Saturday, December 1, 2012

The alligator is a fraud

Brazilian AdventureBrazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming

As a young literary journalist in London in the 1930s, Peter Fleming (older brother of the James Bond creator, Ian) is an unlikely moving force at the centre of an expedition into the Brazilian jungle. He signed up, in search of something more thrilling than commissioning book reviews, after spotting an ad for volunteers in the Times.

In beautifully fluent prose he conveys what happened over the following months. It's a tale of real adventure, enlivened by well-aimed verbal potshots at foreigners, his sometimes dastardly fellow travellers and the jungle itself. Best of all, he creates some hilarious set pieces, mostly from awkward encounters between Englishmen and Brazilians.

The expedition was trying to find out what had happened to another English explorer, a Colonel Fawcett who had disappeared without trace in the region seven years earlier. Had he been killed by hostile tribes, died of disease, or gone native and decided to stay? That was the question Fleming was trying to answer. But he is happy to admit that it was unlikely to be answered. Fawcett was little more than an excuse for an adventure.

Fleming is at his best undermining the literary and cultural traditions of travel writing. So his encounters with alligators allow him to demonstrate that previous writers have hoodwinked their readers - or that alligators hoodwinked them:

"The alligator - at any rate the alligator of Central Brazil - is a fraud. For two months we saw him every day; we slept within reach of him, we swam in his waters. He was content to look malignant and live on his reputation." But the alligator's passivity didn't stop Fleming's party from shooting "well over one hundred in a month".

He delineates with great precision the differences between the various classes of Brazilian and ethnic groups, and captures the flavour of life at a time when backwaters really were backwaters:

"There is nothng at all to do in Goyaz. All day long the women sit at their windows and stare, in an ardent and provocative manner, at the empty street. All day long the men, with the air of philosophers in training, sit on little chairs outside their front doors, wearing straw hats and heavily frogged pyjama jackets ...Occasionally one of them gets up and goes indoors, to lie down. Nothing else happens."

It seems that Fleming and one friend, defying the expedition's unenterprising leader, put themselves in real danger. Despite the author's insistence on underplaying any hardship, his reader is left in no doubt that it could very easily have gone horribly wrong.

In that sense, we are given what we expect from this kind of book - a tale of peril and huge discomfort, to be enjoyed from one's armchair - whilst at the same time being able to enjoy Fleming's ability to deflate the usual hyperbole of the genre ("Sao Paulo is like Reading, only much further away") and the very notion of adventure tales as literature

I look forward to reading about his journey from Moscow to Beijing in One's Company (1936).

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