Friday, June 20, 2014


With four of the World Cup matches being held in Manaus, it's been especially hard for me not to drop into every conversation bits of what I'm learning from my research into that area in the early 1900s. It's surprising how relevant the lessons from the rubber trade are still (and how little we seem to have learned about boom and bust economies, but I digress). The Stowaway concerns itself with a ship's travel up the Amazon River to the White City of Manaus, but the books and movies I am using for research take their creators into the depths of the jungle as well, and relevant to my needs or not, they are too fascinating to put aside.

The iconic image of a steamship being towed through the jungle
is the heart of the movie "Fitzcarraldo."

When asked in an interview by Zach Raskin for Book(ed) Passage about the research for her 2011 book State of Wonder, which is set mostly in the Amazon jungle outside Manaus, writer Ann Patchett said her ten-day visit there "was about five days too long." Instead, she said, she could have done her research by watching Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God and  Fitzcarraldo, and The Burden of Dreams, Les Blank's documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo). So, taking Patchett's advice, I watched two of the films (Aguirre being too tenuously relevant to The Stowaway). I've also read The River That God Forgot, a 1968 book by Richard Collier about the Amazonian rubber trade, and just finished The Sea and the Jungle, written by H.M. Tomlinson in 1912.

What strikes me about these accounts of travelers in Amazonia is how quickly the jungle drives its visitors to a kind of eloquent despair. Their words can be hilarious, although no doubt far more for the reader than for those who put down the words. Even those who revel in the unfamiliar sights of the jungle, like Tomlinson, find themselves easily overwhelmed by its impenetrable enormity. "You will remember the equatorial forest but as a gloom of foliage in which all else that showed was rare and momentary, was foundered and lost to sight instantly, as an unusual ray of coloured light in one mid-ocean wave gleams, and at once goes, and your surprise at its apparition fades too, and again there is but the empty desolation which is for ever vastness sombrely bright." He describes one of the blue morpho butterflies as "aerial and bright as a fairy in Hades." Men who were lost in the jungle soon went mad, Tomlinson's traveling companion tells him, echoing his own suspicions.

Herzog himself was wonderfully vivid about his growing malaise in Burden of Dreams. He was devoted to his project and devastated at the thought that he may not complete Fitzcarraldo, and began to find the jungle oppressive. "I wouldn't see anything erotical about it," he said, disagreeing with actor Klaus Kinski's description. "More like full of obscenity. Nature here's vile and base. It's fornication, asphyxiation, choking, fighting for survival, growing, just rotting away...The trees are in misery.The birds are in misery. I don't think they sing, they just screech in pain." He concluded that the Amazonian jungle is "a harmony of collective and overwhelming murder."

Les Blank, too, reached a similar conclusion. During his first weeks in the jungle, he was so fascinated by the flora and fauna, he entertained the idea of becoming a botanist. But by the conclusion of filming only a few months later, he was so broken down by the hardships of the production in the unforgiving environment, he wrote in his journal, "I hope I get out of this world alive."

"We can all have our own take on the Amazon, said Patchett, "but at the heart of it there is a very basic theme: bugs, heat, leaves, omnipresent danger."

Luckily my own story is not concerned with exploration of the jungle or tributaries, or my research would likely never be done. Still, I've added to my list Herzog's own Conquest of the Useless: Reflections on Making Fitzcarraldo, if for no other reason than that he may be my favorite film director and I'd love to hear more about his undertaking in his words. And a copy of The Naturalist on the River Amazons, written by Henry Walter Bates and first published in 1863, sits upon my coffee table, waiting to be read next. I want to understand how it feels to travel that river and spend time in that region, since I doubt I will experience it myself. (Like accounts of mountain climbing, there are adventures I prefer to enjoy vicariously.)

Of course, the opera house in Manaus required its own reading and movie list. No doubt I will be inserting what I learn of it into every possible conversation soon, and blogging about it.

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