Monday, March 31, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

 “MOTHER OF GOD” by Paul Rosolie  (Bantam Press / Random House, $NZ37:99) ; “AFTERNOONS IN ITHAKA” by Spiri Tsintziras (ABC Books / Harper-Collins, $NZ 29:99)

            As I have remarked on this blog before, travel books come in many types and yet there is one iron-cast rule. It is no longer adequate for real travel writers (i.e. those outside the tourist industry-sponsored “Travel” sections of newspapers) to simply give an account of where they have been and what they have seen. Real travel writers have to have a personal angle and perspective, and some literary skill. Worthwhile travel writing is, in effect, a series of experiences and reflections fired by the foreign place – not just descriptions of that foreign place. (Look up my essay “On the Beaten Track” via the index at right).
As if to illustrate my thesis I have before me this week two books of travel as different from each other as chalk and cheese – or rather as different as raw survival and fine peasant cuisine. Each has a very personal perspective.
The rough, tough one first.
The title of Paul Rosolie’s Mother of God does not signify that his is a religious book.
Rather it is a book about the western-most area of the Amazon rain forest which early Spanish explorers called “Madre de Dios” – Mother of God. Straddling the borders of Peru and Brazil, and with the Andes in sight, the Madre de Dios is an area of incredible biodiversity. As Rosolie reckons it up early in the piece:
The rough tallies for the entire Andes/Amazon region: 1,666 birds, 414 mammals, 479 reptiles, 834 amphibians and a large portion of the Amazon’s 9,000 fish species. In the Madre de Dios alone there are more than 1,400 butterfly species.” (pp.12-13)
And this does not account for the even more incredible variety of plants and trees. Speaking of being lost in the jungle in a storm, Rosolie writes:
If the storm intensified, there was little chance I’d survive the resulting carpet bombing of shed tree limbs. Some of the great explorers have claimed that snake or piranhas or jaguars present the gravest threat in the Amazon, but these declarations betray inexperience. The trees themselves, in their dizzying innumerability, isolate and disorient you, and in a storm prove the most deadly. Some of the true giants are so interlaced with vines and strangler tentacles that when they fall, their weight tears down almost an acre of jungle. There is no way to escape.” (p.6)
Rosolie is cautious about using such terms as “pristine” or “unspoiled”, as he is aware that human beings are already having a major impact on the Madre de Dios and it is gravely threatened. Even so, he cannot resist telling us every so often that he has witnessed what is in effect raw nature acting out the same dramas that have been acted out for tens of thousands of years.
The first half of the book is entitled “The Age of Innocence” and chronicles Rosolie’s earlier travels in the region, very much in the form of a series of encounters with wild animal species. The second half has the title “The Battle of the Amazon”, and concentrates more on the ecological concerns his experiences aroused in him.
As he tells it, he was an 18-year-old student in New Jersey, bored with his studies, longing for an outdoor life and already concerned about saving animals, when he wangled his first trip to the Madre de Dios. While there he heard stories of the region’s unexplored areas of rain forest from an English conservationist whom he calls Emma and her Peruvian boyfriend Juan Julio. He was fired with the idea of doing some lone trekking; and on return visits, in his early twenties, he proceeded to do just that.
By his own account, he had mixed qualities of naivete and complete fearlessness, always being more intrigued and delighted by wild animals than he was scared of them.
He climbed up into the rain forest’s canopy to discover the high-living wildlife there, and was delighted to observe ants that had the capacity to “hang-glide” onto other branches if the wind knocked them off their perches. He gloried in the sight of macaws with their brilliant plumage. The first time he and some comrades encountered a caiman (large black Amazonian crocodile) he tried to restrain it by grabbing its tail and just missed having his face ripped off as the beast swiftly swung around to snap at him with its great jaws (p.44). He avoided rampaging peccaries (wild pigs) when they were quarrelling with howler monkeys over a waterhole, but he did stay around to see how the two species interacted. He was awe-struck by the “strangler fig”, which parasitically envelops trees and gradually sucks the life out of them, almost the same way the region’s anacondas crush the life out of animals.
He was happy to have some of his preconceptions modified. Expecting the water of the Amazon’s tributaries to be always filled with piranhas or caiman and to be undrinkable, he was surprised to find his conservationist companions happily drinking it and bathing in it.
He nursed an orphaned baby anteater he called Lulu, which got used to riding around on his back the way baby anteaters ride on their mothers. But he warns that full-grown anteaters are not as cute as they might look and are perfectly capable of standing their ground against bigger beasts with the help of their formidable claws. Of Lulu he writes:
If you bred a hyper baby black bear with Edward Scissorhands, the result would be something similar to what we were dealing with. Though she was small, her claws were already three-inch long black sickles that could tear through denim and skin with ease…” (p.67)
At a certain point in his travels, he contracted a horrible infection, his face swelled up with dozens of pus-filled spots (there’s a particularly grisly shot of him in this condition in the selection of colour photographs) and he had to be taken back to New York for hospitalization. Ironically, he was carried out of the jungle by his enemies, the poachers who shoot and kill all Amazon species regardless of their endangered status.
I admit that I was at first a little suspicious of some of his animal stories and wondered if he wasn’t fantasising. When he first encountered a 12-foot anaconda, for example, he tells us that he was so eager to observe it that he wrestled with it to keep it in sight (pp.133-36). Yet he is insistent that he did such things, and later when he meets an even larger specimen of the species, he tells us:
My brain fired a hundred thoughts all at once as her coils exploded into action, rapidly entering the water and disappearing. Propelled by an irrational urge to restrain the snake and get photographic evidence of her size, I dived onto her back like a shortstop catching a line drive. My presence did nothing to impede her progress, and my arms could not close around her, such was her circumference. I was carried more than seven feet on the anaconda, my arms clinging to her trunk, legs dragging along beside.” (p.151)
I will just have to accept the veracity of these tales, as I accept this charming tale involving a giant snake:
Climbing down to get a photo, I was beside the stream when I heard a muffled pop. Just three feet to my left, in the stream, a female anaconda more than fourteen feet long lay coiled around the body of a peccary. The herd had come through here, and the anaconda had grabbed one by the cheek as it passed and wrestled it into the water. The pop I heard was the pig’s spine breaking in half. Gowri [the author’s Indian fiancée] almost lost her mind at the sight of such a massive snake, but was still able to snap a stunning photo of the scene.” (p.223)
The snap is reproduced in the book. The amazing thing is that this ferocious reptile was scared away by the human attention, leaving her kill behind her. The human beings took the crushed peccary back to their camp and roasted and ate it.
To strip away the last shreds of my scepticism, I find that you can go on Youtube, look up “Paul Rosalie”, and find ample film of him interacting with ferocious snakes in a fearless way.
By now you have rumbled that all I am doing in this book review is presenting you with a summary of the book’s highlights. That is because I am holding back on making a few negative comments on the book’s style. It is fully understandable, and commendable of him, that Rosolie adopts a rather impassioned tone in the book’s second half as he deals with the poachers, the loggers who chop down centuries-old mahogany groves to service wealthy markets, the developers who want to rip up virgin rainforest to mine, and the Trans-Amazonian highway pushing through the region, which he describes as “the most environmentally devastating single project in the history of the world.” (p.185). This, I guess, is anger in a good cause.
But as a whole, the book’s style can be cliché–ridden journalese. Yes, there is the occasional felicitous phrase, as when Rosolie declares “To walk the Amazon by night is to enter a world where you are gravely disadvantaged compared to millions of sensory savants.”(p.84) I love that “sensory savants” bit, as he thinks of all the acutely seeing and hearing and smelling animals surrounding him in the darkness. But this is an exception to the book’s undistinguished reportage.
In an autobiographical chapter (Chapter 2), Rosolie tells us that he is dyslexic and got low grades at school in New Jersey and was regarded as a simpleton. Clearly he is no simpleton, but this does lead me to wonder if Mother of God was ghost-written, or perhaps very heavily edited and re-written for him before publication. In this, I could be quite wrong, and I am sorry to be churlish in my suggestion, as the book tells such a good story. There are, however, times when Rosolie overdoes his sympathetic tears at the destruction of animals. There is one episode (p.286) where he pictures himself, as poachers close in, communing with a wounded jaguar and saying “Please live!” like the hero of a staged Hollywood eco-drama.
Oh dear. Rotten–hearted old cynic me. Maybe I’m just saying that Rosolie’s style can be rather melodramatic. But I enjoyed the things this book told me about so much, that perhaps I should just stop quibbling about the way it is written.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   * 
“Spiri” (Spirithoula) Tsintziras’ Afternoons in Ithaka is, as a travel book, the most
extreme contrast with Paul Rosalie’s adventures in the wild places of the earth.
This is a story contrasting one relatively-newly settled country with one country of very ancient civilization. Spiri is a Greek Australian, an experienced journalist and co-author of a popular children’s book. Her story is as much autobiography and confession as it is travel book. Its 350-odd pages divide into three parts, ”The Seed”, “The Sapling” and “The Fruit”, as she charts her own growth and growing confidence in her cultural identity.
As a working class kid growing up in Melbourne, Spiri was partly intrigued and partly embarrassed by her parents’ Greek culture. The district was fairly rough-house. Dad was sometimes on the unemployment benefit when he couldn’t get factory work, sometimes drank too much and sometimes got nasty when drunk. His most stable period appears to have been when he ran a fish ‘n chips shop. Mum struggled to earn something as a seamstress. The neighbours always seemed to be fighting. Kids in the playground weren’t always sympathetic to “wog” ways and food, and they moved away from Spiri smartly when she produced such odiferous delicacies as squid sandwiches. So young Spiri was very self-conscious about who she was and where she came from and went through a mildly rebellious teenage phase where she refused to eat meat and did other things that baffled her parents.
Childhood visits to grandparents in Greece could be daunting. The ancient, evil-smelling long-drop the village used. The lack of amenities. But then there was grandma’s home-baked Greek bread, drenched in olive oil and cooked with tomatoes. In fact it is Greek grandma’s home-baked bread that greets us on the first page of this book before the autobiographical background is painted, and this points to another aspect of Afternoons in Ithaka.
It is a book about food.
The imperative to eat, overcoming other circumstances, is well caught in one childhood memory, which is recorded thus:
I try not to look at the lamb’s eyes, or at the mouth clamped shut with wire, the sharp teeth still visible as it turns around, slowly, slowly. The lamb’s body has been secured to the spit so that it doesn’t move, metal skewers pushed through the flesh and clamped on. I feel sorry for the animal, but it know I will not be able to resist eating it – it smells delicious”. (p.77)
Even childhood tenderness about baa-lambs is overcome by the smell of roasting lamb.
Nearly every chapter is followed by a recipe for mainly ethnic Greek dishes. The opening chapter on grandma’s bread is followed by a recipe for said bread. A chapter on meeting other kids in Greece is followed by a recipe for chicken stew. When Mum’s struggles as a seamstress are described, there follows the recipe for Greek coffee. When expatriate Greeks discuss Greek politics and the right way to preserve cucumbers, we are given advice on how to dry seeds. So, in afterword after afterword, we run through spinach pie and moussaka and sundry other delicacies. In some cases, the recipes give way to recorded accounts from elders on how they conduct their kitchen life, and occasionally there is testimony on other aspects of Greek culture and peasant superstitions, such as the advice Spiri’s mother gives on the evil eye.
Afternoons in Ithaka takes us through Spiri’s adolescence and young adulthood, student years and backpacking trips around the Mediterranean (Greece, Italy, southern France) with a student pal, but all the time leading to her greater identification with her ethnic roots when at last she finds a husband, has children and gets to visit Ithaka. Symbolically, it ends with the building of a Greek-style peasant oven.
In the end, this is a sunnily optimistic story of the genre that entices readers with exotic food. I have not always responded favourably to this genre in the past, but in this case the author’s sweet earnestness is seductive.


  1. Nicholas, a VERY belated thank you for this post on my book - I am in the process of publishing another memoir with similar themes and came across your review which I had not seen before. At any rate,thanks so much and will go in and have a read of your work. Best, Spiri

  2. Thank you for your compliment. Goodness! Three-and-a-half years is a long time for a reaction.