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Charles Elliott on Paul Fleming, Brazilian Adventure - Slightly Foxed Issue 14

Major Problems

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I’ve never been to Brazil, and to tell the truth I’m not much interested in going. Even reading about South America doesn’t thrill me. I’m not sure why this should be since I found Central America fascinating, and I’m happy to read anything going about the Maya, but Brazil is one of those blank spots in my personal sphere of curiosity.

On the face of it, Peter Fleming’s Brazilian Adventure offers no strong argument – in fact no argument of any kind – for correcting my prejudice. I have no doubt that Fleming would have been horrified at any suggestion that it did. On the evidence presented, he considers Brazil a place to be avoided, not merely because it isn’t interesting but because it’s painfully boring, dangerous, corrupt and generally unhealthy. But of course that’s the point.

Brazilian Adventure is one of the best examples ever written of a type of book that could be described as a saga of deliberate suffering – discomfort, anyway – recounted with dry wit and verbal elegance. Fleming himself is responsible for a couple of others nearly as good (One’s Company and News from Tartary), while a more recent candidate might be Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo, although in my opinion it can’t match Fleming.

It was in the spring of 1932 that he came upon a note in the Agony Column of The Times soliciting membership (‘room two more guns’) in an ‘exploring and sporting expedition’ heading for the Matto Grosso. ‘Exploring and sporting’ were only part of the draw, however. A further, if improbably romantic, aim was to discover what had happened to Colonel Fawcett. This gentleman, an odd, obsessed fortune-hunter, had gone into the Brazilian jungle several years before in search of an enormously rich lost city and was never heard from again. Exactly what happened to him was a mystery. A relief expedition drew a blank, but there was no lack of speculati

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I’ve never been to Brazil, and to tell the truth I’m not much interested in going. Even reading about South America doesn’t thrill me. I’m not sure why this should be since I found Central America fascinating, and I’m happy to read anything going about the Maya, but Brazil is one of those blank spots in my personal sphere of curiosity.

On the face of it, Peter Fleming’s Brazilian Adventure offers no strong argument – in fact no argument of any kind – for correcting my prejudice. I have no doubt that Fleming would have been horrified at any suggestion that it did. On the evidence presented, he considers Brazil a place to be avoided, not merely because it isn’t interesting but because it’s painfully boring, dangerous, corrupt and generally unhealthy. But of course that’s the point. Brazilian Adventure is one of the best examples ever written of a type of book that could be described as a saga of deliberate suffering – discomfort, anyway – recounted with dry wit and verbal elegance. Fleming himself is responsible for a couple of others nearly as good (One’s Company and News from Tartary), while a more recent candidate might be Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo, although in my opinion it can’t match Fleming. It was in the spring of 1932 that he came upon a note in the Agony Column of The Times soliciting membership (‘room two more guns’) in an ‘exploring and sporting expedition’ heading for the Matto Grosso. ‘Exploring and sporting’ were only part of the draw, however. A further, if improbably romantic, aim was to discover what had happened to Colonel Fawcett. This gentleman, an odd, obsessed fortune-hunter, had gone into the Brazilian jungle several years before in search of an enormously rich lost city and was never heard from again. Exactly what happened to him was a mystery. A relief expedition drew a blank, but there was no lack of speculation in the newspapers, including rumours that he had actually found the city. Now fresh information suggested that he was still alive. Prudently getting an assignment from The Times to cover the new expedition, Fleming signed on. The whimsically ill-prepared team, led by one Major George Lewy Pingle (‘That is not his name. You can regard him as an imaginary character, if you like. He is no longer quite real to me’), eventually made its way north from São Paulo into the interior by car, truck and boat, doing its best to ignore a revolution or two en route. Local colour tended to be either unattractive or smelly, but as only Major Pingle understood Portuguese and none of the group any of the native Indian languages, appreciation of it was limited. Their route took them down the Rio Araguaya to the mouth of a smaller river, the Tapirapé. It gradually became clear that Colonel Fawcett, if he still existed, was unlikely to be found, because the expedition itself showed every indication of falling apart. Major Pingle, increasingly recalcitrant, declared flatly that he would not proceed further toward the place where Fawcett was reported to have been spotted; Fleming could go up the Tapirapé if he wanted to, along with anyone else who cared to join him. He, Pingle, would stay in a mission station downriver. That the expedition’s funds were in his keeping would be a matter of later concern. Undaunted and with what Fleming himself agreed was a very weak sense of geography, they set off deeper into unexplored territory, sometimes paddling up the river, otherwise on foot, critically lacking in supplies and virtually unable to communicate with the local natives (who had a deserved reputation for bloodthirstiness). Alligators, piranhas and vicious insects rounded off the ambience. Before long food ran out along with the hope of finding a sufficiently friendly group of local tribesmen willing to guide them on. Still at least 150 miles short of their goal and literally up a creek, even Fleming and his friend Roger had to give up. But that was not the end of their travails. The final challenge was to get back to the Araguaya and race Major Pingle 600 miles to the Atlantic port of Pará at the mouth of the Amazon, more or less without funds for food or boat hire. ‘This book is all truth and no facts,’ Fleming observes. ‘It is probably the most veracious travel book ever written; and it is certainly the least instructive.’ This is unnecessarily self-deprecatory, in spite of the fact that self-deprecation is usually the essence of this sort of book. Brazilian Adventure is wonderfully instructive about good writing. Delightful phrases abound. ‘The charging jungle stopped short only at the sea. I got the impression of a subcontinent with imperfect self-control.’ A Frenchman ‘shared with Shakespeare both the habit of spelling his name in a number of different ways and a tendency to underrate the value of plausibility’, while a missionary, unsteady on his feet, is described as ‘a man peculiarly vulnerable to the force of gravity’. Brazilian Adventure is a young man’s book – clever, inherently snobbish, possibly more self-conscious than it ought to be. It shares with Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley’s early satires the sort of notalways- amiable wit that was – at least in the 1930s – a birthright of the Bright Young Things. At the same time, however, Fleming is a fine reporter, deeply observant and willing to describe with accuracy. Beyond the game of minimizing danger – the alligators that are ‘a fraud’ and the piranhas that refuse to attack – he brilliantly conveys what it must have really been like to slog into the heart of the Matto Grosso. I for one will take his word for it and go no further. Peter Fleming had the misfortune to be Ian Fleming’s brother, and has been overshadowed by him as a literary figure. Like James Bond’s creator his writing displays fluency and sophistication of the public school variety, but he is a lot funnier and wider-ranging. I’ve never tried his fiction – it might be good – but in the meantime I’ll take Peter in the jungle over 007 in the hands of smersh any time.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 14 © Charles Elliott 2007


About the contributor

Charles Elliott is an editor (see Slightly Foxed, No. 9) and writer. Though he enjoys reading about extreme travel, his own subject is less life-threatening: gardening and garden history. More Papers from the Potting Shed, his latest book, was published last year.

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