terça-feira, 10 de dezembro de 2019

Fact? Or (Amazon) Fiction?
A Review of Fiction Written or Set In the Amazon

            As an Amazon tour operator I am frequently asked by travellers about books to read on the subject before visiting here. And my suggestions are invariably, and without much thought, works of non-fiction such as Kirchner’s A Neotropical Companion, Goulding’s The Flooded Forest and Shoumatoff’s The Rivers Amazon to name just a few. But what about fiction, the traveller might then ask? What works of fiction set in the Amazon would I suggest to the prospective Amazon adventurer? Well it just so happens that, apart from being a writer interested in all literature set in the Amazon, I am also a fiction writer myself and I do have something further to offer the Amazon reader in that department if I put my mind to it.
            Oddly enough there is actually not that much fiction written or set in the Amazon. And that should surprise most readers raised, as I was, on a heavy diet of African and to a lesser extent Asian literature. You’d almost expect the same wealth of literature from the Amazon. After all its name possesses great mythic power, and its history offers a wide range of colourful, human experience. But the Amazon was never a place of Man- it only began to be peopled 100,000 years ago- it has always been a greater place of Nature. 
Of those who have lived in the Amazon very little in the way of a cultural identity was ever developed by them. Apart from oral myth of the most bizarre nature- plenty of creationist myth and animist legendry- the Indian peoples have left us little. Then came 1541 and the beginning of the Conquest of the New World. The Indians were replaced by brutish and often desperate immigrants- caboclos in the Brazilian Amazon and ribeirinhos in Spanish-speaking Amazonia- men who never enjoyed the luxury of developing a cultural identity either. They were too busy trying to survive and had no time to write poetry, or play music, or develop dance. 
Today the Amazon is still a cultural backwater whose inhabitants are more focused on survival- or, at best, the incessant rape of the region for her organic and inorganic wealth- than the contemplation and celebration of her Nature in art or literature. Only in the present generation, as the last vestiges of a caste system based upon an extractivist economy have been eliminated by virtue of modern economic development, have artists evolved and have discovered the Nature around them. At present there is a cultural explosion going on across the whole of the Amazon unparalleled in her history. It is an exciting time to live in the Amazon; a period full of promise and opportunity.
            Historically writers of the Amazon have been far and few between. Most have understandably been foreign-born, some just passers-by. Few, if any, travelled here with the express purpose of researching and writing fiction. Some did not even visit the region at all before writing about it in their novels. What follows is a sampling of Amazon writers and their works…of fiction.

            Jules Verne is known to have hardly ever left his hometown, Paris. But his interest in the scientific discoveries of his day and his incredibly fertile imagination resulted in classic works of fiction such as Journey to the Centre of the Earthand 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Few however know of his work The Raft (La Jangada in French) which was set in the Peruvian Amazon. He may never have been in the Amazon but his work is full of the colour and mystery of the tropical rainforest and, as usual, memorable characters and dramatic action. Like his contemporary, the primitive painter Henri Rousseau, Verne also knew the local Jardim Botanique quite well and this appears to have been enough for him to get all the details just right.  
            Another writer who also never set foot in the Amazon but who wrote pretty convincingly about it was Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator (or editor, depending on your addiction to the phenomena) of the works of Sherlock Holmes, “the world’s first consulting detective”. Doyle actually thought more of his historical novels than the popular ones that actually mad him rich and famous. His Amazon novel, The Lost World, is one of several novels featuring the eccentric Professor Challenger, another Holmes-like character this time disguised as a scientist. Like Verne before him Doyle too kept abreast of the most important scientific developments of the age. The Lost World features an isolated mountain world full of lost dinosaurs and monstrous plants. His descriptions were based closely on the lectures of Scandinavian geologist Ivm Thurm whose native Iceland was (not) coincidentally the setting for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Thurm was the first westerner to climb and scale the magical tepui mountain called Roraima that forms the tri-border between Brazil, Guyana and Venezuela. In Venezuela’s Gran Sabana region Mount Roraima is popularly referred to as The Lost World and boasts, if not dinosaurs, an ecosystem of botanical wonder equalled anywhere else in the world.  
            Neither Verne nor Conan Doyle had to look far for inspiration for their fiction. The 19th century was, after all, the great age of exploration and discovery. Real life Professor Challengers were easily found in the form of Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin and others. The second half of the 19th century ushered in a wave of Amazon explorers inspired by these two giants of natural history. The English led the way in the persons of Henry Bates, Richard Spruce and Alfred Wallace (who ultimately presented his own theory of Natural Selection alongside Darwin’s).

            Two of the finest novels based upon these intrepid and indomitable adventurers are A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (of Brideshead Revisited fame) and more recently, Morpho Eugenia, written by the Booker Prize Winner (Possession), A.S. Byatt. Waugh’s black comedy revolves around a blind recluse living deep in the Amazon who kidnaps (infrequently) visiting explorers so they might read Shakespeare to him during their captivity. An enjoyable film version was made of the book starring Alec Guinness as the over-the-edge hermit. Morpho Eugenia is an excellent portrait of a Victorian naturalist in the Bates-Wallace-Spruce tradition. Byatt captures in vivid detail and poetic cadence the underlying passion for Nature (especially in it’s smallest details) that has bewitched tropical explorers since before Darwin’s time. The (inner) book about ants produced by the Naturalist in the novel is particularly convincing and is surely an homage to that great champion of the small, E. O. Wilson. This book was also made into a film entitled Angels and Insects.   

            Naturalists were one but one of the many colourful characters to have invaded the Amazon. More common visitors were the desperate and the destitute as described in A Selva (The Forest) by the Portuguese Ferreira de Castro and Mad Maria by the contemporary Amazonian writer, Marcio Souza. De Castro’s semi-auto-biographical novel follows the exploits of a young, idealistic foreigner during Brazil’s Rubber Boom era. Souza’s historical novel uses the construction of the infamous Madeira-Mamore railway as the background for his Conradian tale of Man versus Nature. Both these novels were also turned into films; most recently Mad Maria appeared in an excellent television series produced by Brazil’s Globo network.
            One of the most curious characters to appear in an Amazon novel is the American Indian-turned-Amazon Indian in Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Field of the Lords. Of a handful of contemporary Amazon novels this is the most political even if it does at times paint mere swathes across the issues where more detail would be welcome. But for a menagerie of characters to rival a Tennessee Williams play this novel has them all from sadistic local sheriff to blindly-ever-seeking missionary and back again.

            The most recent novels about the Amazon I have read are unfortunately though perhaps understandably (in our era of shallow entertainment) poor. Jack Rollin’s Amazonia reads like another Michael Crichton send-up with few redeeming qualities if any. More disappointing is Isabel Allende’s Cry of the Beast, a smarmy children’s tale of elderly values and environmental politicking. It’s hard to believe that a writer as profound and personal as Allende should have fallen so innocently (or ignorantly) into the save-the-rainforest camp after apparently only one visit there. As such the book reads like a first novel and not a very good one at that. Allende, despite her claims of inspiration and moral purpose, will only confound her loyal fans when they pick up this weekender. If ever a book deserves fictitious authorship this is it. 
            To end on a positive note I have to stretch my geography a little and mention Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece, Love in the Time of Cholera. It’s not exactly set in the Amazon but many of its motifs seem quite Amazonian, particularly the riverboat and river voyages that criss-cross the text from beginning to end. Not every novel by the Colombian master has been great but this is one of them. And while it hasn’t been made into a film yet it was recently turned into an opera called Florencia en la Amazonas produced by the Houston Opera Company. Marquez helped write the libretto and it seems fitting that in the Opera version the story revolves not around cyclical river trips on the Colombian coast but about a riverboat circling the port of Manaus at the height of a cholera epidemic. One could say Marquez had the Amazon in mind all the time; he just didn’t have the right setting first time around.
The End
 Novels, Films and more set in the Amazon (or thereabouts)

The Lost World, Arthur Conan Doyle (English)
The Lost Steps, Alejo Carpentier (originally in Spanish)
At Play in the Field of the Lord, Peter Mathiessen (English)
Angels and Insects, A.S. Byatt (English)
Macunaima, Mario de Andrade (Brazilian-based on the life of Koch-Grunberg?)
Mad Maria, Marcio Souza (Brazilian)
City of Beasts, Isabel Allende (originally in Spanish)
Amazônia, Jack Rollins (English)
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (originally in Spanish)
The Raft (Port. A Jangada), Jules Verne (originally in French)
A Selva, Ferreira de Castro (Portuguese)
A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh (English)
The Vortex (La Vortaigne), Jose Eustasio Rivera (1924)
Desierto Verde, Alfredo Flores (1933)
Inferno Verde, Albert Rangel (1908)
La Venganza del Condor, Ventura Garcia Calderon (1924)
Green Mansions, W. Henry Hudson
Simá, Araújo e Amazonas (1850)

  • readily available
  • cited but hard to find
  • not cited and not found

Films set in the Amazon

Anaconda, Jon Voight
Fitzcarraldo, Klaus Kinski
*At Play in the Field of the Lord, Tom Beringer
The Naked Jungle, Charlton Heston
*Macunaima (Brazilian film, 1983), Grande Otelo
Tainá (Brazilian film)
*A Selva (Portuguese/Italian production)
*Angels and Insects
*A Handful of Dust, Alec Guiness
*The Lost World (most recently a horrible tv film w/ Bob Hoskins)
*Mad Maria (most recently a Brazilian television miniseries)

based on the book

Florência en la Amazonas, Houston Grand Opera (based on works of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, principally Love in the Time of Cholera)

sábado, 16 de abril de 2016

World War Three? Not quite!

In the aftermath of the November 13 terror attacks in Paris it is hard to believe that the world has not suddenly been thrown into World War Three. A new “fascist” regime threatens world peace and is personified by the so-called Islamic State.  The new “Nazism” is religious fundamentalism from the middle east. The Allied victory of World War One sowed the initial seeds of discontent in the region when the British and French divided up the region in one last example of colonial posturing. The creation of Israel after World War Two drove a sword through an already volatile area and challenged Arab leaders to come with some sort of response to the permanent presence of westerners in their land. Hatred for the west- usually the United States or Israel- and the puppet governments, or dictatorships, the west set up across the region eventually boiled over and climaxed with the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States. And rather than see this attack as the reflex action of a culture fed up with western neo-colonialism the Americans declared war on Afghanistan and invaded Iraq. After almost 15 years of conflict almost all of what was once the Ottoman Empire, stretching from Egypt to Turkey, has been laid waste. From this vacuum the fundamentalist forces of ISIS have arisen.
            Just as Germany was swallowed up by the Nationalist fervour of the Nazis Iraq has been taken hostage by a similar evil in the form of Islamic Fanaticism. Both movements are eerily similar. The Nazis intended to purify themselves and create a master race of racial separatists. ISIS sees itself as the truth path of Islam and has set out to cleanse and redefine it’s Reich, or empire. The Nazis chose ethnic cleansing as a means of purifying their people and all those who didn’t fit their profile or who stood in their way were annihilated. Isis too has chosen the path of genocide and intolerance to achieve its aims. Both regimes have persecuted their chosen enemies in the most barbaric and inhuman ways. And just as Germany was not satisfied with the limited expansion and consolidation of their territory and began invading and subjugating their enemies and neighbours through the terror of “blitzkrieg”, Isis also seems unsatisfied with the establishment of their “caliphate” and has decided to expand their presence globally through the terrorism.
            War with the Nazi regime was unavoidable after the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland, and the Allies united to meet and defeat the threat. Isis has, in recent weeks, launched attacks against Russia and France, as well as Lebanon and Turkey and it now seems inevitable the Allies will once again unite to fight against the twin-terror of  Fascism and Fanaticism.  

            The November 13 terror attacks in Paris represent the latest and bloodiest ISIS attacks in the west. If we are going to effectively combat this threat against Western Idealism by Islamic Fanaticism (a new Cruscade?) the following strategy is required: an intelligence-oriented, military commitment to confront and annihilate the enemy wherever he may be (abroad AND at home) based upon an unbiased and thorough historical study of the root causes of the present conflict. It is one thing to defeat the enemy physically and win the war; we must also ensure that we do not further antagonize and isolate the homeland from where the enemy was born and lose the peace afterwards.
            The relationship between the Middle East and West has historically been complicated, divisive and all-too-often bloody. Since the days of the Crusades it has been a history of racist imperialism and religious intolerance. The immediate history of what is fast becoming a quagmire of cultural conflict is easy enough to trace and begins with Osama Bin Laden. Unfortunately it does not end with his death.  If the same strategy I have suggested for the present conflict against ISIS  had been adopted against Bin Laden and his organization, Al Queda, it is arguable that things never would have reached the explosive stage they have now. Just as if Germany’s grievances before and after World War One had been appreciated and assuaged the Second World War would not have been so inevitable, so too if the grievances of the Arab world had been addressed more sympathetically before and (especially) after the events of September 11, 2001 the present crisis might also have been averted.
            While going after Bin Laden and the fundamentalist Taliban government in Afghanistan which housed and supported him was arguably justified and sadly unavoidable the West, in the form of American President George Bush and his conservative administration, made little effort to understand what forces had compelled Bin Laden to marshall his limited forces for a one-time attack against the United States. Bin Laden may have called for a Jihad against the West but he must have known he himself was doomed from the start. And that’s probably what he counted upon, dying as a martyr and somehow inspiring a larger movement against the infidel West he and many others had so come to hate. In this sense he achieved his aim. The belief that their “purer” Islamic culture was being diluted by the “alien” culture of the West had reached a boiling point and Bin Laden decided he would be the one who would take action, if no one else.
            Whatever efforts were made to win a war and then establish peace in Afghanistan failed when the United States illegally, insanely and unjustifiably decided to invade Iraq after Afghanistan. This was the worst thing the West could have done. Rather than isolate the threat against the United States in Afghanistan and surgically deal with Bin Laden and his Taliban cohorts the United States proudly (or greedily) over-reached themselves and threw themselves into an unnecessary power struggle in neighbouring Iraq, again without much understanding if any of the tribal and ethnic politics at play there.  How could anyone, especially in the Middle East except Israel, interpret the invasion and subsequent destruction of Iraq as an effort to win peace in a region already alienated and long persecuted by western powers?
            The Invasion of Iraq was unconvincingly justified by the Americans as necessary to rid the region of a despotic dictator, Saddam Hussein, who was practicing genocide on his own people AND was in possession of mass destruction with intent to use them against Western enemies. Now as a United States-backed dictator one can only wonder who those western enemies could have been! The cruelty and ruthlessness of Saddam Hussein may have been very real but the allegations of weapons of mass destruction have since been proven false. It is far more likely the US decided to invade Iraq because they had simply grown tired of one of their dictators no longer content to play the role of puppet and follow orders from his handlers. Saddam had simply outgrown his usefulness and had become a liability. It is also possible the US decided to take advantage of their presence in Afghanistan to flex a little more muscle in the region and re-establish their political presence in a region with vast oil reserves.
            To say the US-led invasion of Iraq was ultimately a failure is an understatement. The modern, if problematic, nation of Iraq was destroyed. Removing Saddam (and his repressive Baathist party government) did not result in the beginnings of a new, freer and more democratic Iraq (if that ever was part of the plan). After almost 15 years of conflict without result the US finally decided to withdraw its military and abandon Iraq. What arose from the chaotic vacuum of power was ISIS.
            In a very short time ISIS has morphed from a regional to global threat. Having now carved out their “Caliphate” nation from the wasteland of war torn Iraq and territory unclaimed by civil war in neighbouring Syria, home of another western-sponsored dictator, Bashar al Assad, ISIS has decided to pick up the baton of western hatred left behind by Bin Laden’s Al Queda and strike across additional international borders.
            So once again we are back at the start, and on the brink of world war. The West continues to misunderstand the Middle East and vilify, rather than, empathize with the people of the Middle East. The West’s response continues to involve little more than military thinking. Without forethought and an understanding of how to win the inevitable peace that will come a military response will achieve little beyond containing a simmering pot from boiling over again next time. And unless we learn from the past and apply lessons learned from the past to the present situation there will be a next time, who knows where, who knows when fanatical, militant Islamists attack “soft” western targets. We would do well to listen to the cries of an angry and bereaved people. If we don’t we risk losing the support of the local population in favour of their determined leadership and that will make the war to come that longer, bloodier and more difficult to win.
            How are we ever going to win over the hearts and minds of the people if our only response is always violence and war? As we deal militarily with the threat violent Jihad against the West we must not lose track of our ultimate goal which is to re-establish peace between the West and Middle East and not allow another senseless Crusade to come between us.
The End

            Afterward One: One important reason why the present conflict should not in any way be seen as some sort of third world war is that the population of the ISIS caliphate do not play a role on the administration of their so-called leaders, willingly or unwillingly. Whoever is able to flee the horrors of the Syrian Civil War and the atrocities of nation-building ISIS forces has done so. ISIS has no popular support amongst moderate Muslims in the region. And this is something that can be used against them. Without the support of the local population for food, forces and revenue, and even as human shields, the military forces of ISIS should be easy to target, attack and eliminate. So why doesn’t the West just piece together it’s overwhelming military and intelligence forces and destroy ISIS on the field. Arguably without its military force the ideological force of ISIS would soon wither and die. Then, and only then, can the long overdue work of peace-making between the West and Middle East begin again.     

Afterward Two: The “mass shooting” December 15 in San Bernardino, California is an example of home grown terrorism here in the USA. The shooters were of Middle-eastern decent but the husband involved was US-born, US-raised, US-educated and US-employed. (And aren’t the terrorists in Belgium all of Middle-eastern decent but Belge-born, Belge-raised, Belge-educated, Belge-employed or unemployed?) His “mail-order” bride may have been “a plant” or she may have “radicalized” her husband. They, like their European counterparts claim they were “inspired” by ISIS to attack their target. This incident of course exposes our vulnerability to a spontaneous attack on the public at any time and in any place by otherwise normal looking citizens who suddenly strike without apparent warning or reasonable cause. This violence can only be countered by the vigilance and preparedness of normal citizens working together with local police authorities to insure the safety of our communities. These incidents might also be prevented by addressing more seriously the causes of diverse mental health problems affecting so many of our citizens and residents. Not only must we do more to make our society fairer and more democratic- so no one is excluded from the prosperity of our nation- but we also need to understand that we have a responsibility to help others lest their problems become our own. We must unite in an effort to make the purchase and distribution of fire arms as regulated a process as possible without infringing upon the right of our citizens to bear these same arms for sport and to defend themselves. It’s not that guns are the problem or people are the problem…what needs to be prevented are guns in the hands of people with problems.

Afterward Three: On March 22, 4 days after the last suspect in the November Paris bombings was captured, ISIS-inspired terrorists struck again in Europe, this time in the country the Paris bombers called home. In two  separate, but apparently coordinated, attacks suicide bombers in Belgium killed more than 20 persons and wounded hundreds after detonating bombs at the main Brussels airport and in the city center. Whether these bombers were part of the same terrorist cell as the Paris group- or if this is another, secondary cell following its own agenda- remains to be seen. But these attacks will keep certainly Europe on high alert for a long time to come. These attacks also beg the question, how could the best security forces in Europe allow another series of terrorist attacks to occur with their resources in full use since the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January and especially since the attacks in Paris last November?

quinta-feira, 30 de outubro de 2014

The NEW Revolution

            We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
- United States Declaration of Independence

The NEW revolution is against the tyranny and apathy of recent decades and previous generations. We harken back to the LOVE of the 1960s and the BROTHERHOOD of the 1980s.  Born and coming of age in these times we now call ourselves to (join) ARMS against what has been denied us despite our goodwill, our innocence and even our ignorance.  We stupidly thought our parents were opening doors for us towards a brighter, more egalitarian future. And we let ourselves believe we wouldn’t have to work too hard to insure that future.  How could we think that we wouldn’t have to actually work for it? Some of us did realize we’d have to work for Glory but not enough of us. Most of us mistook the apparent progress of a few for something more positive than what it really was. Look what that got us. Science may have made life better but Technology hasn’t. It’s made prisoners of most of our generation and seems to have already imprisoned most of the newest generation. WE at least know what we’re missing though. The newest generation has no idea. They have been born into a state of “technology-induced dumbness”.
The present fascination with Zombies is a perfect reflection of the current state of affairs, only most of us ARE the zombies and few are the survivors! We’ve been zombie-fied by our own complacency. Are there enough “survivors” left to fight now or just more zombies on the way to mix with the other zombies?  How do we shake ourselves awake again? Can we rekindle in our children the tiny spark of passion that must (hopefully) still be within them? Isn’t the ideal of the Noble Savage something innate to all men and women? Isn’t that what makes us human, the desire to break free of our “chains” and reach- even if only partially or unsuccessfully- towards a state of Beauty (Perfection)? The road is, after all, more important than the destination. Do we not hope for, in the few moments of silence we allow ourselves these days, a better world, a cleaner world, and a more just world?
MY generation- let’s call it "6080"- cannot give up now just because we have reached 50. Too many of us have. And too few of us are left to, if not exactly pass the torch, inspire our “still-born” children and guide our species once again towards loftier and more worthy heights.