One way to remain unconquered is to make sure that you never lose a battle – though that is technically undefeated. If you lose the odd battle but still win the war, you’re still unconquered (c.f. Super Bowl repeat-hopefuls, the Green Bay Packers). Another way is to refuse to engage the fight at all – at least, not on a scale that is live-or-die.
In 2003, author Scott Wallace traveled for roughly three months on an expedition led by Brazilian Sydney Possuelo – government worker by paycheck, charismatic leader by personality, activist by experience – to trace the outlines of the territory of an “uncontacted” tribe so as to make sure that the government has the necessary information to stave off legal incursions by various industries (including but not limited to gold, logging, fishing; not even touching yet on the illegal activities). It is the chance of a lifetime and, at the same time, a complete and utter misery. Everyone contracts dysentery (probably through the river water they drink unfiltered and untreated). Getting enough food to eat is a regular concern. Possuelo maintains discipline through a combination of braggadocio, storytelling, and haranguing, and fear.
The dangers are considerable. From nature: anacondas, bushmasters, caimans, piranhas, ants. From people: heavily armed “entrepreneurs” of many an illegal variety; “tamed” tribes of Indians – the Head-Bashers, for example; “untamed” tribes, mainly the flecheiros, the Arrow People, who use poisoned arrows as their weapons of choice. Of course, there might be a rebellion within the ranks as well. The author might slip on a steep hill and land on a knife-sharp tree, hacked down by the machete of the lead member of the expedition. They might run out of food.
Wallace’s writing tasks are formidable. The spine of the manuscript has to be the adventure of the Amazon, but what a peculiar adventure it is. Sydney Possuelo has to confirm from the ground what he has seen from the air: where, exactly, do the flecheiros live? How much territory do they use? And can he document this information without actually contacting them? Everyone on the trip, from Possuelo himself to the Kanamari and Matis tribesmen, to the white riberinhos (rivermen), to the two non-Brazilians, Wallace and photographer Nicolas Reynard, wants to see a member of this mysterious group with his own eyes. Yet any physical encounter would almost certainly introduce deadly pathogens into the native population. In other words, the nominally gripping central narrative hopefully avoids any climax.
Secondly, there is the background. If the reasons for Possuelo’s expedition are going to make sense, the reader has understand the history of South America’s treatment of its indigenous populations – governmentally speaking; of researching anthropologists (marauders of a different sort) from Europe, the U.S.A., and Canada; and of people of all stripes looking to make a living through the riches that the rainforests would seem to hold in unending supply. The stakes of the mission don’t make sense if you don’t know what’s going on.
Wallace has chosen to include himself as a character within the story, battling his own concerns (when will he see his sons again; is he fit enough to take on this trip; will this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity play out well for him? In addition to him, there are a full thirty-some others along – white riberinhos Paulo Welker and Soldado, the nightmare-suffering cook Mauro, the facially-adorned Kanamari and the quiet Matis.
In other words, his task is no small feat, undermined by the very anti-climactic purpose of the very trip itself. The flecheiros have retreated in the face of ongoing incursion and remained unconquered as a result. The book covers the story of the trip, end to end. At the beginning, there is a greater number of “bubble stories,” in which Wallace briefly diverts on a tangent to address relevant historical details. The deeper into the trip, the fewer these become. While this helps the pacing of the writing, the actual relationships between the members of the expedition receive short shrift, which complicates some of the raising-of-stakes. It doesn’t stop the work from being a real page-turner, especially in its 3rd act (of 4, I’d say), but it cheats some of the emotional storytelling in the end.
Wallace is careful to include all of the inherent contradictions and tensions of the trip, beyond not contacting the flecheiros. He has a porter, which he needs, but he loathes the relationship into which both of them are immediately bound. Possuelo’s vision and charisma are critical to the success of this mission, but he is also arrogant and alienating. For all that the journey requires general cooperation, everyone is constantly stealing and hoarding supplies.
If this book does not achieve the status it deserves because the writing is not flawless all the way through, it is not because Wallace failed at a simple task. He succeeded largely at a complex and unlikely task. Fortunately, the topic alone helps to carry along the improbable weight of the narrative, so that even when Wallace’s prose is not at its best, you’ll still find yourself engaged, if not gripped, by the quixotic mission.
Full disclosure: I met Scott Wallace at an artist retreat in the fall of 2008 when he was working on this manuscript. I think highly of him. It might show.