Books that inspire travel – Brazilian Adventure, Peter Fleming

I hope that Ian Fleming’s brother, Peter, inspired at least something of James Bond, though in this account of Peter Fleming’s 3000-mile journey to discover the whereabouts of a mysteriously vanished English explorer, it’s slightly more Indiana Jones/Johnny English.

In terms of writing style (though bearing in mind it was written in the early 1930s so a lot of inappropriate behaviour and observations as well as old fashioned language), humour, entirely appropriate self-deprecation, delightful eccentricity of the Major, among others, and, perhaps most significantly, detailing a long journey without even a suggestion of, “Then we …” or “After that, we …”, this is one of those rare books I aspire to equal.

Travel writing appeals enormously because I enjoy travelling and reading about other people’s accounts of journeys or places, but a lot of what I have read is poorly written (usually by someone who has had the right experience to warrant an account of their adventures but who does not have the right experience to write a book), too bogged down with history and facts or I just can’t engage with.

I have limited interest in travelling along the Amazon, it is extraordinarily unlikely I would respond to an advert in The Times’ agony column (as was the case with Fleming) seeking a team of people for an “exploring and sporting expedition”, the sport largely relating to shooting animals, and an account from a male perspective of life in the 1930s is not something I can relate to.

Yet Brazilian Adventure made me frequently smirk and I enjoyed the descriptions and insights into his unsuccessful, incompetently-led expedition deep into central Brazil.  The language and behaviour, I feel a need to reiterate, may be very dated, so much so it would never be published today as a new book, but most of the humour and honest mind-workings are completely relevant to today.

Despite the location and expedition not appealing to me and this central Brazilian area now being far more accessible to non-locals, Brazilian Adventure made me re-appreciate that there is adventure in all travel and holidays purely by virtue of leaving your comfort zone of home.  It has also made me want to spend more time travelling to destinations and making the journey part of the holiday adventure rather than purely a means of transport to and from the destination.

This is a book to read for unexpected humour, an insight into the kind of explorer you, an ordinary person, might be (assuming you’re not an obvious Indiana Jones type already), appreciating how different the world is 90 years into the future and a dry, honest account of a failed expedition written in what, for me at least, is an exemplary style.

Peter Fleming on one of their expedition food staples:

“Farinha is made from the mandioca or cassava, a root of which the chief peculiarity is that, while its juice is a rapidly destructive poison, the flour is a nutritious though insipid food.  After the juice has been extracted the mandioca is dried, ground, and baked.  The result looks like a pale and rather knobbly form of sawdust, a substance to which it is not noticeably superior in flavour.”

Peter Fleming’s mini rant on the use of foreign words in English:

“Whenever an author thrusts his way through the zareba, or flings himself down behind the boma, or breasts the slope of a kopje, or scans the undulating surface of the chapada, he loses my confidence.  When he says that he sat down to an appetising dish of tumbo, or that what should he see at that moment but a magnificent conka, I feel that he is (a) taking advantage of me and (b) making a fool of himself.  I resent being peppered with these outlandish italics.  They make me feel uninitiated, and they make him seem pretentious … I have always regarded the larding of one’s pages with foreign words as an affectation not less deplorable than the plastering of one’s luggage with foreign labels.”

Peter Fleming on the drunken antics of their boat pilot:

“But where was the pilot?  Where was the intrepid fellow whose expert knowledge and address were to bring us through the sharp-fanged rocks, the ungovernable whirlpools?  We looked about us anxiously.

“We had not far to look.  There he was – our white hope, our guardian angel – half way up the bank above the beach, sprawling on the turf with a brace of prostitutes who appeared to be undergoing – and willingly undergoing – the preliminary stages of death by strangulation.

“‘Pilot’ we shouted.  ‘Vai embora!  We’re off!  Come here, pilot.  Come here at once!’

“The pilot began to sing.

“He was drunk: not ordinarily, but magnificently.  Few people can ever have been so drunk.  We clambered up the bank and laid hold of him and marched him down to the boat.  We got him into the boat.  He fell out of the boat.  We got him back into the boat, and this time he threw himself overboard and lay face downwards in the shallows, groping vaguely for a pair of dark glasses which had fallen off his nose.  We saved him, against his will, from drowning, and made ready to push off.”