Fellow travellers

Not having visited the tropics has not been seen as a drawback for a number of writers who have written ‘rainforest’ novels. Jenny Diski who wrote “Rainforest” (1987) – which is a fine novel – happily admits that for her research she visited London’s Kew Gardens.

Earlier, Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle’s action-adventure stories found inspiration in nineteenth century travelogues and the popular interest given to scientific discoveries, including Darwin’s Origin of Species. Similarly, their stories also caught the imagination of the public. Verne´s “Le Radeau” [The Giant Raft] (1881) is set in the Peruvian Amazon, and Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” (1912), a forerunner of Jurassic Park, is loosely located in the northern Amazonian region.

But other ‘outsiders’ have had a varying degree of success in their evocation of tropical forests. Evelyn Waugh’s “Handful of Dust” (1934) which includes a ludicrous detour to the Amazon to resolve the protagonists’ marital problems is one of his best-forgotten novels. If Waugh’s Tony and Brenda Last’s moral compass is wonky, the eponymous hero of Brian Hennigan´s comedy “Patrick Robertson: A Tale of Adventure” (2006) is happily unencumbered by any moral dilemmas. The Thai jungle provides a backdrop to this frankly preposterous but very amusing tale of an utterly self-centred salesman, lured in a hotel bar and kidnapped by an eco-terrorist group (the self-styled People’s Earth Friendly Liberation Group) having mistaken him for his namesake from the IMF.

An unamusing and more preposterous novel is “The Darling” (2004) by Russell Banks. A young women joins the Weather Underground and goes to ground in Liberia. Her husband becomes a minister in Samuel Doe’s regime, while she looks after her sons and a chimpanzee orphanage. She helps Charles Taylor escape from a US prison and her sons chop off Doe’s ears (yes, it is really this bad).

“Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa’s Fragile Edge” (2005) is slightly better: William Powers writes about his honest efforts as an aid worker ‘to fight poverty and save the rainforest’ in Liberia in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, it is precisely when he describes helping a forest community threatened by logging companies and his friendship with an environmentalist that his writing is the most affected.

In a short story “The Sorcerers” included in a collection A Tranquil Star (published in English in 2007), Primo Levy strands two English anthropologists in the midst of a Bolivian forest tribe, who judge them according to the their own standards – their ability to survive, while awaiting rescue – for which they are singularly ill-equipped. The rainforest provides a tableau for Levi to ask us which is the more advanced civilization, and whether either (and humanity) is advancing.

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