The Unknown Country

RM coverRaymond Maufrais (1926-50) was a French paratrooper, journalist and explorer. In September 1949 he attempted to travel solo from French Guyana to Brazil. His route would take him through the densely forested and sparsely populated Tumuk Humak mountain range. In February 1950 his notes and equipment were found in a hut by the River Tompok. Final entries show that the exhausted Maufrais intended to swim to the nearest habitation – a distance of some 70 km. His body was never found. His father Edgar journeyed to Guyana in 1952 and spent many years in South America, publishing an account of his search for his son – whose fate has never been determined – in 1956.)

Thursday, 12th January [from the penultimate entry]

For a month now I’ve lived in the virgin forest, living entirely on what it provides and working hard meanwhile. And I’m nothing unusual, physically; I’m the average Frenchman – if that – the average European with his habits, his tastes, his modest scale of life – and his misadventures during the last twenty years. So that I’ve given the lie to those who asserted after their third round of punch that Guiana is “death to the European. He can’t exist in it without taking every possible precaution, keeping to a fixed diet, and avoiding physical effort. Hunting, for instance. You’ve got to go slow with your hunting; if you don’t, it’ll wear you to a shred. Kill you, in the end, it will”.

But Guiana is an unknown country. It’s not Guiana that kills the European, and it’s not hard, physical work, either. It’s the European who kills himself; and, as he needs an excuse, he pins the crime on Guiana.

Try as I might not to think of my hunger, I find myself tortured by the memory of the jams my mother made. I remember the baskets of oranges, and the peel being put on to boil… How good that marmalade was!

So now I’m off – dreaming of what I’d eat, and how… while on my knapsack there is hanging the smoked head of a golden-pawed oustiti – about as big as a nut. So much for memory: the reality is – that I’ve grabbed that head, and am ripping off the fur and sucking the bones. It smells rather strong – in fact I think there are a few white worms in it – but I’m too hungry to care.

And the noise of the fall is becoming an obsession with me. First I thought that some boy scouts were setting up a camp just near to my own… But it was the fall, working on my unconscious, murmuring old scout songs in my ear, old students’ choruses, marches… even a choir of girls and boys that I can adapt to any tune that comes into my head. Then my heart turns over, and I just let the dreams go on of their own momentum. Whether I’m writing, or cooking, or idling, or returning from a hunt, or walking, or falling asleep – the record goes on playing. If I get bored and change the needle, it does as I please. It’s a phenomenon that I can’t get rid of. Sometimes I quite enjoy it. I can hear whatever I choose, a thousand times over, without even summoning it to mind – when I’m busy, in fact, with something else, and very possibly have not the heart to start singing. [HB]

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