Sunday, November 11, 2012

River of Darkness

Title: River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana's Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon
Author: Buddy Levy
Year: 2011
Genre: History
Rating: 4

Few people know that the name of the Amazon is actually Greek in origin. Most of the time, the Amazon is automatically associated with the enormous river commanding the northern part of South America, with a possible secondary association with the mythical all-female colony hidden deep in the thick jungles. If the person is really well versed in Greek literature, they might come up with Hippolyta, Euripides's fictional queen of the Greek Amazons. But isn't it odd how disparate the two are? The faraway women sequestered in ancient Greece and the indomitable tropical river.
That's the air of Buddy Levy's new book on the conquest of the Amazon, River of Darkness. Though he pours thick, vivid details in, constructing a true story of an incredible event, it seems marginalized by the structure of the book and the writing style. In fact, the topic of the book feels like it just doesn't belong.
 Despite the scale of Francisco Orellana's fame in the 16th century, he seems to have slipped away from conquistador canon in favor of characters like Francisco Pizarro and Hernan Cortes, who toppled empires and killed thousands. Levy brings his journey back to us, though the telling leaves something to be desired.
The book opens with a gritty, visual narrative of the moment Francisco Orellana embarked on his fateful journey down the Amazon, destined to make him the first man to cross the entire continent of South America. Orellana originally came with the youngest Pizarro (fun fact: there were five Pizarro brothers, all notoriously cruel and effective conquerors) to the new Spanish land of Peru and began an expedition to find El Dorado and the Cinnamon Valley, two myths common throughout conquistador lore. Unfortunately for Pizarro, the intended conquest goes as wrong as possible, and he is forced to split from his trusted captain, Francisco Orellana.
Orellana takes the group's boat and goes in search of food for a great distance down the river, and rather than return, he continues down the river to explore and reach the sea on the other end. For a poorly outfitted, uninformed, and unprepared group of men, the journey has often been greeted with incredulity and accolade, for the dangers of the Amazon are legendary. Orellana managed to avoid poisonous fish and plants, enormous snakes, hostile natives, and tricky rivers to guide his men back to civilization on two islands north of modern-day Venezuela.
Levy relates the tale with remarkable amounts of research and commendable detail. He has unearthed the narrative of a priest who accompanied Orellana and made notes along the way, relating the man's remarkably diplomatic approach to the natives of the area. Most conquistadors would rather slash and burn their way into kingdoms, but Orellana had a gift for linguistics and managed to learn the rudimentary parts of the local language and even secured a month's room and board for his men with a local tribe.
Levy relates all these details with the cool, academic air of a historian, which turns the book into a dry pile of incongruous dust. It's horribly unfortunate, because such a remarkable piece of obscure history could be told in such a gripping way. The Amazon captures all our imaginations with the vivid beauty of a nearly untouched world, and Orellana was seeing it for the first time. Levy, however, take the clinical approach of not stepping into the captain's shoes and relies solely on documents. His purist attitude is admirable, but boring.
What's more, the book claims to be the story of Francisco Orellana, but spends much of its time telling the general history of the conquest of Peru. At 250 pages, Levy is short on space for this huge topic, and chooses to spend much of it talking about Gonzalo Pizarro and what happened after Orellana succeeded rather than the actual journey. In fact, only a little more than half the book is actually spent on its topic, which is bitterly disappointing. There is so much to discuss and so much to research, and Levy chooses only to scratch the surface. Perhaps he should have instead written a book about the Spanish conquest of South America-- he would have had more to talk about.
Altogether, the story is interesting, but very superficial. After reading Levy's book, readers who are interested will have to go out and pick up another book on the same subject for more detail.
Because it's only about a year old, River of Darkness is $13.99 on the Kindle and $17.82 for the hardback from Amazon. My library had a copy, so if you live in a city, yours might too; if not, skip this one. It's tantalizing, but there have got to be better books out there on this same subject that delve more deeply into Orellana's fascinating, groundbreaking journey.

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