Book review, first published in THE GOOD BOOK GUIDE 2003
“The Cloud Forest” first appeared in 1961 and brings to vivid life a journey Matthiessen made by sea, land and air, from New York, across the wide Sargasso Sea, to the jungles of Amazonia, and thence, via the Inca city of Macchu Picchu – already, in the early sixties, crawling with tourists – to the windswept desolation of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, winding up back in Brazil, in the wetlands of the Pantanal, an area half the size of France, and fabulously rich in fauna.
All of this Matthiesen records in a detached, curiously Victorian fashion (curious, considering the stylistic innovations then taking place in American literature). Such meticulous, Darwinian prose might grate after a while, were it not for Matthiessen’s playful sense of humour, especially when casting doubts on the veracity of both native and outsider accounts. He takes a child’s delight in the often imaginary dangers of Amazonia’s wildlife, which includes two of the world’s most deadly snakes (the bushmaster and fer-de-lance) the caiman, anaconda and the legendary, much maligned piranha. He is good on the perils of bus travel in Bolivia, and the adrenalin of living through a failed coup d’etat in the somewhat inappropriately named capital of La Paz, while at times, in the Amazon, this book recalls Conrad in “Heart of Darkness”, evoking the mysterious, sinister quality of the jungle – “cut by dark, serpentine creeks with no sign of life along their banks” – quite superbly. If one can make a complaint, it is about the poor quality and paucity of the photographs. Otherwise, this stands the test of time, straddling the divide between travel literature and natural history with the quiet authority of a consummate writer and true animal-lover.
Dai the Llama’s verdict: “Doesn’t taste as good as pampa grass or cucumber sandwiches but the lack of photos definitely makes it easily digestible. Two hooves up for Mr Matthiesen!”