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Touching the hem of a lost world

3 August 2006

8:51 AM

3 August 2006

8:51 AM

Cochineal Red: Travels Through Ancient Peru Hugh Thomson

Weidenfeld, pp.350, 18.99

First and most importantly, Hugh Thomson is a good thing. It takes a rare combination of scholarly focus and Boys’ Own derring-do to write books about adventuring in Peru (this is his third) which consistently rise above the level of backpackers’ companions, and convey not only Thomson’s great knowledge of the ancient civilisations of the Andes, but also the thrill of the chase for such knowledge. To a lay audience, academic archeologists are often dreadful communicators either of the excitement of discovery or of the human stories of the discoverers.

Indeed to the general public they regularly fail to communicate even the meaning of their discoveries. That we have recently come to understand that the history of civilisation in Ancient Peru goes back much, much further than had been thought (thousands of years before the Incas) is well-conveyed here. I must admit I had previously missed the news. Thomson brings it alive.

We follow breathless in his wake as he scrambles through the cloud-forest near Machu-Picchu to discover not (as he keeps complaining the newspapers would have it) a ‘Lost City of the Incas’ but (as one American newspaper headlined it) a ‘Lost Suburb of the Incas’. Thomson complains about that headline too, but I think it was rather accurate. Nobody who walks the Inca Trail to Machu-Picchu should be without his chapters on this story. It is not enough to gawp: Thomson helps you understand. His researches at ground-level into the Nazca Lines are equally revealing.


The challenge Hugh Thomson bravely embraces is to marry, in print, methodical field research with light travel reading. Does he succeed? Fitfully; and when he does his writing is a delight. He takes his family to the Andes and puts his small children into a Peruvian school: I was fascinated by this and would like to have read more about their experiences. And readers will enjoy many of his encounters with eccentric expatriates and local self-taught archeologists. Among the best interludes in the book is his conversation with an archaeological looter (the huaqueros are a significant sector in the Peruvian tourist industry) who laments the falling market for stolen artefacts: ‘You get less money because there are so many fakes around. F*****g forgers. I hate them. No tienen respeto — they have no respect.’

But — and I say this hesitantly of one who is investing so much of his life in writing along the frontier between academics and backpackers — I don’t think Thomson has yet quite got the balance right. Anxious (overly, I think) to make each page a ripping good read, he rather over-writes the ‘white-knuckled, I gripped the Cessna’s doorframe…’ sort of thing. The quirky individuals who share his field trips sometimes come across as less interesting to outsiders than they might be to each other; and I grew a little tired of the score of straight shots of pisco consumed on any one evening. Occasional moments, occasional remarks, stand out (‘[she said] she would have described the undergrowth as impenetrable except for the fact that we were penetrating it’), but sometimes the thing as a whole fails to stand up.

And there is a problem which I believe Thomson will never crack and which may help explain the inarticulacy of an academic world about which he is fairly unkind. In Cochineal Red he aims, the book suggests, to understand and get into ‘the mindset’ of the Inca and pre-Inca cultures, explain it, and thus help explain their modern-day Andean Indian successors. He doesn’t.

I don’t think you ever can. My own experience with those who live in the half-light between two cultures (even of my own half-Catalan nephews and nieces) is that between them no interpreter can ever arise; because the point at which he can give an answer is the point at which he ceases to understand the question. The question will be about meaning, and make no sense to one who is already ‘in’ the mindset whose meanings are being inquired into. Perhaps there is a moment when, poised between two cultures, an interpreter can be sufficiently ‘in’ one to understand its question, and sufficiently ‘in’ another to answer it; but the moment will be fleeting.

Hugh Thomson never speaks truer (and it is a wonderful remark) than when he confesses that explorers like him can do no more than ‘touch the hem’ of a lost, unrecorded, and now mute world.


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