Brazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming

Brazilian Adventure1933. Marlboro Press. Paperback. 371 pages.

Recommendation from: Jenny of Shelf Love


I’ve written before on this blog that my favorite non-fiction genre is travel memoir, especially if things don’t go according to plan. In Brazilian Adventure, literary editor Peter Fleming (older brother of 007’s creator Ian Fleming) answers an advertisement in the London Times:

Exploring and sporting expedition, under experienced guidance, leaving England June, to explore rivers Central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Fawcett; abundance game, big and small; exceptional fishing; ROOM TWO MORE GUNS; highest references expected and given.

The Colonel Fawcett mentioned in the ad was an explorer who famously disappeared in Brazil along with two other men in 1925. Fleming doubts that the advertised expedition, undertaken seven years after Fawcett’s vanishing, will unearth any new information, but is compelled to apply all the same in the role of a correspondent to The Times.

The resulting trip is beset by Brazil’s political instability, weather, and logistical challenges, all of which Fleming describes in a cheery, self-deprecating style. From the first page, he punctures any romantic imaginings the reader may have about such travel:

In treating of the Great Unknown one has a free hand, and my few predecessors in this particular field had made great play with the Terrors of the Jungle. The alligators, the snakes, the man-eating fish, the lurking savages, those dreadful insects – all the paraphernalia of tropical mumbo jumbo lay ready to my hand. But when the time came I found that I had not the face to make the most of them. So the reader must forgive me if my picture of Matto Grosso does not tally with his lurid preconceptions.

Indeed, the most significant obstacle turns out to be the expedition leader himself, Major Pingle (not his real name), who – after a falling-out with Fleming’s party – proceeds to try and sabotage Fleming’s passage out of interior Brazil.

I read and enjoyed Brazilian Adventure over my Christmastime vacation, as it was the book chosen for me by the last Classics Club Spin challenge of 2013. Not only was Fleming’s tale the type of book I generally enjoy, but I absolutely loved his witty writing style. Fleming is sharp but not mean with his wit; he plays quite fair in his descriptions of all the people he encounters, including the nefarious Major Pingle. This light tone is paired with an impressive verbosity. With a lesser writer, Fleming’s prolonged asides and anecdotes would have dragged, but I happily pressed on through his more complicated passages because he was so unfailingly clever and funny. One of my early favorites – a description of approaching Rio by sea:

The water front, still some way ahead of us, flaunted a solitary skyscraper. All sky-scrapers look foolish and unnatural when isolated from their kind. It is only in the mass, huddled and strenuously craning, that they achieve a sort of quaint crude dignity. Alone, cut off from their native background of competition and emergency, they appear gauche and rather forlorn. With this one it was particularly so. Ridiculously at variance with all that we could see, hopelessly irrelevant to all that we imagined, it had the pathos of a boor. It domineered without conviction, the totem of another tribe. It knew itself for a mistake, an oversight, an intrusion. It was like a bag of tools left behind, when the curtain rises, on a stage set for romance.

Later I was told that during the last revolution they threw a full-sized billiard table out of a window on its fourteenth floor. Then I forgave it. Where that sort of thing can happen to them, there is a place for sky-scrapers.

p. 53

The book was published in 1933, so there were a few cringe-worthy “of its time” moments; I was particularly appalled by the huge amount of animals killed for sport during the trip. The expedition literally left a trail of dead alligators in its wake. Fleming’s descriptions of Brazilians and the interior tribes are not entirely free of ignorance, but these passages are not in “white man’s burden” territory either. The amusement he derives from his adventures in a foreign land is, more often than not, at his own expense.

At times, Fleming’s cultural allusions were too British or too early 20th century for me to grasp, but the feeling of immersion in that time and place was well worth any minor confusion. The book has the dry and humorous sensibility of the great comedy films of its era. I’ve already added some of Fleming’s other books to my to-read list.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Old Scrolls blog: “[Fleming’s] writing style is unusual for an adventure writer; full of subtlety, honesty and humor.  With him there was no stretching of the truth to manufacture heroics, which ironically makes his writing far more riveting and realistic than the tales of chest-banging type adventure writers.”

read_warbler: “I found it an odd mix of interesting and monotonous, to be quite honest. It got a lot better in the last third of the book when there was a race between two factions of the team to get back to civilisation.”

Shelf Love: “Fleming tells his story with style, in an offhand, witty-banter sort of way that makes you feel as if Peter Wimsey at his most urbane were ushering you up the Amazon. He talks as if piranhas are a big disappointment because they didn’t even try to devour him the second he dropped a pinky in the river.”

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