Mar 30, 2015

The Sea and the Jungle

by H.M. Tomlinson

I didn't know what this book was about at first, but I found the cover intriguing- it looks like woodcut panels. (They follow the timeline of the journey in the book, but the two on the back cover are first, chronologically). The first line definitely caught me: Everyone knows that the purpose of a travel book is to make the reader miserably envious of the author. It's a travel book unlike any other I've read. It describes the route of a cargo ship, a steamer that in 1909 carried a load of Welsh coal from Swansea to ParĂ¡, Brazil and then up the Amazon river and a small tributary to a site near the San Antonio Falls where it sat "in port" for a month while inspections were made and cargo unloaded. The return trip went via Barbados, past Jamaica and landed at Tampa, FL from where our narrator caught a train to New York and made his final way home.

I haven't spoken of him. He's actually not much of a figure in the story itself- mostly an observer. It begins rather abruptly when Tomlinson is on his way to work, feeling bitterly oppressed by the daily grind, and stops to have conversation with a sailor on the street. This man invites him to take passage on the cargo steamer (it being short a few hands) and our narrator pretty much ditches his job, family and responsibilities in an instant to go along. (If you read the forward it becomes apparent the sailor was his brother, but still it seems very impulsive!) From there the book is all about the journey. I liked reading it, but the descriptions can be so dense it's hard to keep track of what you're reading about sometimes. The author has interesting insights and musing to share about everything he witnesses. The few momentous events seem to occur to other people, and there are a number of tall tales and travel stories told by other people met along the way. Tomlinson went aboard the ship in role of purser, which I understand means his job was to keep track of accounts, so he doesn't seem to do much but sit around chatting with people and watching everyone else work. It really does give you a vivid sense of place, the pitch and roll of the ocean, smothering heat inside the belly of the ship, characters of the deckhands (most did not speak English), the changes of weather, the sudden wall of greenery of South American jungle, glimpses of native people, birds and astonishingly gorgeous butterflies (never any wildlife larger than a peccary or anaconda), fears of mosquitoes and disease, and a crazy story about this railroad being built deep in the rain forest headed who knows where.

Certain aspects of the book reminded me vividly of The Lord of the Flies, Mister Johnson by Joyce Cary and State of Wonder but it's hard to put my finger on exactly why.

Rating: 3/5     302 pages, 1912

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