Waugh goes out of his way to underline the discomforts of travel, from the sheer physical exertion (not least when he is half-lame thanks to an inflamed foot) to the hordes of biting insects, or from the poor food to the often even poorer company. As he says, "There are a hundred excellent reasons for rough travelling, but good living is not one of them" (135). The book is a catalogue of frustration, delay, deprivation, and discomfort to which Waugh only gradually becomes inured.
It is the fact that Waugh becomes (at least relatively) inured to these daily discomforts that prevents the book from ever becoming a tale of high adventure. And after all, the author is seldom in great danger; the one point at which his expedition is truly at risk of disaster, when he becomes totally lost, he is supremely unaware of the fact until fortuitously meeting the man who will set him back on the right track. Hence there is little in the way of tension or drama in Waugh's rather stately progress through jungle and savannah. Indeed, the atmosphere is rather one of some tedium in which obstacles are rendered merely disagreeable inconveniences.
We might even begin to wonder what are the "hundred excellent reasons" for such a trip. To the extent that his voyage is not completely aimless, Waugh fails in its ostensible goal: he hopes to go to Manaus, but after a fruitless week or two hanging around in Boa Vista, he turns tail and goes back the way he came.
Boa Vista itself, which by default then becomes his ultimate destination, proves a vast disappointment. He had heard mainly tales of the town's magnificence: "I had come to regard it as Middle Western Americans look on Paris, as Chekhov peasants on St Petersburg. In the discomforts of the journey there, I had looked forward to the soft living of Boa Vista" (99). And yet when he finally arrives, Waugh soon finds the place miserable and squalid and that "all that extravagant and highly improbable expectation had been obliterated like a sandcastle beneath the encroaching tide" (103). Even the place's one distinguishing feature, its remarkably high rate of homicide, turns out to be shabby and unremarkable: "It was the first time in my life that I found myself in contact with a society in which murder was regarded as being as common and mildly regrettable as divorce in England; there was no glamour in it; I found it neither heroic nor horrifying" (107).
Throughout, indeed, Waugh deflates any sense of cultural difference, however much he also indicates that the Europeans stranded in this vast landscape are all slightly insane while the indigenous and the blacks are invariably sullen and ugly. They are no more so than his compatriots back home: "In fact the more I saw of Indians the greater I was struck by their similarity to the English. The like living with their families at great distances from their neighbours; they regard strangers with suspicion and despair; they are unprogressive and unambitious, fond of pets, hunting, and fishing" (41) and so on.
Obviously, Waugh does also seek to exploit the comic value in these determinedly unexotic comparisons. And yet the book rather falls between two stools, as it is not on the whole a comic memoir. Enough sense of discomfort and frustration comes through that cannot quite be laughed ironically away. Nor is the voyage ever quite redeemed by any soul-searching or other forms of enlightenment, however much so many of the people he meets are in one way or another obsessed with religion and metaphysics.
As Pauline Melville points out in her thoughtful afterword, the key is no doubt in "what the author chose not to reveal":
Waugh states that the journey was undertaken for reasons of adventure and to collect material for a book. This is not the whole truth. He was in despair. His marriage had broken down after the bitter discovery that he had been betrayed and cuckolded. Humiliation drove Waugh to seek solace in what he describes as the "most far-flung and wild region of the British Empire." (211)In this light, the apparently trivializing comparison of murder in northern Brazil to divorce in the home counties takes on new significance. Perhaps, in fact, for Waugh the emphasis was the other way around: that as far as he was concerned, divorce was like murder, however unglamorous it may also have been.
Link: Nicholas Lezard's review of the book for The Guardian.