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Peter Fleming


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Peter Fleming (1907-71) was the brother of Ian Fleming, author of the Bond books. He was the author of several travel books including this one. In 1932 he answered an advertisement in The Times to join a somewhat amateurish expedition organised by a couple of men with little knowledge of Brazil. Ostensibly, the aim was twofold: exploration and trying to find out what had happened to Colonel Percy Fawcett. In 1925 Fawcett, a well-known explorer, had disappeared in mysterious circumstances; some accounts claimed he was still alive, others that he had been murdered by natives.

Fleming recruited a school and university acquaintance, identified simply as Roger, to join him. The expedition duly arrived in Rio, where they were joined by Neville, another Eton contemporary of Peter's and Roger's. After various delays they eventually set off up-country under the leadership of 'Major Pingle' (not his real name), an American. The plan was to travel by boat down the River Araguala and then to go up a tributary called the Tapirapé, with the intention of striking across country from there towards where Fawcett had disappeared. But serious disagreement arose among the expedition members as it became apparent that Major Pingle had no intention of searching for Fawcett or going inland. Reluctantly, he agreed to go up the Tapirapé but no farther.

The party started up the river, but did not get far on the first day. Next morning Major Pingle announced that he was going back, much to Fleming's relief. The party continued upstream without him for several days, but eventually most of them returned to the Araguala to meet up with him. Meanwhile Fleming, Roger, and Neville set off across country from the Tapirapé in the hope of getting some news of Fawcett. Neville had to turn back because of infected feet, but Fleming and Roger pressed on for a few days until conditions became too difficult.

Back on the Araguala, the party finally split up irretrievably: two members remained with Major Pingle and the remainder embarked with Fleming. There ensued a race downstream, with both groups making for the coast and a passage home. Fleming's party won the race by a short head.

Fleming describes the adventure with a light touch and very typical English irony and understatement. The tone is somewhere between Evelyn Waugh and John Buchan, but closer to Waugh. There was plenty of discomfort and a little real danger, but this is played down. Reading between the lines, one senses that Fleming's leadership was crucial and may have ensured the survival of all the participants.

For the 21st-century reader the book acquires an extra layer of interest because of the contrast between now and then. The Amazon forests were still untouched by commercial logging and substantial areas were still unexplored. Fleming conveys the atmosphere of the place and people well. His attitude is essentially that of the upper-class Englishman which he was, but he seems to have been able to get on well with the people he met, regardless of race or class.

Probably the thing that jars most gratingly on the modern sensibility is Fleming's enthusiasm for shooting the wild life he encountered. Fortunately he didn't meet a jaguar, but he killed large numbers of alligators for no better reason than that he disliked them; their death agonies (sic) are described with satisfaction. But it is a mistake to project one's own sensibility on someone who was writing three-quarters of a century ago, and aside from this the book offers an entertaining read and a portrait of an all-but-vanished world.

4 November 2008

%T Brazilian Adventure
%A Peter Fleming
%I The Reprint Society
%C London
%D 1933, 1940
%P 371pp
%K travel

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