Even though nothing much happened to Peter Fleming in Brazil, he still enjoyed himself thoroughly. He made lots of undergraduate jokes, picked up some Portuguese, got a little bit better at rowing, climbed some trees. He met some savages, who weren’t very savage, and dodged snakes, fish, and insects, which were annoyances rather than nemeses. All in all, the terrors of the jungle were fairly benign, and the genius of Brazilian Adventure is that Fleming made no attempt to hide this.
As a result, the book seems entirely real, even in its silliest moments. Fleming himself called Brazilian Adventure “probably the most veracious travel book ever written; and it is certainly the least instructive.” At no point does the reader sense that Fleming is exaggerating his adventures for dramatic effect, or dwelling too long on the dangers that he faced. (Instead, he occasionally goes too far in the other direction.) “There is little awe left current in the world, and little of that little is well bestowed,” he writes. Fleming seems determined to save his awe for those things that really deserve it.
Compared to other South American travelogues of the era, Brazilian Adventure is most notable for what Fleming soft-pedaled or omitted. He made no great ado about alligators: “The alligator—at any rate the alligator of Central Brazil—is a fraud. . . . If he is not a fool and a coward, he might just as well be, so assiduously hidden are his cunning and his courage.” Unlike Roosevelt, he paid little heed to piranhas, who “might have been poultry for all the harm we took walking among them.” Unlike Landor, he brushed off the region’s swarming insects: “It is, of course, damaging to one’s self-respect to find oneself dotted with insects against whom popular prejudice is so strong that I begin to wonder whether I should ever have mentioned them at all. But one’s self-respect was the only thing that suffered, for they caused no pain or irritation.” And unlike almost everyone who had come before him, he concluded that the journey’s strains actually made for a fundamentally pleasant experience.
Musing over why his experience of Brazil was different from that of his predecessors, he notes: “If a country contains regions very remote and almost unknown, everyone conspires to paint them in the most lurid colours possible, for two very good reasons: the few men who have been to them naturally want to make a good story out of their experiences, and the many inhabitants of the country who might have been to them like to have a good excuse for not having done so.” It takes a tremendously confident writer to do this, to trust that you can make a good story out of your experiences without resorting to embellishment. Fleming saw no reason to elevate natural phenomena to grandiose proportions; it was a failed and embarrassing tactic employed by the Pingles of the world, a style wholly unsuited for the modern age. And even during the trip itself, he made frequent mockery of such manly fustian by conversing in an exaggerated explorer’s patois. Water was always “The Precious Fluid.” A pistol shot was “the well-known bark of a Mauser.” (Churchward’s book indicates just how annoying this must have been to the other travelers.) By rendering ridiculous the standard clichés, Fleming allowed himself to slip the constraints of lantern-slide journalism and write about what actually happened.
There are things that are bad about Brazilian Adventure. Fleming is an undisciplined narrator, prone to observational excursions that sap the story’s momentum. The author’s casual racism, though wholly a product of its time, will nonetheless unnerve the modern reader. All in all, it reads very much like what it is: a first book, written in two months and from all appearances not heavily edited.
It is also enormously funny, so that you quickly forgive its flaws. Other British travel narratives of the time (and some earlier ones, such as Captain Marryat’s Diary in America) are funny, too. Yet their humor is principally derived from descriptions of the stupidity of the natives and the inadequacy of the country in which the author traveled. To be sure, Fleming does some of that in Brazilian Adventure: he takes much glee in the antics of a drunken and cowardly river pilot whom they engaged to guide them back to Bélem. Still, the book’s humor primarily derives from the expedition’s haplessness, and the author and his party are almost always the butt of the joke. The pilot may have been drunk and stupid, but without him the Englishmen would have been unable to find their way home.