Archive for August 15th, 2011

‘Brazilian Adventure’ by Peter Fleming

Amitav Ghosh | August 15, 2011 in Current Reading | Comments (0)


Published in 1933, Peter Fleming’s Brazilian Adventure is an immensely entertaining account of a hare-brained expedition into the interior of Brazil. The expedition was mounted, ostensibly, to search for traces of one Colonel Fawcett, a British explorer, who had disappeared in the interior of the Matto Grosso in 1925, with a party of two (including his own son).

Peter Fleming, who also wrote the better-known News From Tartary, was the older brother of Ian Fleming: were I inclined to read a biography of the latter I would not be at all surprised to learn that James Bond owed a thing or two to his inventor’s adventurous sibling. Bond and Peter Fleming certainly have much in common – an off-handedly knowing cosmopolitanism; a keen loyalty to school and country; a partiality for the racial vocabulary of the time; a sort of self-deprecating daredevilry; and, not least, a sure hand with a gun. Fleming may also have partaken of Bond’s proficiency in what a friend of mine calls ‘the Venusian Arts’: he was to marry one of the most famous film-stars of his time – Celia Johnson (best known for her role in David Lean’s ‘Brief Encounter’).

But Peter Fleming was a more interesting character than James Bond – and he was certainly a far better writer than his younger brother. Brazilian Adventure is compulsively readable and the author comes across as enormously likeable – an impression that is probably the result of a happy union between ingenuousness and artifice. He promises no adventures: ‘As chapter gives place to chapter, and still no arrows stick quivering in the tent-pole, and still no tomtoms throb their beastly summons to the night assault, the observant reader will get pretty fed up. ‘This chap’, he will say, ‘led me to suppose that, once in the interior of Brazil, he would be under almost continuous fire from his dusky brethren. And now here he is in the last chapter proposing to lay down his pen without having sustained so much as a flesh wound from their primitive weapons.’

Fleming and his fellow-explorers are often delayed by mishaps and accidents of one kind or another: ‘When we got back to our hotel, they told us there had been a revolution. It had broken out the night before, and was now in full swing. This meant that there was not a hope of our starting up-country the next day, for the banks were shut and the train service dislocated. We were very much annoyed.’

Fleming is not a man who puts much store in being ‘On The Spot’. In much the same way that people now speak of CNN, he says: ‘Everything nowadays takes place at such long range that the man on the spot ha[s] often less chance of seeing both sides of the medal than the man at a distance… About the Civil War (for it was something more than a revolution) … I was hardly any the wiser for having been to Brazil’. (Can it be that I find this particularly refreshing because of a surfeit of overwrought articles about the recent middle-eastern ‘revolutions’?).

The Fleming expedition is dogged from the start by delays, some of which are mechanical: ‘It was a very hot day. We had a breakdown: it was one of those breakdowns … which everyone believes will be remedied if only the car is pushed along the road for a certain distance. We tried this remedy, several times; but no one – certainly not the car – was any the better for it. We resorted to hanky-panky with a spanner and to grovelling… underneath the vehicle; and in the end this was successful. The car started with a triumphant roar. A quarter of a mile further on we had a puncture.’

But the explorers persevere and are sustained by ‘our sense of Parody… If Indians approached us, we referred to them as the Oncoming Savages. We never said, ‘Was that a shot?’ but always, ‘Was that the well-known bark of a Mauser?’ All insects of harmless nature and ridiculous appearance we pointed out to each other as creatures ‘whose slightest glance spelt Death’. Any bird larger than a thrush we credited with the ability to ‘break a man’s arm with a single blow of its powerful wing.’ We spoke of water always as the ‘Precious Fluid’. We referred to ourselves, not as eating meals, but as doing ‘Ample Justice to a Frugal Repast’.’

On the way, Fleming takes a detour to explain why he has seceded to the ‘Nullah (or Ravine) School’ of Literature: ‘I have always regarded the larding of one’s pages with foreign words an affectation not less deplorable than the plastering of one’s luggage with foreign labels. I swore that if ever I was misguided enough to write a book of travel my italics would be all my own; my saga would be void of nullahs. But I find now that this self-denial is not altogether possible. It appears, after all, that the zareba-mongers had some excuse. Let me try, at any rate, to make out for myself. … First of all, there are the words like batalõa and rapadura and mutum, which denote things unknown outside Brazil, and which it is therefore impossible to translate…. Secondly, there are the words of which a literal translation is for one reason or another inadequate. The word sandbank, for instance,  gives you a very niggardly idea of what a praia is, and the word plage, which conveys an image nearer the truth, has unsuitable associations. Similarly, an urubú is a far more scurvy and less spectacular creature than the popular conception of a vulture. Thirdly, there are a few words which can be translated perfectly well, but which we, in conversation, never did translate: words like jacaré and arara… So it is easier and more natural, when writing of these things, to give them the names under which they live in my memory’ (it strikes me that the Nullah School could use this passage as a standard rejoinder, to be mailed to disgruntled readers who write to complain about unfamiliar words).

Even for a profligate age, Fleming’s disregard for wildlife is breathtaking: ‘Perhaps we expected too much from the alligators. I know that we were disappointed, and acquired so great a contempt for these unenterprising creatures that, after we had killed well over one hundred in a month, we almost gave up shooting them’. (I was reminded of the great British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace (who anticipated many of Darwin’s ideas). Travelling into the interior of Sarawak, Wallace’s attention was caught by orangutans. Week after week, he shot every orangutan that came within range of his gun. Unaccustomed to being threatened in their own habitat, the animals seemed almost to co-operate: “They do not seem much alarmed at man,” Wallace tells us, “as they often stared down upon me for several minutes, and then only moved away slowly to an adjacent tree. After seeing one, I often had to go half a mile or more to fetch my gun, and in nearly every case have found it on the same tree, or within a hundred yards when I returned.” The one problem the animals posed was that they tended to die high up in the forest canopy, so that Wallace had to call upon the tree-climbing skills of the local people in order to gain access to the carcasses. The process of reducing the animals to perfect skeletons was made more complicated than need be by the local dogs. “I had a great iron pan, in which I boiled the bones to make skeletons, and at night I covered this over with boards, and put heavy stones upon it; but the dogs managed to remove these and carried away the greater part of one of my specimens.” Despite these nuisances, Wallace killed seventeen orang-utans in the space of a few weeks, and succeeded in reducing the majority to ‘perfect skeletons’. Most of these ended up in museums in Britain: the town of Derby counted itself fortunate in receiving not one but several perfect orang-utan skeletons.¹)

To return to Brazil: the irony of  Fleming’s story is that its narrative is sustained neither by the hardships of the Matto Grasso, nor by the discovery of the lost Colonel Fawcett. The tale is propelled rather by a fast-developing antagonism between the author and the self-appointed leader of the expedition, an Englishman by the name of Major Pingle. Their mutual hostility reaches a point where the expedition breaks up, and the two factions resort to a wild race down the Araguaya-Tocantins river system.

It is a tribute to Fleming’s gifts as a writer that he succeeds in turning this absurd chase into a gripping narrative. To give away the end would be unfair to the reader: suffice it to say that Fleming’s summation of the expedition could well be applied to the book –  ‘intrinsically valueless and … absolutely satisfying.’

 

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¹Alfred Russell Wallace, The Malay Archipelago.

 

 

 

 



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