Wild Coast

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Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge By John Gimlette, book reviewHaving thoroughly enjoyed John Gimlette’s At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig I was looking forward with relish to reading Wild Coast, an account to his visit to the Guianas; I was not disappointed. A lawyer by profession, Gimlette is a charming and cheerful travelling companion whose enthusiasm for his subject never fails to please.

There are few places in the world so remote and uncharted as the Guianas; vast as its geographical area is most of the inhabitants cram into a narrow strip adjacent to the coast and the rest is wild, and often dangerous, swamp and rainforest, hardly likely source material for such a comprehensive, colourful and diverse travelogue. Gimlette visited all three of the Guianas (the name means ‘The land of many waters’): Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana), Guyana (which was formerly British Guiana) and French Guyana which is still a ‘departmente’ of France rather than an independent country. The Guianas are notable in that they are cut off from not only the rest of the world, but also South America in general. Few writers have reported their impressions of this challenging part of the world and those who have – most notably Evelyn Waugh and Sir Walter Raleigh – have hardly been complimentary.

There is no such negativity on Gimlette’s part: in fact his resilience and good humour are rather surprising given the dangers that lurk in the dark depths of the forests, and that’s before you start to mention the insect life; heck the idea of midges makes me reluctant to visit Scotland and the thought of becoming the next meal for millions of little biting things would make me think twice about visiting this swampy part of the world. Gimlette’s cheerfulness is genuine, though, and there’s no hint of bravado even when he makes light of the dangers of travel even in the cities: ‘Nothing spoils a good lunch quite like the threat of a hand-grenade attack’. Such optimism and the refusal to be broken by the trials of exploring such a difficult region might create a rather annoying narration but Gimlette’s demeanour is tempered with compassion and intelligent commentary.

Wild Coast has the ideal balance between personal observation and background research. The detail Gimlette adds blends seamlessly into the narration; such is his gift for story-telling that he avoids the trap of sounding overly academic. It’s a good thing, too, that he focuses so heavily on the people and history of this largely inhospitable region; his descriptions are exquisitely economical – “drenchingly fecund” a gloriously memorable example – but you can’t escape the fact that, other than vegetation and deadly animals, there’s not a great deal to the Guianas.

“…Gimlette’s tales are refreshingly original and enlightening.”

It is, perhaps, telling that if we know anything of the Guianas it is probably the darker side. In 1978 909 members of the ‘People’s Temple’, a cult led by American Jim Jones, died in a mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana.What was most tragic about the affair was that the families of the people who had followed the charismatic Jones to Guyana believed their loved ones had been brainwashed and they had asked the US government to try to help them get their relatives back. Leo Ryan, a California Congressman flew to Guyana to find out what was happening at the People’s Temple: some members of the cult decided they wished to leave and, as the party boarded the aircraft, Jones’s guards opened fire, killing most of them including Ryan. When Jones told the remaining members what had happened, he also told them that it would not be possible for the People’s Temple to continue and urged his followers to commit suicide with him. It’s a well known story but Gimlette has researched it meticulously and does add to the usual accounts. Likewise his account of Henri Charriere – better known as the Papillon of the famous French penal colony – is not the version that many readers will know and, in this respect, Gimlette’s tales are refreshingly original and enlightening.

Gimlette’s brushes with the living are no less colourful but what is so brilliant is the way that, instead of just random encounters, what he says of them is relevant and slips into the narrative easily, complimenting the factual side of Wild Coast. I was particularly struck by the fact that, many years on, so much of what Gimlette encounters comes back to that old colonial spectre, slavery. In spite of hearing many tales of the horrors of slavery and its perpetual dark shadow, Gimlette at no point appears to become inured to the often shocking details.

While there’s no question that this is an excellent read, I did feel somewhat drained after read Wild Coast and I can’t see Gimlette’s epic encouraging many readers to leave their armchairs to explore the Guianas for themselves: the truth is, Gimlette does his job too well, there’s just no need to see it for oneself. Gimlette proves that a good travel writer is not required to drive the reader to booking tickets and packing a bag; if he or she gets it right, readers can be fully transported from the comfort of home. Wild Coast is the perfect example of that.

Wild Coast by John Gimlette
Published by Profile Books, Jan 2011
With thanks to Profile Books for providing a review copy.

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Wild Coast
by John Gimlette

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Written by Mary Bor
Mary Bor

Aspiring travel writer and avid Yugophile living in the UK and Slovenia. Loves (in no particular order) Scandinavian crime fiction, Indian food, walking, scavenging, Russian dolls

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