Breaking a much-too-long blog silence to inform you that I have been armchair travelling, all the way to the jungles of Brazil, with two vintage accounts of exploration.
But have I found any literary hidden gems with these two books? Sadly, no, not really, though the non-fictional Beyond the River of the Dead ran rings around the fictional River of the Sun in the “enthralling reading” sense.
Let me elaborate.
River of the Sun by James Ramsey Ullman ~ 1950. This edition: J.B. Lippincott, 1951. Hardcover. 444 pages.
My rating: 4.5/10
American novelist and travel writer James Ramsey Ullman was best known for his manly mountaineering books. Fellow Canadians who attended grade school in the 1970s may remember a certain slim novel titled Banner in the Sky, a fictionalization of the first successful summitting of the Matterhorn, main protagonist being a teenage boy seeking to complete his dead father’s quest to conquer that peak.
Banner in the Sky was, in my memory, a decent enough adventure story, chock full of symbolism and heart-pounding action, though at the time it was assigned as a novel in my Grade 6 English class I was more enthralled with coming to grips with my father’s John Steinbeck collection. Having polished off Banner in a fraction of the time allotted for in-class reading, I was subsequently busted for surreptitiously reading East of Eden under inadequate cover of a propped up notebook. My patient teacher, bless her heart, being well-used to my precocious reading habits, merely sighed and shook her head, and asked if my parents had given me permission to read the book. I assured her that they had, for nothing on the family bookshelves was forbidden, a blissful state of affairs which I took full advantage of, though occasionally I missed some major references, penny dropping years later.
But I digress.
Where was I? Oh, yes. The Amazon.
Ex-Army pilot Mark Allison, traumatized by the death of his wife in the crash of their two-seater plane while involved in an aerial exploration of the deeper jungles of Brazil, returns to the scene of his life-altering tragedy, this time via slow boat up the Rio Negro, a major tributary of the Amazon.
Allison has ostensibly taken on a managerial position for a company attempting to resurrect a derelict rubber plantation, but his real motivation in returning to Brazil is to seek out the fabled River of the Sun, flowing from a vast interior plateau with all sorts of possibilities modern-explorers-wise – archeological wonders! hidden tribes! gold! OIL!
Having glimpsed a mysterious yellow river at the apogee of his last ill-fated flight, Allison is haunted by the vision, and intends to seek it out, though he’s not quite clear on the details of how he’s going to get there, or even what he’s actually hoping to find. Ullman doesn’t bother much with these pesky details either; he provides his hero with a quest, and for the rest, logic be damned.
Allison encounters a motley assortment of characters as he progresses towards his River, most immediately noteworthy being a lovely woman seeking her possibly lost scientist husband.
A crotchety sewing machine salesman with a convoluted back story and an intellectually gifted black laborer very obviously under-employed for his abilities add an element of mystery to ongoing saga, and saga it turns out to be. Our hero wallows in his past grief, finds himself falling in love with the-wife-of-another-man, and ponders the societal evils of racial discrimination which sent the noble black man south to Brazil, where “all races are equal.”
Equality is a lovely ideal, but it proves to be slightly too utopian for the reality of what Mark Allison finds in the jungle, human relationships proving predictably messy. Shots are fired, arrows fly (perhaps I forgot to mention the proud and war-like natives lurking in the jungle?), and in general everything that could go wrong pretty well does.
This undeniably well-written but unsatisfactorily plotted novel almost got a bare pass from me, but its spiralling lack of a believable scenario made me increasingly impatient with the mopy Mr. Allison, who never really gets his proverbial ducks in a row, though he does at last find solace in a woman’s love, which seems by the end to have been the main point of this convoluted journey, the river, gold, oil, etcetera being mere window dressing.
Such a disappointment. I shan’t be putting this one on the re-read shelf; it is indeed already in blah-book limbo, close to the giveaway box.
Its descriptive passages – beautifully written! – alone may save it.
Beyond the River of the Dead by D.G. Fabré ~ 1963. This edition: The Travel Book Club, 1963. Translated from the Spanish by Eric L. Randall. Hardcover. 191 pages.
My rating: 7/10
Looking around for something suitable to cleanse my palate after the gone-off disappointment of River of the Sun, I decided to tackle this non-fictional account of Amazonian exploration.
From the introductory material:
No white man had ever been known to encounter the Xavantes and survive – until D.G. Fabré and his wife set off into the Brazilian Forest with a large supply of food and determined to make friends with the most war-like tribe of Indians in South America.
The appearance of the warriors was certainly no less ferocious than they had expected. They were painted, face and body, in brilliant dyes, their long spears were poised ready and they moved with the stealth and cunning of jungle beasts. It took many days to persuade the Indians that they had set their hearts on visiting the parent-village many miles down the River of the Dead and to enlist two reluctant warriors to guide them down-stream and introduce them to the chief.
In 1956, Uruguayan anthropologist Dardo Gutiérrez Fabré and his wife Norma travelled to Brazil to attempt to document and film one of the isolated warrior tribes of the interior, the Xavantes. The “River of the Dead” of the title is the Spanish reference to the Manso River, so called because of fierce fighting between the Xavantes people and Portugese settlers in the early years of Brazilian colonization.
The Xavantes were notoriously unwilling to embrace “civilization”; as Dardo and Norma discover when they finally do make contact, previous attempts by government officials to “improve” the Xavantes way of life by air drops of tools and supplies were scorned by the indigenous peoples; the metal cooking utensils and brush-clearing tools were deliberately left to rust in the jungle.
This increasingly engrossing account tells of the Fabrés’ eventual success in contacting one of the Xavantes satellite tribes and a subsequent journey to the parent-village. Dardo and Norma spend several months of living with the tribe in extremely difficult conditions, all the while filming and documenting daily routines and ceremonial occasions.
I was amazed that this exceedingly risky undertaking did not end in pure disaster. The Xavantes were most emphatically not welcoming to the nosy intruders, and the utmost in delicate diplomacy was required in order to even make contact, let alone gain permission to reside with the people. The young men of the tribe were openly hostile, and only the protective influence of the chief prevents Dardo and Norma from being targetted as worthy of killing to increase warrior status.
The Xavantes experience a hunting disaster when the region runs out of game; subsequently the village structures are burned literally overhead of the residents by the tribal leaders and several relocations are made. Dardo and Norma are expected to fend for themselves in finding food and shelter; they find this very hard to do once their canned and dried food supplies brought with them from outside are used up, and their attempts at shelter building are less than stellar, to the varied scorn and amusement of the “primitive” tribespeople.
Dardo is continually expecting that the tribe will assist them in getting by day to day and then being shocked when he and his wife’s basic needs are ignored. Having brought along a certain number of trade goods, a bartering exchange proves workable but not ideal from the Fabré point of view, as the Xavantes don’t place much value in many of the items the Fabres attempt to woo them with, such as matches and European tools.
Dardo narrates the account with many era-expected reference to “savages” and various visions of “civilization”, though he very obviously has a deep admiration for many of the Xavantes’ superior physical skills, and on numerous occasions extols the virtue of their “simple” and “pure” philosophy.
Eventually the chief of the tribe decides that the visitors must go away for the good of all concerned, and he sends Dardo and Norma back up the river in their leaky canoe. They stagger back to civilization many pounds lighter and, presumably, somewhat wiser. They have succeeded in capturing in writing and on film a unique and fascinating vision of a tribal hierarchy and way of life perfectly suited to a particular natural environment.
The lives if the Fabrés have clearly been changed by their experience, though it appears that the Xavantes have viewed the anthropology episode as merely a temporary blip in their everyday lives, with no lasting effects or changes to the way they did anything at all, and I must say that I found that exceedingly satisfactory.
(Sadly, not many years later, the Xavantes people were forcibly relocated from their traditional dwelling and hunting grounds by the Brazilian government, proving that their distrust of the “white man” had strong credence.)
A fascinating account, on a number of different levels, including glimpses of a portrait of a marriage. Dardo comes across as a very manly sort of man, always loudly surprised when his spouse proves herself capable of hitherto unexpected skills. I think Norma was a darned good sport; I would love to have her version of the Brazilian foray!
I greatly regret that my edition is lacking any of the images which Dardo and Norma so painstakingly collected. The original Uruguayan Spanish-language edition apparently contains pictures and maps. Luckily the writing is so detailed that one can envision the scenes and the people to a very satisfactory degree.