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Brazilian Sketches by Rudyard Kipling

KiplingBrazilThere’s a new publisher in town: Abandoned Bookshop, an imprint founded by Scott Pack (a long-time friend of this blog) and Kat Stephen to republish out-of-print or neglected titles as ebooks. Their first title is Brazilian Sketches, a set of seven articles (each with an accompanying poem) that Rudyard Kipling wrote during a journey to Brazil in March and April of 1927. The articles were printed in newspapers later than year and at the beginning of the next, but did not appear as a collection until 1940, after Kipling’s death. This is the first ebook edition.

Reading Brazilian Sketches now, from this distance, with relatively little by way of context, has been an intriguing experience. It’s like eavesdropping on history. Kipling’s descriptive passages convey ‘being in the moment’ vividly; here, for example, is his arrival in Rio:

In two minutes the shadowy lines of the crowded wharves vanished, and the car was sweeping down a blazing perspective, chequered strongly with double lines of tree-foliage and flanked with lit and packed clubs, shops, and cafes. This world of light gave of a sudden, between the shoulders of gigantic buildings, on to even vaster spaces of single-way avenues, between trees, with the harbour on one side, fringed by electric lights that raced forward, it seemed for ever, and renewed themselves in strings of pearl flung round invisible corners; while, above everything, one saw and felt the outlines of forested mountains.

Even more than a sense of place, however, what really comes across to me is the sense of another’s viewpoint. Perhaps inevitably, there are attitudes and assumptions embedded within Kipling’s sketches that I don’t share; and they are not easily extricated from the things that I like about the book. But it’s fascinating to see a subject like electricity treated in a way that seems so far away from anything I can imagine being written now, as when Kipling personifies the dynamo of a hydroelectric power station: “Out of his enforced agencies is born ‘power’, which every one, of course, can explain, but which no one knows anything about, except that it will bear watching.”

The Brazil depicted by Kipling is in a time of transition, industrialisation in particular. Kipling often characterises this process as one of human progress fighting back against a natural world that keeps on encroaching. A snake farm developing anti-venom: “the only cure for venomous bites is the foot of man making hard paths from hut to hut, field to field, and shrine to shrine”. The railway out of São Paulo: “every yard of those fallacious mountain-sides conspired against man from the almost vertical slopes out of sight above, to the quite vertical ravines below.” To my mind, this viewpoint has some troubling implications; but it is also bound up in the way that Kipling organises the space within his writing, open up each experience moment by moment.

Book details (publisher link)

Brazilian Sketches (1940) by Rudyard Kipling, Abandoned Bookshop ebook.

The month in reading: January 2010

January 2010 didn’t bring any absolute knockout books my way, but there were some fine reads nevertheless. My favourite book of the month was Robert Jackson Bennett‘s Depression-era fantasy Mr Shivers, which has substantially more subtextual depth than many a quest fantasy I’ve seen over the years.

Silver- and bronze-medal positions for the month go to two very different books. Simon Lelic‘s Rupture is a fine debut novel, centred on a school shooting perpetrated by an apparently placid teacher; and Up the Creek Without a Mullet (reviewed in February, but read in January) is an entertaining account of Simon Varwell‘s travels in search of places with ‘mullet’ in their name.

Bubbling under, but well worth checking out, are Nadifa Mohamed‘s wartime East African odyssey, Black Mamba Boy; and Galileo’s Dream, a historical biography spliced with science fiction (or perhaps vice versa) by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Not a bad start to the year by any means; but, still, I’m hoping for even greater riches in the months ahead.

Simon Varwell, Up the Creek Without a Mullet (2010)

It was while travelling around eastern Europe with a friend that Simon Varwell developed a certain fascination with that [insert adjective of your choice here] hairstyle, the mullet. Back home in Inverness a year or so later, in 2002, Varwell discovered that there was a village in Albania named Mullet — and was taken with the notion of trying to visit everywhere in the world with the world mullet in its name. Up the Creek Without a Mullet chronicles the author’s travels up to 2005 (in Albania, Ireland, and mostly Australia), searching for mullets – places and haircuts alike.

There’s a danger, I think, that this sort of travel writing can come to seem gimmicky, if the quirky reason behind the journey is given more weight than the journey itself. I’m pleased to say that doesn’t happen here, to the extent that I often felt as though the mullet-hunt was somewhat in the background; not forgotten about (on the contrary, it’s often on Varwell’s mind, to the point that he even wonders at times whether his ‘mission’ is all worth it), but it’s the cement that holds Varwell’s travels together — and, like cement, it’s not necessarily what you see first. Indeed, with Varwell’s often finding the ‘mullet’ places to be disappointingly ordinary, it’s his travels between that provide the greatest amount of interest.

Varwell himself proves a likeable companion for the journey through his book: he has a dry wit (at one point, he describes Sydney’s rail system as ‘reliable, good value, and regular, all novelties for a Scottish traveller’ [114]), writes engagingly about the places he visits, and makes Up the Creek Without a Mullet a very personal account. The idea behind Varwell’s journeys may be daft, but he’s well aware of that; and his genuine enthusiasm shines through, making this book a very satisfying read.

However, in case you were wondering: I’m keeping my hair short.

Further links
Simon Varwell’s website
Sandstone Press
Sydney Morning Herald article on Varwell’s travels (2005)

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