An inconsequential episode in the history of Amazonian exploration gets dusted off for book-length treatment.
In the 1730s, following a decades-long debate over the shape of planet Earth—the French academician Jacques Cassini arguing for a sausage-like form, the Englishman Isaac Newton holding for the oval—the French government dispatched two teams, one to the Arctic and one to the equator, to map the stars, triangulate their relative positions, and arrive at a definitive answer. The Spanish government, “however bewildered by the request,” agreed to allow the French scientists to poke around in Ecuador, only to take exception to their habit of erecting little geodetic pyramids decorated with the fleur-de-lis, as if to claim the territory for France. One of them, Jean Godin, had meanwhile become a familiar in the Spanish governor’s household and later married his 13-year-old daughter. In 1742, writes English exploration buff and author Smith (Explorers of the Amazon, 1989, etc.), Godin decided to return to France by way of the Amazon to French Guiana; if the route were safe, his young wife, Isabela, would follow. Jean got downriver safely, but, owing to squabbling between their two countries, nearly 20 years passed before Isabela could follow. She ought to have stayed home, for the journey killed all her companions and left her half-mad. Still, she rose to the challenge of traversing the jungle alone, Smith writes, and “became transformed into an active being, far from a replica of her former self but quite dissimilar from the expiring object she had been when lying on the ground.” Whatever that means, it’s typical of Smith’s narrative, which meanders about looking for dramatic moments that never come. Redmond O’Hanlon would have condensed the tale into a well-turned paragraph to illustrate the rigors of Amazonian travel; here, reading about it turns into an epic labor all its own.
A footnote suited to fans of bad-trip travel literature—but only the patient ones.