Book Review: Wild Coast

Wild Coast:  Travels On South America’s Untamed Edge, by John Gimlette

I must admit that while I am no stranger to odd travel writings, I am not a particularly wild traveler in the vein of this particular author [1].  One will not likely find me trying to harass a former head of state for an interview, but all the same I did find much of this book to be deeply interesting, not least because the author managed to split the difference between the unrealistic praise of a Sir Walter Raleigh and the unmitigated spleen of a much more cynical traveler like Evelyn Waugh, whose experiences in that part of the world were inspiration for his deeply entertaining novel A Handful Of Dust [2].  A writer who can combine a high degree of cynicism about things that we should be cynical about as well as a genuine interest in the people he is around is a writer whose work I can personally appreciate, and this author certainly provides plenty of interesting material that makes it worth reading other books by the author that I may come in contact with in the future.  If you want a gritty and somewhat unpleasant look at life in Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, this book definitely provides that.

In terms of its contents, this book lives up to its name.  The author decided that it would be adventuresome to travel in the Guianas and explore his family history at the same time, and managed to find a publisher willing to pay him to write a book about the experience, and so that is exactly what he did.  He spends time writing about the three Guianas in rough proportion to their size and population, with more time on Guyana than Suriname and more time on Suriname than French Guiana.  Throughout his travels he meets cattle herders, hunters, politicians, actors, and a people with a wide variety of political beliefs and ethnic origins.  He shows a great deal of criticism of European explorers and slaveowners and traders and also shows the aftermath of empire where these struggling nations come apart at the seams and fight against the threat of oblivion where the presence of civilization may end up being swallowed up by the invincible forests and jungles of the area.  Mostly the author is intensely cynical about politics and its malign effect on the lives of ordinary people in the area, with endemic violence and corruption, wildcat Brazilian gold miners and prostitutes, and lots of drugs and sex galore.

It is hard to determine if the author is lamenting the corruption of the Guianas or celebrating it.  The author certainly seems like the kind of person who can comfortably reflect on slavery and imprisonment and seems to take an interest in the drug trade, traveling in dangerous places, and schmoozing with politicians.  One might wonder if he is able to get along with others because he disguises what he thinks and feels from the people that he talks to, to the point where it is unclear where his loyalties lie.  Even so, much of this book is worthwhile to read for the sheer enjoyment of seeing the author in peril or having to deal with countries where political violence and poverty are endemic.  One feels a slightly less triumphant feeling when one realizes that one is planning to visit these precise areas, in which case one then begins to wonder what separates someone who is an adventuresome or even recklessly bold traveler from the ordinary person who merely reads about other people’s experiences without feeling any sort of desire to travel to obscure and imperiled lands that the world has largely forgot.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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3 Responses to Book Review: Wild Coast

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Elephant Complex | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Black Nile | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: In Search Of King Solomon’s Mines | Edge Induced Cohesion

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