The Cloud Forest is a classic of its genre, perhaps undeservedly so.
A young Peter Matthiessen, after a few books of fiction, his first divorce, and one wildlife book, sets sail from New York on a cargo ship M.S. Venimos bound for the Amazon. 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? Is he implying his “Chronicle of the South American Wilderness” is of a place so other-worldly as to be, almost, unknowable?
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 Brazil’s 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 one’s Spanish is precarious, as mine is, one should not risk losing it altogether by attempting to speak Portuguese as well.” [Mar. 12, p. 143 in my 1987 Penguin Travel Library edition]
OK, but why is the book’s 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? I had to wonder if Matthiessen simply digs birds more than people.
Indeed, for his first ecstatic walk into the rainforest near Manaus, he is joined “at the last moment by my fellow passenger, that redoubtable maiden, Miss X.” Yet, due to “the little shrieks and cries uttered by my companion,” the author is not pleased with her company and “affected a sort of trance, not wholly false, and with a rapt expression disregarded her; and after a time, infected by the atmosphere despite herself, she became silent.” [Dec. 23, p. 39]
Had we previously learned something, anything about Miss X (other than being a “redoubtable maiden”), the author’s freezing her out may have been understandable, even amusing. Instead, a certain coldness settles over the book, like the sky on the moon.
Granted, Matthiessen is a self-styled “naturalist-explorer,” and like the Earth Firsters these doom-ridden days, seems to prefer Humans Second. But his mild misanthropy becomes more pernicious in the book’s later contacts with Indians, underlining the defect of character. More on that later.
The good news is that the book’s 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. An interlude chapter named “Notes on the Cities” is in fact where the book came alive for me, for Matthiessen finally lets down his guard and revels in all sorts of amusing prejudices, including about the continent’s Mussolini architecture (“the heavy hand of dictators”), the superficiality of Carnival (“like Rio itself, […] colorful and flimsy and very good fun for a very few days”), and the newly built Brasília, “less inspired than pretentious, a brave new city cunningly disguised as a World’s Fair.” [pp. 115-117]
As you can see, he writes reasonably well (the book was his first serialized in The New Yorker; though the number of verb-less sentences, such as the book’s first, irked me) and with a certain humor, but the superficiality of his first impressions begins to weigh. Why bother? He alludes to his sponsors expecting him the next month to fly out of Buenos Aires to Africa, without ever explaining why or who they are. Indeed, he never bothers to say why he is visiting South America in the first place.
As befalls many a writer whose intelligence and self-regard are elevated, Matthiessen suffers greatly, even amusingly, from general-itis. This allows him to say “in South America radios are always played for all they’re worth, and at full volume” [Apr. 11, p. 167] and other mirthless generalizations. He is a grumpy flyer – which doesn’t keep him from three full pages of aerial observations from a plane in a particularly lethargic part – and raises his discomfort to a philosophical rant on the entire culture: “One becomes stolid and resigned as any dray horse, aware that an infusion of logic, honesty, and efficiency into this world would create a chaos impossible to imagine.” [Mar. 15, p.148] His frustrations overflowing, I had to laugh at that!
Luckily – and I should say immensely so for him – Matthiessen meets a few interesting characters at a bar in Pucallpa who tell him about a monster fossilized jaw deep in the rainforest only waiting for a willing and monied Gringo to mount an expedition to bring it out. Despite his skepticism (“Jungle legends are, in the main, absurd”), Matthiessen falls for it and re-arranges his plans – thankfully, for without it, I doubt the book would have been published.
He persuades the brother of a friend in Lima to join him on the jaunt, a jungle explorer and ex-Governor, no less, of an interior state. And without Andrés – to whom the book is dedicated – there would not have been a book, for Andrés does all the talking (and translating to English) and, at one jungle juncture, saves the author from certain death after he insults a brigand by calling him “shameless.”
But the author is very shy about revealing the mechanics of his journey. Only towards the book’s end, when Andrés is flying out, does he admit how heavily he depended on him for translations, saying “… I scarcely spoke. Come to think of it, I’ve hardly put a hundred words together since we left Machu Picchu, nearly three weeks ago.” The problem with this confession is that it comes after nearly a hundred pages of dialogue transcribed as if the author was both hearing and speaking directly.
Such cracks in the verisimilitude, starting with that opening moon-sky image, detract. 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. So the dating of entries just doesn’t ring true and all those verb-less sentences – as though rushed and never re-written – appear as contrivances.
Once you doubt an author’s voice, it is hard to recover. I am not one to project contemporary sensibilities onto times over a half century old, but Matthiessen’s attitude towards Indians as less than fully human seems revealing. One of his most faithful paddlers, “with his Indian face of stone,” is likened to the fossil jaw for “Alejandro was suddenly a monolith into which, at odd moments of the day, life might be breathed and wooden, implacable motions instigated by the simple insertion of a banana.” [Apr. 27, p. 244] On the earthen floor of an Indian hut, a series of items and “babies comprise the greater part of an organized litter” [Mato Grosso, p. 131].
Matthiessen reaches for an epiphany at book’s end when, after hurting the boy’s feelings, he realizes that Alejandro, along with Andrés and himself, deserves part of the credit for the paleontological discovery.
“And I kept thinking how very much how we had taken this slow, shambling boy for granted, as a kind of ungainly presence, as faceless and heavy and patient as one of the big duffels – this is the way such peons are treated here, and, having always had liberal pretensions, I disliked very much how easily I had fallen into this custom and become hardened to it.” [May 6, p. 265]
Although no human is beyond repentance, even here we hear the author’s justifications, and I, for one, feel more sorry for him than for “our good and faithful Alejandro” who is “off to Lima … to match his wits with his loud vivo compatriots of the streets. I’ll remember him with fondness, and wish him well.” [May 6, p. 288]
These are the journey’s last words. I can only say I feel the same about the author.