There were a few times I imagined myself on a boat drifting down the Amazon, and around every corner, discovering some new bird or tree. And this feeling is increased by the character of the earth itself, which is quite unlike the thrifty woodland floor at home; here the tree boles erupt out of heaped-up masses of decay, as if the ground might be almost any distance beneath.
It consists of a mostly failed expedition down the Urubamba and Ucayali Rivers to find (1) the jungle ruins of Picha and (2) a strange fossil mandible found near the Mapuya River. If you should read this book, I suggest you concentrate on the long sixth chapter, "Beyond Black Drunken River," which deals with the Urubamba/Ucayali expedition.
And then it picks up again during the Mato Grosso chapter about halfway through and ends up actually being pretty entertaining, even though I felt like I didn't actually like Matthiessen all that much. But I think by the time I finally got to that part, my mind was already a little numb with all the wandering and describing things bits and so even though the end was pretty great, I'm not sure I can say that I really liked the book as a whole.
The second half, "Beyond Black Drunken River", felt like a different book.
For a travel book which revels in specificity and attains to verisimilitude, the very first sentence startles: November 20: A pale November sky, like a sky on the moon. Granted, the trip takes place in 1960, before we knew what the crystalline, profoundly black moon sky actually looks like, but why start a non-fiction work with an image of fantasy? Yet the hint of moon-travel may be more apt than intended for, frankly, Matthiessen spends the first half of the book in a linguistic space suit, isolated from the elements and with few human interactions. Despite Brazils dominance of both the Amazon and the South American landmass, Matthiessen admits only half way through the book that his Portuguese is nil with this jokey justification: Brazil is the only country in South America which uses Portuguese, and if ones Spanish is precarious, as mine is, one should not risk losing it altogether by attempting to speak Portuguese as well. 143 in my 1987 Penguin Travel Library edition OK, but why is the books first, and very slow, half nearly bereft of human description (not to mention de minimis interaction) and, instead, with page after page of bird sightings? Granted, Matthiessen is a self-styled naturalist-explorer, and like the Earth Firsters these doom-ridden days, seems to prefer Humans Second. The good news is that the books grinding first half in which he makes it up the Amazon as far as Pucallpa in Peru, flies over the Andes where he does the touristy sites, then buses or flies down to Tierra del Fuego; and a return trip (after a Manhattan rest?) in which he alights in Mato Grosso, Brazil, before flying to Bolivia comes to an end. The author organizes his work in travel journal style, a fine tradition dating back to 2nd century Greece, but the heavy weight of verbatim quotes from myriad books, and other scholarly diversions, makes one doubt he carried an entire library with him. Matthiessen reaches for an epiphany at books end when, after hurting the boys feelings, he realizes that Alejandro, along with Andrés and himself, deserves part of the credit for the paleontological discovery. 265 Although no human is beyond repentance, even here we hear the authors justifications, and I, for one, feel more sorry for him than for our good and faithful Alejandro who is off to Lima ...
I can handle myself well in the outdoors, but this was beyond my abilities...and almost beyond Matthiessen's.