Wild Coast [John Gimlette]

“I was surprised how severe they looked.  Perhaps the derelict mind finds comfort in chaos?  One woman, who was whispering to the weeds, was luminously beautiful.  It struck me that, however cruel insanity may be, it’s scrupulously fair”

Mad houses, prison islands, cult plantations, histories deep in colonisation, slavery and Jungle, with a pinch of the British and the Dutch, and a dollop of French (still being added), Guyana, Suriname and Guyane Francais are dissected and laid bare by John Gimlette.

With the aid of a colourful cast of taxi drivers and boat owners John ambles across these three territories on the edge of the new world, nestled in Brazil’s tangled hair and uncovers a bloody past of oppression and revolt where seemingly the only winner is the Jungle, that reclaims all, dismantling the grand houses and soaking up the blood of the fallen.  It’s not all revolts and revenge though, the countries are almost comical, Suriname is spelt wrong by Voltaire, and subsequently by the French, and even Gimlette’s map and the national airline spell it wrong.

I bought Wild Coast because of my love for South America.  But while I was reading it I realised not only had I not been, I didn’t actually want to go to any of the three countries, well two, Guyane is actually a departement of France, (the largest chunk of the European Union detached from the whole) and I wondered why I was a hundred pages in.  It wasn’t Gimlette, he is a shrewd observer, and he seems to trawl through an enormous amount of background reading before and during the trip, allowing him to cleverly reconstruct the past while commenting on the present.  It doesn’t shy away from asking locals questions and spends time chasing up local politicians, former dictators while immersing himself in the history and the hinterlands.

So while I won’t be booking a flight to Georgetown soon, I will be checking out his other travel books.

As for the Guyana’s and Suriname, it seems the title sums them up best.  Wild Coast is worth reading, for the history of a place you probably know nothing about, from the origin of talkie-talkie, why there are african tribes with names like MacDonalds and McLeods and why France sent a colony of Spacemen to a corner of South America.

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