Explorations in The Lost City of Meaning

AJ Lees – The Brazil That Never Was (Notting Hill Editions)

Percy Fawcett was a British Geographer, explorer and inspiration for Indiana Jones. Andrew Lees is a Neurology Professor who was fascinated by books about Fawcett when young. The Brazil That Never Was wraps these two things up in a narrative which is immediately engaging and stealthily ambitious. That’s the easy bit.

Lees’ book appears to operate on four main levels:

1. the present, the shorter timespan of the writer writing the book; 2. The longer lifespan of the author and his family history, and; 3. The sprawling, scattered remnants of the myths of Percy Fawcett. This part happens to take in 20th century modernity and the emergence of science out of belief.

Much of the time we travel with the author in the present, albeit down the river of his past, as we inch forwards, and then we drift, into an incommensurable ocean and out of sense, via the hunt for Fawcett’s Brazil.

This fourth level, I think, explores language and meaning. There is also an implied foray into the structure of myth, particularly, I think, the Grail quest. What it meant to Fawcett to search for the Lost City of Z runs parallel to what it means for Lees to search for Fawcett and to write this book.

Sections of The Brazil That Never Was try to describe the edges of experience, the edges of language, the edges of sense. Lees did not invent Fawcett’s search for the Lost City of Z, but in the book the last letter of the alphabet becomes the last stage before we step out of meaning, into an empty space where there are no more letters.

M becomes a cipher for a strange female spirit inhabiting Fawcett’s son Brian. At other times she is codenamed XY. The middle of the alphabet and its extremes appear to refer to the middle of meaning – the comfort zone – and its edgelands. Both those phenomenological places are constantly being shuttled between in this book.

Stylistically, the book seems to owe something to Patrick Keiller and his Robinson trilogy. I sense it in the deadpan delivery of certain sections, and the way fact and fiction is being played with. We’re never quite sure whether we’re being given a real bit of the Fawcett myth, or an invented bit. The point Lees is probably making is that it in the end it doesn’t really matter. Lees is also exploring what meaning is, what kind of stuff it is, and how that breaks down and decays.

The early films of Peter Greenaway are in here somewhere, particularly the characters Gang Lion and Tulse Luper, although the distanciated, pure postmodernism of those films has crumbled. Those films showed us reality as facade. Here, those facades are seen again as a broken, old reality.

There is of course a lineage here, Iain Sinclair, Alan Moore and W.G. Sebald.

But Lees does what so many writers coming after Iain Sinclair don’t, which is to write with clarity and still create something huge and imaginative. I see so many books which seem to think that literary fog must be pumped in before the work can start. Lees proves the opposite. That he does so in such a short space is skill indeed. And the writing is often exquisite.

Lees’ book manages to encompass the narrative of the 20th and early 21st century west, to entwine a personal and very impersonal set of stories. In short, to do something ambitous and in places quite emotional at the same time.

Leeds, Saint Helens and Liverpool in the 1950s and 60s are rendered beautifully. The step-off point of Liverpool seems particularly apt. Lees describes its psychedelic incarnation of the late 60s and then we are in Brazil. The line between the exotic and the mundane is rubbed out. Again, the making fuzzy of the sensible and what lies outside its ken, the ‘normal’ and not, the sacred and profane, seem to be a concern.

For a long time we are with Fawcett, plus the cast of early natural scientists, Alfred Russell Wallace and the period of great exploration which yielded Darwinism. This is a big part of the story, but Lees seems equally interested in the otherside to the science and rationalism narrative. The further you go into the science, the more it looks like a strange belief system – this is stated quite plainly at one point:

‘For the Victorians and Edwardians, Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution meant that blind Christian faith was no longer acceptable, but its demise had created a spiritual void that could not be filled by capialist greed or rational thought. Modernity was bedevilled by the loss of the sacrosanct; the music of religion had been stifled by the adoration of reason and yet, ironically, at the same time, science had made the paranormal and the occult more credible.’

But this is proper Darwinism because it lacks logical sense. Ultimately, humanism as an overarching or underpinning concept is being eroded by Lees. It’s a posthuman, philosophical tract dressed as a very creative novel, finally covered with the scuffed dust jacket of a rip-roaring adventure novel from the 1920s. How brilliant.

Everything falls apart towards the end. The search for Fawcett is nothing more or less than a search for meaning, just like the old Grail Quest, under which lies libido and the other drives. But seen outside of a narrow human context it’s a waste of time, nothing is left but tales of weird psychic phenomena and occultism.

A note at the end of the book, a speculation on the location of the ruins of Camelot under St Helens, makes me remember the ruins of the Roman Amphitheatre at Caerleon. Until Victorian excavation it was thought to be the site of Arthur’s round table. Knights debating, fairness, chivalry. Turns out it was for bear-baiting and combat to the death.

Arthur Machen – who appears in Lees’ book – wrote fiction up in Caerleon based on the Roman ruin, and that fiction was later hoovered up by HP Lovecraft. Machen’s Great God Pan is based in part on a Roman prayer statue at Caerleon. It was probably dedicated to Nemesis or one of the other gods called on for good fortune when backing a winner at the amphitheatre.

It is likely that the statue Machen saw originally stood in an alcove in the amphitheatre to allow gambling sports fans to make an offering. If this is the case, then H.P. Lovecraft partly based the Cthulhu myth on Machen’s Pan. This means – if we follow the curve of influence on its oxbow mythological course – that Cthulhu is a kind of good luck keyring for blokes out for a flutter. Not so scared now eh?

Lovecraft’s Cthulhu might be based on a fetish for ordinary Romans betting on some savage entertainment. You can track things back a long way, but at a certain point they always disappear into non-sense. The Grail Quest was always the search for meaning, and this book is definitely about that.

In fact long sections of the book work through precisely the kind of interrogation I have just given you. The place where myth and fiction break into speculation, half-truth, rumour, and often the resulting tangle is quite absurd.

Early on we see Lees tracking Fawcett down through literature, in paperbacks, in libraries. Rider Haggard’s ‘lost world’ genre was horribly colonial, but actually there is a sense here of how that past produced the horrors of 2020. If Fawcett is Indiana Jones, this book provides fuel for the bonfire under that swollen Hollywood quotation.

Lees’ life moves from the Pennines to Saint Helens to Liverpool to Leeds. Online life is another cliff edge. It is rendered as large as the geographicl moves. Lees immerses himself in Fawcett via the internet. Fawcettology gets more and more bloated here, not clearer.

As Lees hits the internet, the Fawcett material takes him pretty close to the Nazi fetish for the occult, the secret white brotherhood, Blavatsky, theosophical societies, it’s dodgy stuff.

What’s interesting about Indiana Jones is that he is a scientist and myth-sceptic, you will note that Fawcett, the model for Jones, according to many accounts, was basically an occultist. Alan Moore wrote of entering the Ripper myths, Ripperology, and finding an endless labyrinth, so does Lees:

‘I was beginning to regret hunting down my dreams’ he states, ‘Fawcett was now nothing more than a figure for what had gone missing.’ Conrad, then, is at the core of this work. As is Borges. The book calls on these core modernist literatures at the same time as it avoids being a pomo ‘take’, it is far too strange, and its implied conclusions about humans and meaning are much bigger than that.

Lees eventually goes to the Amazon himself, but it’s all ruin, 21st-century pollution, decay and chaos. Still, he appears to have some sort of epiphany and returns talking about how he had been at the very edge of things. He refers to ‘journeys to the end of the night’, and of course Céline was a doctor too.

There are all kinds of references to pick up on here, for those who like doing so (and I do). For instance, I wonder if the chapter title of ‘Militant Geography’ refers to Geography Militant by Felix Driver (I happen to own Doreen Massey’s old copy of that). It is certainly relevant. You can philosophise in this book very well, but it plays as a great novel too. There are passages to linger in, like a hot bath, in order to think about all of our lives. This is first rate literary fiction which often achieves the status of poetry:

‘The half-tone town with its over-shuffled memories was bathed in golden particles. The people drifting through those plain streets were blurred with uncertain voices. There was something in the air and, for a few moments, I became a better Andrew Lees, a no-nonsense libertine who lived for the weekend, appreciated the importance of humour and loved the sound of breaking glass. The sweet sadness of that wonderful afternoon was forcing me to go in search of a part of myself that lingered in the fragments of another life.’

Another Notting Hill Edition in cloth bound hardback for very good reason. I hope this book is around for a very long time, it deserves to be.

Steve Hanson

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