The Mponeng mine, near Johannesburg, is "the deepest manmade hole on earth." Its shafts extend three miles underground; its tunnels outstrip the length of the New York City subway system.
For Matthew Hart — and certainly for the men who toil and die there — the Mponeng mine is hell. Hart begins his new book, "Gold," with a tour. "It was pitch dark: The only illumination came from a lamp that someone held in his hand," he writes. The mine is hot, as the temperature of the earth rises with depth. In one tunnel the underground rock is 140 degrees, the humidity in the mineshaft 95 percent — cramped, and very dangerous.
Besides those employed there, the mine is thick with thieves and policed by a hired gun, Bad Brad, who has killed at least 42 of them and once starred in the South African version of "Big Brother."
When it comes to man's relationship with gold, hellish mines, corporate killers, and subterranean thieves are not even especially outlandish consequences. In detailing these and many others, Hart's book offers a compelling, stylish, and impressively researched portrait of the history and economics of a metal that has disrupted the world order while enriching some and ruining countless others.
He chronicles the crests and dives of its astonishing trajectory from sacred object to point of fixation for wary investors and conservative talk-show hosts. Throughout, he reminds us of the hideous acts that often accompany gold's pursuit and shows us the volatility inherent in what many consider the safest of bets.
Hart, a seasoned journalist, has written for The Atlantic Monthly and The Financial Post Magazine; he also served as editor of a diamond trade magazine. His previous books include "Diamond: The Journey to the Heart of Obsession" and "The Golden Giant: Hemlo and the Rush for Canada's Gold."
He is a talented storyteller. In addition to his reportage, among Hart's greatest strengths is his ability to craft compelling micro-narratives within a larger historical framework. His account of Spain's defeat of the Inca is particularly gripping. Its antagonists, the conquistador Francisco Pizarro and the Incan sovereign Atahualpa had drastically different ideas about the value of gold.
For Pizarro, it was the key to royal favor and boundless riches. For Atahualpa, it was a component in sacrificial rituals and a means to decorate his court; it had no monetary value at all.
When Pizarro captured Atahualpa, the Inca ruler vied for his release by giving the Spanish a large room filled with golden "cups and vases and delicate statuettes of llamas, gold birds, and trees and a device like a fountain spewing gold." In spite of his bequest, Atahualpa suffered a humiliating death at Pizarro's hands. A few years later, Pizarro was murdered by malcontents while eating dinner.
Western finances transformed more dramatically still when Richard Nixon divorced the direct correlation of the value of the dollar from the value of gold, a move that changed the world. The Nixon Shock, as it's known, is among the most significant events of modern global economics and marks the beginning of a free-floating currency exchange.
Hart writes about this event with characteristic panache. In his account, Treasury Secretary John Connally, a "smooth-talking, swashbuckling lawyer," helps a "besotted" Nixon "push the plunger" on "political dynamite." Who said economics was boring?
Forty years later, Hart writes, the world finds itself in the middle of "the biggest gold binge ever." Hart dedicates a large part of his book to contemporary gold market, a mix of speculation, exploitation, and outright theft. He reports on the practice of price-fixing in London. He explains how the consortium of clueless fund managers that made gold bullion accessible to workaday investors destabilized its price. He travels to a mine in China and a contested gold field in the Congo, finding miserable people and abysmal conditions throughout.
"Gold and crime go hand in hand," he writes. Too right.
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.