In 1925, Percy Harrison Fawcett went into the Amazon, looking for traces of a lost civilization. In the face of conventional wisdom, he was convinced that, centuries ago, there had been a grand city in the midst of that jungle — he called it simply Z — and he was determined to find it. He, his son Jack, and another explorer pushed into the jungle and were never seen again.
A few years later, the myths about Fawcett and his trip were completely out of control. He’d found the city! No, he had died immediately, eaten by indigenous Indians! No, he was living with the Indians as one of them! No, he had found gold, and was living as an anonymous millionaire in Rio de Janeiro! No, he’d found the city, but he had amnesia and couldn’t tell anyone about it! Several explorers claimed to have seen him, and stories about the white man Fawcett were rife among the indigenous tribes.
Which is where Peter Fleming, my favorite travel writer, comes in. He saw an ad in the London Times, advertising a trip to go after Fawcett and try to find him. “Why not?” he thought… as one does when one is thinking of making a trip into a horrible, life-endangering part of the world on a wild goose chase. And so he did.
Here is what I said when I reviewed David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, which is a good book about Fawcett and his trip:
David Grann makes it clear in The Lost City of Z that the Amazon is and was no place for light-hearted vacationing. Despite its lush plant life, it’s nearly foodless: you can’t eat liana vines, and the swarming insects have stripped the forest floor bare of anything that’s not virulently toxic. The insects themselves are horribly dangerous, from fire ants to malarial mosquitoes to maggots that infest living people. Jaguars drop from the treetops. The rivers are full of piranhas, electric eels, and candiru (don’t even ask.) Explorers died from disease, broke legs, starved to death, went mad, committed suicide. But Fawcett was utterly convinced that such a place could harbor a civilization that could have given birth to the legend of El Dorado.
Ha ha! I didn’t count on Peter Fleming! Light-hearted vacationing it is! Fleming tells his story with style, in an offhand, witty-banter sort of way that makes you feel as if Peter Wimsey at his most urbane were ushering you up the Amazon. He talks as if piranhas are a big disappointment because they didn’t even try to devour him the second he dropped a pinky in the river. His worst moments are not the insect life, but the inefficiency of his staff. And then there’s the parody:
Much of what we saw and did was clearly too good to be true. Life was always perilously close to the pages of those books that publishers catalogue under the heading of ‘Travel and Adventure’. In self-defense — in pursuance of that policy of nil admirari that is the joint product of repression, sophistication, and all the hot air one hears — we turned to 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 spoke of ourselves, not as eating meals, but as ‘doing Ample Justice to a Frugal Repast.’ To anyone who did not think it as funny as we did it must have been an intolerably tiresome kind of joke. But it made us laugh, and thus served its purpose. It became an important feature in that private code of nonsense which was our chief defense against hostile circumstance.
Fleming writes with interest in everything he sees, but he has no interest in making his trip seem more important or more dangerous than it really was. He went because he wanted to; he had no real expectation of finding Fawcett, whom he believed to be dead; he saw a beautiful and vivid part of the world and came home. This book is extremely funny, as well as being fascinating, and so are his other two travel books, News From Tartary and One’s Company. Highly recommended if you like this sort of thing.