Ninety-Two Days: A Journey in Guiana and Brazil by Evelyn Waugh
(Penguin, ISBN 9780140095418, 170 pp)
Should this book be a soundtrack, it would be the hum of complaint punctuated with the squelching of mud from English boots tramping over forest and savannah as this intrepid or more accurately, clueless traveler (who freely says of his chosen itinerary “I was going because I knew so little”), embarks on what turns out to be a hapless journey into the interior of Guyana or, as it was then called, British Guiana and Brazil. But what should we have expected from a writer who mistakes Papua New Guinea for Guiana, providing us from the onset with a red flag that should stop us in our tracks. But curiosity being the ruin of some of us, we embark with him in December 1932 on a journey that is as arduous for the reader as it evidently was for the English writer to undertake, in a region which he describes as “all blanks and guesses” on the map. But of course, we yet again ignore another red flag. As if self-sabotage is fashionable, we pay little heed to the confession that this is a traveler who has no sense of direction, having incurred the disapproval of a geography tutor when he could not tell which way the Rhine flowed. Evelyn Waugh could only lead us downhill, or perhaps in circles, which incidentally he does in one part of his book. All of the insouciance in this travelogue arguably anticipates Waugh’s later novel Scoop. But is that enough reason to read this? Indeed, Waugh himself makes plain his dim assessment of his own literary project:
“Who in his senses will read, still less buy, a travel book of no scientific value about a place he has no intention of visiting? (I will make a present of that sentence to any ill-intentioned reviewer.)”
Nonetheless, the journey begins charmingly in Trinidad though, given the writer’s outlook, it is little surprise we do not see much of the island. This is a shame because the reader cannot help but notice the somewhat momentous year of this Waughian adventure. He sets foot in Trinidad mere months after the birth of V.S. Naipaul who in later years would admit to Waugh’s influence. Naipaul would go on to write of Guyana and Boa Vista in 1960 providing the reader with what can be read as more nuanced insight into the culture and landscape. Still, Evelyn Waugh’s account is valuable if only to place it in relation to the people-centered narratives of Naipaul’s books, such as The Middle Passage.
That we see little of Trinidad is also due to a pact between Waugh and his elder brother Alec, who was also a writer (their father Arthur was a publisher). The brothers, showing true colonial form, had carved up the map and laid claim to different parts of the world. The West Indies was Alec’s to write about and Evelyn’s journey to Guyana and Brazil had been met with a sharp note of rebuke indicating that “the West Indies included any places on the mainland of West Indian character i.e. sugar estates, slaves, rum and pirates”. A compromise was made and Evelyn promises to “get up-country as soon as I could and pay as little attention as possible to what I passed on the way.” And so, Trinidad appears through his peripheral vision, and readers are left to speculate as to the kind of book Evelyn might have written otherwise.
What little we see is delightful. In these passages, Trinidad is a place with “an excellent new country club, horse races and a lot of money about”, an island seemingly abuzz with activity, where you can imagine a profusion of warmth and energy (and the usual smart men). In a way, this is a glimpse of early Naipaul’s world. During Easter, we even get a short stop at Mount St. Benedict, an abbey that doubles as a popular recreational and religious destination for Trinidadians. This stop is cause for another bit of excitement for readers with a scene that describes the annual ritual of the Stations of the Cross, a scene that manages to telegraph the multi-cultural reach of the island’s society.
In a way, this is a glimpse of early Naipaul’s world. During Easter, we even get a short stop at Mount St. Benedict, an abbey that doubles as a popular recreational and religious destination for Trinidadians.
However, after a charming anecdote involving an encounter with a Trinidad hotel manager, our hope for charm for the rest of the voyage is dashed, left dead in the water so to speak, when Waugh leaves his hotel and Trinidad. “Blue water ends” and is replaced by “opaque, dingy stuff the colour of shabby stucco, thick with mud sweeping down from the great continental rivers”. From here, should this book be a photograph, it would be a double exposure. Superimposed on the image of Amazonian grasslands, forests and rivers is an aristocratic notion of England. “Out-of-the-way-places”, “savages”, “half-caste” – these terms are used casually in the text. This is a journey undertaken for “adventure”. We regress, find ourselves back in time, in a space peopled by priests, missionaries, and white administrators. The rest of the lot is presented as extensions of a wild, untamed landscape.
Waugh confesses to the book having more than enough ecclesiastical flavor, citing that as a reason for not writing more about Mount St. Benedict. While we know that this is not completely true, his pact with his brother, Alec, no doubt contributing to this lesser focus on Trinidad, the criticism is nevertheless valid. It is a refraction of the role of religion in the history of the colonies. Amid the laughter that the writer’s misfortune on this adventure might evoke, it is also a marker of the intermingling between faith and conquest in the colonial mindset. Such processes birth a writer like Naipaul who pessimistically questions years later in The Middle Passage:
“How can the history of this West Indian futility be written? What tone shall the historian adopt?…The history of the islands can never be satisfactorily told. Brutality is not the only difficulty. History is based around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.”
Waugh’s ending image contains an echo of this:
“Spring was breaking in the gardens, tender and pure and very different from the gross vegetation of the tropics. I had seen no building that was stable or ancient for nearly six months. Bath, with its propriety and uncompromised grandeur, seemed to offer everything that was most valuable in English life; and there, pottering composedly among the squares and crescents, I came finally to the end of my journey.”
Yet, there is some enjoyment to be had should we accept the biases that come with a sometimes hilarious account. A Series of Unfortunate Events might be an apt title had the title not already existed. The reader accompanies our narrator on a journey of one hundred and seventy pages, packed with a tight and, in my view, tedious narrative consisting of unwell horses that cannot carry supplies, perpetual boat upsets – missed boats, boats that are months late, boats that never show up, boats that never existed except through the bad luck of misinformation.
There are the natives and the missionaries, a cast of characters presented as floaters. Unlike Waugh who is merely passing through but has a place to call home, the inhabitants of these colonies drift. Boa Vista’s history for instance, is summed up as a “melancholy record…they are mostly descended from convicts, loosed there after their term of imprisonment…Boa Vista is their final halting-place before extinction. The best of them go out into the ranches; the worst remain in the town.”
The humour with which the story is told, can only be told looking back. Waugh begins the book in the year 1933, month, October: “At last, relentlessly, inevitably, the lugubrious morning has dawned, day of wrath which I have been postponing week by week for five months.”
In Guyana, the reader gets the sense that the writer is warming up, characterized by the tedious descriptions of loading and unloading horses, boats, waiting. In Brazil, the pace picks up. The recounting of attempts to set up a canning factory, the priory, add a measure of civilization to the town though, the reader can attribute the pace also to Waugh’s desperate schemes to escape Boa Vista, again, met with incidences of elusive boats. It is on the journey out of Boa Vista that we eventually find the traveler evaluating the fallacies of rough travelling. The honesty of the accounts are humorous for we find in them glimpses of a truth that resonates even in our time. That, for instance, in the wild “one felt free. That one was untrammeled by convention. That one eats with a gay appetite and sleeps with imperturbable ease of infancy.” Nonsense! Waugh proclaims, however. Take this advice from a man accustomed to good living. One pleasure that he does rediscover on this journey however, is reading, at one stage picking up Nicholas Nickleby and reading it with avid relish.
And so, to answer the question of why we should take this journey with Waugh, perhaps it is because we depend on more adventuring types to take journeys that might very well be the end of us. Perhaps some of us do not subscribe to the fallacies associated with roughing it. And though we may cringe at evident biases, after all, we do come to books and people with biases of all sorts. But, should we throw caution to the wind and decide in such uncertain times as these are, to have what we now call a YOLO (you-only-live-once) year, and go in search of virgin lands, untouched by civilization, then we bid you Godspeed. We look forward to reading your TripAdvisor account of it, and lining that up alongside Waugh, Naipaul et al.
Sharda Patasar is a Trinidadian writer, director, and musician with an interest in cultural studies. (Photo by Ghansham Mohammed.)