Monday, December 24, 2012

Book Review: The Cloud Forest

The Cloud Forest, with a sub-title "A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness" is a travel book by Peter Matthiessen written in 1961.  It covers his travels in South America for what seemed like several years as he started at the mouth of the Amazon, went all the way south to Tierra del Fuego, up to Machu Picchu, deep into the jungle and out on the the Pampas.  Can we say poisonous snakes, spiders, piranha, malaria and hostile natives?

Of course he meets some real interesting characters en route, from helpful missionaries and industrialists, to a murderer who has receded so far into the back country that the authorities will not pursue him.  A good portion of the book is given over to the search for an elusive lost city somewhere in Peru.  This expedition was to have been led by Peter Cruz, who disappeared with he authors cash deposit and became almost a figment of his imagination.  Just when we think Cruz has absconded for good he re-appears, but he is the classic tour-guide, bad-tempered and violent one minute, charming the next.

In between, Matthiessen devotes a healthy portion of the book to an incredible raft journey down the hellacious Urubamba River.  The raft is home-made, hewn from balsa and piloted by a few natives, a couple of which are dreadfully inexperienced and ready to bolt into jungle at a moments notice.  Apparently the river had never been run during high water before.  There are literally pages describing the ferocious rapids, whirlpools, eddy's and treacherous rocks.  They survive, just about and are heroes (or fools) for their trip. It is part Deliverance, part The River Wild.

Eventually, the author catches up with Cruz and reminds him of their engagement.  The lost city is never found; however, they do stumble upon a massive fossil, the jaw of some huge extinct crocodile, and proceed to trying bring that back to the US.  Unlike the relics from Machu Picchu that ended up at Yale University (and still not returned) their efforts to remove the fossil were thwarted.

Matthiessen travels read like "what is going to happen next?"  It is a page-turner for sure. Undoubtedly, his exploits and the characters he encountered formed the basis for his 1965 novel "At Play In The Fields of the Lord", which was made into a 1991 movie starring Tom Berenger, Jon Lithgow, Aidan Quinn and Tom Waits!  I vaguely remember it but will look for it on Netflix.

Matthiessen is now 85 years old lives in NYC.  The stories he could tell...

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