Giles Foden: Brazilian Adventure
This month we publish Peter Fleming's classic travel book, Brazilian Adventure, which charts an expedition, advertised in the personal columns of The Times in 1932, to ascertain the fate of Colonel Percy Fawcett – soldier, spy, legendary explorer – who in 1925 embarked on a trip to the heart of Brazil in search of the 'Lost City of Z', never to be seen again. Here, in his foreword to this new edition, Giles Foden explains why, to his mind, Peter Fleming's re-telling of this Brazilian adventure amounts to 'the greatest travel book ever.'
When I worked in newspapers, I took every opportunity to get away from the desk job. Working on the literary pages of a national chiefly involves the opening and sending out of parcels of books; it is, in itself, no passport to Parnassus. Now and then, strolling into the editorial offices of the Guardian on London’s Farringdon Road, usually later in the morning than might be expected, I would pass the postal sorting office at Mount Pleasant nearby. Often I would wonder if I might as well be working there. Once I was at my desk, thoughts of elsewhere would soon begin to percolate through my mind.
Mostly for my forays I had to make do with the betting shops of north London – I suppose gambling is a form of travel, too. But there were a few genuine journeys abroad, mainly commissions for the foreign or travel departments. Fishing in Zambia, a couple of trips to Uganda (one to cover a grisly set of cult-related murders), something about oil prospecting off Zanzibar. And then there were trips I made to research books, to Lake Tanganyika and elsewhere.
Always the thought was, how long can I stay? How long can I get away with being away before the editor gives me gyp? So when I read of Peter Fleming’s anxiety, while making the astonishing journey described in Brazilian Adventure, about getting back to The Spectator, where he worked as an assistant literary editor, I really appreciate it.
In April 1932, Fleming replied to an advertisement in the personal columns of The Times:
Exploring and sporting expedition, under experienced guidance, leaving England June to explore rivers central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Percy Fawcett; abundant game, big and small; exceptional fishing; ROOM TWO MORE GUNS; highest references expected and given.
The resulting book about this expedition is to my mind the greatest travel book ever. Its virtues are not so much about the journey, but perhaps one had better first bend one’s attention to the details of that, as Fleming himself might have said: an establishment rebel, he seems to have taken particular delight in paying heed to and then subverting conventions for writing, as well as conventions in much else.
The expedition went by ship to Rio and from there to São Paulo, then overland to the rivers Araguaia and Tapirapé. Their destination was the last-known position of Fawcett, who had disappeared in the jungle seven years earlier. A British artillery officer and archaeologist, Percy Fawcett had gone to South America with his son Jack in search of the ‘Lost City of Z’, supposedly the remnant of an ancient civilization which he believed to have thrived in the jungles of Brazil.
The pursuers had very little to go on. Following in Fawcett’s footsteps as best they could, they soon began arguing amongst themselves, largely over the role and qualities of one ‘Major Pingle’. This is the pseudonym that Fleming gives to the ‘American citizen, holding – or claiming to hold – a commission in the
Peruvian army’ whom the expedition had engaged to be its local leader.
Disagreements with the dreadful Pingle caused Fleming and a couple of others to break away from the main expedition and continue the search for Fawcett. While there are touches of drama in that story, it was always going to be a story of defeat. Defeat by the jungle, defeat by the paucity of information about Fawcett, defeat by Major Pingle’s inadequacies. It is the return journey, during which Fleming’s party and Pingle’s party race each other down the river Araguaia, which is truly dramatic. But the fact is, one does not read this book for its drama, which can be cooked up by any competent writer. One reads it for its wit, its sprezzatura, that quality of apparent effortlessness which was defined by Baldassare Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier (1528) as ‘a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it’.
One can see fairly easily how – through the Grand Tour and other influences of the Renaissance – this practice of studied carelessness became a quality of the English upper classes, a group of which Fleming was a fully-qualified member. Born in 1907 into the Fleming banking family, he was the son of the barrister and MP Valentine Fleming, who was killed in action in 1917. Peter’s younger brother was Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books. Many have remarked that Peter was to some degree part of the model for Bond and it could be argued the whole 007 legend was a product of sibling rivalry.
Peter Fleming went to Eton College and to Christ Church, Oxford, where he got a First in English. In 1935, he married Celia Johnson, whose many roles would include parts in Brief Encounter and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. After service with the Grenadier Guards in Norway during World War II, Fleming became head of ‘D Division’, running military deception operations in Southeast Asia. He received an OBE for his war work in 1945.
As well as working at The Spectator, Fleming was for a period Special Correspondent for The Times. Further travels abroad furnished material for other witty travel books published in the 1930s, such as One’s Own Company: A Journey to China and News from Tartary. There was also a novel, The Sixth Column (1952), based on his work establishing the secret army of civilian volunteers that would fight on, behind enemy lines, as part of British anti-invasion preparations during World War II.
After the war, Peter Fleming lived the life of a country squire at Nettlebed, Oxfordshire, though he would no doubt disparage the description. A riding accident meant there would be no more travel books but he continued with journalism in a gentlemanly way. He also helped his brother (for so long the junior figure) construct and edit the Bond canon. After Ian’s death in 1964, he managed his literary estate with great skill and foresight. Peter himself died in 1971 while grouse shooting in Scotland. The rest of the party decided he died happy, engaged in his greatest passion, and continued shooting.
Brazilian Adventure remains Fleming’s greatest achievement. A bestseller in its time, it has since become a classic. It is most notable for the curious way it can remain within the sphere of the exotic while puncturing the pretensions associated with that realm of gold. This, to employ Fleming’s own style, is also known as having one’s cake and eating it.
Anyone who has ever travelled in hard country will recognize from this book the ‘lackadaisical fatalism’ that sometimes afflicts the beleaguered traveller; or the way in which nicknames and coinings are used to deflect unease. Another point to make is how lightly Fleming employs the heavy guns of considerable learning – as with the cigana birds which, like the fallen angels in Paradise Lost, set up ‘a dismal universal hiss’ at the explorers’ approach.
As for light guns, it is a measure of Fleming’s fame in the 1930s that a long Times correspondence focused on the merits of his rook rifle, a weapon which features in Brazilian Adventure and in the series of articles about his trip to Peking in 1935 that became News from Tartary.1
One shouldn’t think that an excess of wit, or of learning, or in skill with firearms, must be counterbalanced by scantiness of wisdom. In his ironical manner, Fleming says as much about the culture of travel and adventure as the most solemn scholarly exegesis. The main issue he exposes is how physical hardship is bound up with a joy in being intrepid, even foolhardy:
We started back at a good speed towards the embers of the sunset. We were not on, and we did not seem to be near, the route by which we had come out. The jungle was much thicker. We made slow and exasperated progress. Soon it became very bad – so bad that the exasperation left us and we tasted that fierce and irresponsible delight that comes when you are contending with odds to the limit of your physical energies.
For all Fleming’s vaunting of his team’s ‘splendid incompetence’, one should not doubt that the adventure described in this book was full of genuine peril. Page after page, he makes light of experiences that today would be blown up into full-length documentaries or feature films. Part of that making light relates to the deliberate crashing, for bathetic effect, of language associated with diplomacy or literary work (or any other activity which might be suspected of delusions of grandeur) into descriptions of the daily business of the expedition.
To take two examples associated with sleep, which was something in short supply on this adventure:
We introduced the time-factor by pointing at the sun and sketching its progress across the sky with a sweep of one arm. At the end of every sweep we pillowed our heads on our hands and said ‘Dorme’. They understood this all right; we had, as the statesmen say, Found a Formula. Eventually it seemed as if everything that could be done had been done, and I went through the process known to novelists of the last century as composing myself for slumber.
Joseph Conrad had died in 1924, eight years previously, and it is easy to see cartoon-like versions of his style in Fleming’s writing. Indeed Fleming himself describes the expedition as ‘a venture for which Rider Haggard might have written the plot and Conrad designed the scenery’. But perhaps it is in the work of Fleming’s Oxfordshire neighbour John Buchan that we should look for the exemplum, for does not Fleming in style and manner resemble Buchan’s greatest character, Richard Hannay?
Other lines of comparison might be drawn. If Ian Fleming, as has once been said, provides a link between the spy fictions of Kipling and le Carré, then it might equally be said that Peter Fleming provides a link between the great explorer-writers of the nineteenth century and figures such as Redmond O’Hanlon in our times. His spirit is also there in the many contemporary works of adventure fiction whose heroes light out for the postcolonial territory uncertain of what they might find – uncertain, even, of who they are. What these characters need, most of all, is a dose of Flemingesque sprezzatura. But the only place you’ll find it now is in these pages. ■
1 Disinterred by the author Patrick Wright, the correspondence can be viewed at:
Also on I.B. Tauris online:
William Dean Howells | Having faded from literary awareness, Matthew Stevenson answers: Who was William Dean Howells?
Watching the World Change | David Friend writes about the stories behind the images of September 11.
Decadent Boy Emperor | Evil tyrant? Firebrand rebel? Martijn Icks examines the character assasination of the emperor Elagabalus.