NOVEMBER 22, 2020
A. J. LEES’S NEW BOOK Brazil That Never Was is an engaging treasure, urgent in its message, thrilling in its telling. His masterful tale marries the grandeur of the natural historian with the passion of the outlier poet. Like the physician Arthur Conan Doyle, and friend and fellow neurologist Oliver Sacks, Lees is a detective, tracking the mysteries of the human mind.
Notting Hill Editions publishes its limited-edition hardcovers with sensual linen covers, in the perfect size to slide into a pocket, like a furry marsupial. The slim volume is bite-sized, an easy day’s meal for the reader, yet its nourishment suffices for a long dream life, where it feeds an ability to fly. Experiencing a well-made book lends haptic reality to its subject. Distant histories, fantastic tales, and perfumed secrets are made flesh.
Lees’s title suggests the allure of the impossible. You suspect that you will be sucked into a dark, sylvan adventure, where spirits murmur that mortal danger is a small price to pay for the ecstatic quicksand of obsession. Even before you read the first line, you know that the El Dorado of this imagined Brazil is fool’s gold. Yet that doesn’t matter; it will be worth it.
Elegant, light-footed prose carries the reader through a treacherous jungle of motives, failures, hopes, and terrors. We follow two journeys: Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett’s and Lees’s own. Fawcett was a decorated soldier and explorer, an amateur cartographer. In 1925, he launched the last of his expeditions to locate what he called the ancient City of Z and famously vanished in the depths of Amazonia, leaving a messy narrative that begs to be tidied. Perhaps in his authorship, Lees experienced a kind of near-death experience: perils and redemption in a fantasy “Brazil,” a destination he finally reaches — and, unlike Fawcett, he lives to tell the tale. The book lays out a reality so painfully heightened that it attains sustained unreality. It is the story of seeking another world, and an epiphany that refocuses life into a clear meaning. Or not.
Inspired by the hectic hodgepodge of 1940s Liverpool, Lees’s inner expedition was instigated by his father and launched from his boyhood bedroom. Lees Sr. took his young son on walks through Sailortown, humming Xavier Cugat’s song “Brazil” — thus embedding an earworm of unquenchable desire like a microchip. As I read, I found myself humming the devilishly catchy tune. Two bright macaws perched on a barrel-chested sailor’s shoulder took up residence in the boy’s dream world, ambassadors from a magical future. Perhaps they descended from Alexander von Humboldt’s Orinoco macaw, which allegedly parroted an extinct indigenous language. “The Brazil of my bedroom was an untouched, luxuriant planet bisected by a wide river, a place of blanks and guesses,” Lees writes. “It was a geography of unavailability that insulated me from my first failures, a haven of mystery beyond the scope of charts.” The ships in port offloaded chocolate, after all.
Just as I and my young pals tried to dig a tunnel from California to China, so I can visualize a young Lees peering down a Liverpudlian manhole, deducing that it led to a parallel world. He wanted to be a natural scientist, and like some of my heroes (Richard Evans Schultes, William S. Burroughs, Wade Davis), he read classic volumes by botanists Alfred Russel Wallace and Richard Spruce. Ethnobotanist Schultes, at Harvard, used to rave that Wallace’s botanical collections had never been analyzed and thus crucial active components of their chemistries had been lost forever.
Lees’s dad gave his young son a biography of Fawcett, whose robust ghost has specialized in haunting imaginations since his disappearance. Fawcett’s life connects with Doyle, Rider Haggard, T. E. Lawrence, and other literary adventurers. He was a proper soldier and explorer, cited for bravery during World War I, a recipient of the Royal Geographical Society’s Founders Gold Medal. Fawcett was an avid spiritualist. He persistently sought alternatives to established religions, becoming a Buddhist in Ceylon, then exploring theosophy and the occult. This is the side of Fawcett that still intrigues. None other than Brad Pitt produced a film based on his story: The Lost City of Z (2016).
Fawcett believed in a flourishing civilization seeded by a spiritual race that had hidden itself so well it could neither be found nor destroyed. He was convinced that, deep in the Mato Grosso, he would locate this civilization created by and for those great mystical masters of another dimension, the Atlanteans (as in the lost continent of). Respectable contemporaries shared his obsession, though for financing purposes, he marketed his proposed expeditions as mapping and botanical surveys.
Charles Goodyear’s 1839 invention of vulcanized rubber launched an insatiable market for tires, footwear, adhesives, inflatable boats, blimps, hoses, gaskets, and protective gear. Football was rediscovered in the 1800s: Mesoamerican footballers had been playing games with rubber balls in 2000 BCE. The British launched expeditions into South America, funding some of Fawcett’s. In 1876, the explorer Henry Wickham smuggled 70,000 South American hevea tree seeds to England, where they were shipped on to British colonies in Southeast Asia. As late as the 1920s, Fawcett was sent back to South America to locate especially fine latex-bearing trees in the border area between Bolivia and Brazil. Later in that decade, the Americans leapt in, with Henry Ford setting up his ill-fated colonialist plantation Fordlândia in Brazil.
The telegraph, electricity, and photography had established ways to investigate what is hidden in plain sight. Physics redefined metaphysics with inventions to communicate over long distances, or to freeze a moment in time, directly negotiating with the invisible. Who could say, for example, that photography could not capture the haunting dead? Loss engenders vulnerability, and scandals emerged having to do with so-called “spirit photography.” Yet many still attend services of the Spiritualist Church, conducted by mediums, channeling loved ones who now live at addresses “on the other side.”
With great sensitivity and imagination, Lees excavates the roots of 19th-century botany, including Richard Spruce’s belief now supported by science “that plants were sentient beings that beautified the earth, and that each species possessed its own particular goodness and perfection”:
Spruce was the purest of all the great Victorian plant hunters and his notebook descriptions left me with an indelible impression of the convulsive loveliness of the selva [forest]. He had walked into the hell of the dark wood and come face to face with the heart of creation. Through his time with the Indians, he realised that the natural world was a sacred web of exchange of which Man was one small part.
Into this teeming aliveness arrived the heart of darkness: colonial profiteering. Rubber barons sent torturers, who enslaved indigenous peoples to tap latex bound for Akron, Ohio. “The wickedness committed by thugs in the pay of cutthroats […] had imbued the Indians with a deadly vengeance against the white man.” Today, fanatic arsonist “businessmen” have accelerated destruction of the delicate biome that outputs oxygen and medicinal cures.
Hazardous expeditions require careful planning. (Thor Heyerdahl once told me that his most prized achievement was that, in all his expeditions, there had never been a single serious injury.) In the research for this book, Lees learned more and more about his boyhood hero, who seemed “impervious to the sufferings of others,” and who also proved to hold racist attitudes toward indigenous peoples and their extraordinary knowledges. As his research progressed, Lees experienced an increasing feverishness in the quest, mirroring the febrile obsession of his subject. He relates how renowned explorer John Hemming had “taken the piss” out of the Fawcett legend but hadn’t dissipated the magic. A sense of bewilderment, of awe, and of hope carried Lees forward to his revelation: a very personal, scrupulously researched mystery story. In graceful prose, he evokes this mystery, rooted in the scientific and poetic beauty of the natural world.
Lees slowly builds a controlled ambiguity, a bit like Otto Preminger’s noir classic, Laura. What is this Brazil that wasn’t, that isn’t? Clearly there it is: Brazil, bigger than life. Xavier Cugat’s crooning echoes through the flora and fauna of the author’s tale.
Recent archaeological excavations have uncovered sites of ancient settlements in the Mato Grosso. The wise civilization that Fawcett blindly sought was the one he traveled amid. Despite living and archaeological histories of cultures that enhance ecologies, the viral meme of greed brings the deadliest pandemic. We are the scourge of our nightmares, the destroyer of living dreams. Lees’s eloquent tale urges: support Native peoples, protect other species, help win this battle. For soon the real tropical cornucopia of Brazil will likely be lost, as if it never was.