanings of vanishing and invisibility was important to him when writing, and he hopes that it’s explicit in Deep Down Dark.
“My mission as a writer is to conjure them from the ether of forgetfulness and bring them back into the memory of the reader,” he said.
Peg Snyder, manager of the CLSC Veranda, said that she was struck by how gripping Tobar’s book was, despite it being a story that most know the ending of already. She said she was initially skeptical about how it would work narratively.
“But this book is so much more detailed about their lives, and that’s what makes it so interesting,” Snyder said. “You really get the feeling of what a frightening experience that is — they’re meeting death, and they don’t know if they’re going to escape.”
Babcock said she was impressed by Tobar’s handling of the stories of 33 characters as well as his willingness to not hold back in his depictions of the miners and their relationships both above and below ground.
“It’s just so sensitive and so respectful, and it also is very thrilling,” Babcock said. “Because we know what happened: they got out. But when you’re in the midst of the book, you don’t know whether they’re going to get out or not. It’s that gripping.”
Tobar said juggling a story with 33 points of view and trying to turn it into a “single, coherent narrative” was one of the hardest parts of writing the book. The world’s familiarity with the story as a piece of news was something he had to contend with as well.
“The challenge was making people see the real human beings who were down there, making people care about them,” Tobar said. “That’s really what I put a lot of writing elbow grease into — giving people a novelistic-style portrait of these men and their families.”
Before he could create that portrait, though, Tobar had to earn the trust of the miners, which he said he felt like he had to do every time he met with them.
“I had to make them trust me, because it’s about having people tell you not just an adventure story — I was interested in knowing emotionally what that experience was like,” Tobar said. “And I think that people have to trust you before they’ll open up to you.”
As the miners began to open up to Tobar, he began to realize the enormous charge he was experiencing as the conduit for their story.
“Once they shared their story with me and I could see how important this was to them, I just felt a real sense of responsibility,” Tobar said. “I had to tell this story and tell it quickly, and I knew that my mission was to complete a work of narrative art that people would want to read, but I also knew that I couldn’t really take my time. I couldn’t linger on it too much.”
Tobar said the responsibility he felt to finish the book in a timely manner propelled him forward, and he was able to write it in just under three years — faster than any of his other books. He said he doesn’t get to talk about his writing process that often, so he’s excited to speak to people who “read widely” at Chautauqua Institution.
“I’m someone who is in between fiction and nonfiction — I’m currently writing a novel, which is my fifth book and my third novel,” Tobar said. “So that place between nonfiction and fiction, and between art and journalism is, to me, a really interesting place. So I’m excited to talk to an audience about that.”
He might also talk about the “great truth” he learned in the process of writing the book and talking to the miners.
“These are men who are trapped 2,000 feet below the ground in a metaphor for death — they’re in a virtual tomb underground, of stone,” Tobar said.
Tobar said their literal life-and-death situation gave them time to reflect and think. While Tobar was dealing with 33 subjects, he said that a common theme became apparent in their stories: the centrality of love in their lives.
“They think about those things as the best things they did in their lives — to love and to give life to family,” Tobar said. “That, to me, is a central truth of the book. And I think in talking to the miners, that is the one truth they learned from all of this: how sacred that is, and that it really is the best thing about us as people, and that it’s more important than anything else we might accomplish in life.”