Issue 188, Spring 2009
For reasons that escape me, I simply could not make myself go back and read the journals I kept during the filming ofFitzcarraldo. Then, twenty-four years later, my resistance suddenly crumbled, though I had trouble deciphering my own handwriting, which I had miniaturized at the time to microscopic size. These texts are not reports on the actual filming—of which little is said. Nor are they journals, except in a very general sense. They might be described instead as inner landscapes, born of the delirium of the jungle. But even that may not be entirely accurate—I am not sure.
A vision had seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that has sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass and is shaking and tugging at the downed game so frantically that the hunter gives up trying to calm him. It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong. To be more precise: bird cries, for in this setting, left unfinished and abandoned by God in wrath, the birds do not sing; they shriek in pain, and confused trees tangle with one another like battling titans, from horizon to horizon, in a steaming creation still being formed. Fog-panting and exhausted they stand in this unreal world, in unreal misery—and I, like a stanza in a poem written in an unknown foreign tongue, am shaken to the core.
Santa Maria De Nieva, 14 October 1979
Seen from the air, the jungle below looked like kinky hair, seemingly peaceful, but that is deceptive, because in its inner being nature is never peaceful. even when it is denatured, when it is tamed, it strikes back at its tamers and reduces them to pets, rosy pigs, which then melt like fat in a skillet. This brings to mind the image, the great metaphor, of the pig in Palermo, which I heard had fallen into a sewer shaft: it lived down there for two years and continued to grow, surviving on the garbage that people threw down the shaft, and when they hauled the pig out, after it had completely blocked the drain, it was almost white, enormously fat, and had taken on the form of the shaft. it had turned into a kind of monumental, whitish grub, rectangular, cubic, and wobbly, an immense hunk of fat that could move only its mouth to eat, while its legs had shrunk and retracted into the body fat.
Iquitos, 8 December 1980
This morning, when I checked on the telex machine, Gloria was trying to make contact with the Narinho, the rusted-out ship that we had gotten to float here from Colombia, made buoyant with six hundred empty oil drums, but the onboard receiver must have been turned off. A young woman had shown up; she had no way to reach her husband, an electrician, who was on the ship. In the morning her child had been throwing up for two hours, then went into convulsions, and was suddenly dead. I did not know what I should say to the woman. She turned her face to the wall and cried; she had been keeping it in until then. I took her hand and held it, and when her silent sobbing had relaxed somewhat, I took her on the motorcycle and rode to the boat landing. The boatman did not want to set out because he was waiting for the cooks, but I hustled him off with the woman to the place where the Narinho was anchored. The woman was still very young, and it had been her first child, a son, only half a year old.
A still day, sultry. inactivity piled on inactivity, clouds staring down from the sky, pregnant with rain; fever reigns; insects taking on massive proportions. The jungle is obscene. everything about it is sinful, for which reason the sin does not stand out as sin. The voices in the jungle are silent; nothing is stirring, and a languid, immobile anger hovers over everything. The laundry on the line refuses to dry. As part of a conspiracy, flies suddenly descend on the table, their stomachs taut and iridescent. Our little monkey was wailing in his cage, and when I approached, he looked and wailed right through me to some distant spot outside where his little heart hoped to find an echo. I let him out, but he went back into his cage, and now he is continuing to wail there.
Iquitos, 18 December 1980
I have a snake on my roof again. A little while ago I heard something rustling up there, and then something dark fell into the banana fronds with a thwack. I took a look, and it was a poisonous brownish snake that had caught a bird, which was still peeping. I tried hitting the snake with a stick, but it disappeared like lightning into the grass. Only now and then did a blade quiver, and from the piteous cries of the bird I could tell where the snake was. I did not follow it into the grass, because I discovered that another snake was on the thatched roof, and directly above me a third snake was trying to get from a banana frond onto the platform of my hut. I tried to strike it with the machete, but the snake was too fast for me.
The power is still out. Evening descended on the countryside. What would happen if the rain forest wilted like a bouquet of flowers? Around me insects are dying, for which they lie on their backs. A woman in the neighborhood is suckling a newborn puppy after her baby died from parasites; I have seen this done before with piglets. Outside a bright moon is floating now above the treetops. The frogs, thousands of them, suddenly pause, as if they were following an invisible conductor, and start up again all at the same time. Their conversations come and go in curious waves. Waxy moonlight, as bright as neon, is shimmering on the banana fronds. I was called to the telephone in the house, and fell off the ladder that leads to my platform. It was one of very few phone calls that ever get through to us, and a stranger on the line was trying to make it clear to me that I was a madman, a menace to society.
Camisea, 7 February 1981
I saw a Campa woman sitting on a tree trunk. She was staring intently over her shoulder at something I could not make out. Her child of about three was standing in front of her. It worked her breast out of her cushma, grasped it with both hands, and nursed, without the mother’s paying the slightest attention.
At night I had first the feeling and then the certainty that I was caught in a twilit prehistoric age, without speech or time.
Afternoon: the camp seems dead. The rain pours and subsides. The river’s sluggish whirlpools pass by, following the bidding of a distant fate. In the forest behind me the birds are cursing each other. Nothing ever gets properly dry here, shoes or clothing. Anything made of leather gets mildewed, and electric clocks stop. The leaves in the forest gleam and drip, and from time to time very large fish break with a smacking sound through the sluggish surface of the river and leave widening rings behind, as mighty as if a dinosaur had dived in, smacking its lips after a good meal. When the rain lets up and there is just a gentle dripping from the trees, something resembling peace descends on one’s soul for a few moments. A bug comes toward me, of terrifying size. Far off in the forest chainsaws are working at some job I don’t know about.
An unbelievably powerful and steady rain comes down over the jungle; language itself resists calling it rain. Foamy white brooks form in the sand along the riverbank below my cabin and stream into the brown river, which pulls everything to it and carries everything away: tree trunks, broken-off limbs, the drowned man, earth, pebbles. The pebbles clunk and roll and bang against each other, as if the entire base of the earth were washing away. in the meantime an immeasurable misty vapor spreads among the treetops, which stand there rigid and patient, from time immemorial. All the birds are silent; the rain is having the last say. On a branch floating downstream, many ants; the rain forest has such an extraordinary surfeit of life. On the swaying liana suspension bridge wet leaves are lying, stuck on after being ripped from the trees by the rain. Little reservoirs form on the slope side of the path, next to rounds cut from trees and placed next to each other, and overflow between them. These round stepping stones are partially submerged, the rest poking out as if they were drowning.
Nature has come to her senses again; only the forest is still menacing, motionless. The river rolls along without a sound, a monster. Night falls very fast, with the last birds scolding the evening, as always at this hour. Rough cawing, malevolent sounds, punctuated by the even chirping of the first cicadas. From all this working in the rain my fingers are wrinkly, like those of the laundresses. I must have a hundred bites on my back from some insect I never did see; all of me is rotting with moisture. I would be grateful if it were only dreams tormenting me. Across the table comes a strange primeval insect, with a thin, lancelike, excessively long proboscis and feelers on both sides. I cannot make out any eyes. It is dragging a dead insect of the same species, and disappears through the cracks in the bark floor. Then caterpillars crawl toward me from all directions, brainless but unstoppable. I think intensely of the great moment when I showed my son, five at the time, the mountains of the moon through a telescope.