Thursday 17 September 2020

Review by Peter Flack of "Brazil That Never Was" by A. J. Lees


I've never been to Brazil but I did once get within forty minutes of the border while luxuriating in the coastal enclaves of Uruguay so I understand the attraction of exploring in South America.

Andrew Lees' book is about Brazil and Amazonia as an unknown and perhaps unknowable mystery. From his opening, gazing down as a boy from the Overhead Railway on the Ocean Liners and freighters tied up in the port of Liverpool that plied their way across the Atlantic, he is steered towards his subsequent quest by a book given to him by his father. The book, Exploration Fawcett, describes the adventures of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, who from 1906, for almost twenty years, explored and mapped the jungles, rivers and gorges of Brazil. On his final expedition in 1925 he disappeared and was never seen again.

Fawcett, in his many reports to the Royal Geographic Society, recounted with glee the privations he endured and the fabulous creatures he encountered. These included a sixty-foot man-eating anaconda, a double-nosed tiger and cyanide-squirting millipedes. Each time, he emerged as the hero of his own tales, calming forest-dwelling tribes with a song, escaping cannibals and braving rivers where piranhas lurked to gobble down all but him. He even reported the existence of a valley where a large brontosaurus-like creature still dwelt.

As each new expedition began it became apparent that Fawcett's imaginings went further than inventing landscapes and incredible animals. Fawcett was now searching for a lost city inhabited by mystical beings who existed beyond time. Emboldened by dabblings in theosophy and the occult he came to see himself and his son as chosen ones. When he set off that last time he was sure he knew where he was going.

Lees is gentle in recording the consuming madness of Fawcett, last of the great Victorian explorers. Perhaps, in retrospect, his disappearance was his greatest achievement.

When Lees finally visits Brazil he finds that nothing is left of Fawcett's 'magical' kingdom. A salutary dose of reality.

I loved the book. I have now ordered a copy of Exploration Fawcett. It was that good.

About the reviewer
Peter Flack is a former teacher. He was co-founder of the Whatever it Takes literacy programme for Leicester schools. He also chairs the Everybody's Reading Festival.

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