The Making of
Iquitos-Miami, 26 March 1981
The cabin is now standing on its stilts in water, with swamp all around. Frogs, even small fishes around me. When I arrived at night, everything was deserted, not a soul anywhere, deathlike silence, the house abandoned. Suddenly the Indian night watchman came toward me, noiselessly, with his light. I looked through the office for signs of life. All I found was the telex machine, fried by short circuits, the upper plastic parts melted as if after a war without witnesses. The number dial is punched in, like an eye into its socket. I groped my way to my cabin and found myself surrounded by bog. Frogs swam away as I approached and dove down to the bottom. I found the ladder lying on one side, among the banana plants, and as I put it in place, I stepped into a hole originally intended for a differently positioned support post and now full of putrid water. I felt utterly out of place, the more so because I was still wearing the black pin-striped suit and black oxfords I had put on for meeting with lawyers in New York.
Iquitos, 3 March 1981
We studied the dailies of the Rio Camisea. Still many uncertainties. I found a frog under my pillow. In town a policeman stopped me on the motorcycle on some pretext and wanted to extort money from me, but I stepped on the gas and sped off. Now it is evening and the sky has opened up. Rain is streaming under the door and into the office, collecting along the wall on the garden side. In no time the stream has grown to a width of two meters, and in a matter of minutes the room will be under water. The water is pulsing under the door in bursts. Polyplike eddies of swiftly flowing water snake around the legs of my chair and reach for each other, soon combining to form a single surface. Around the pathetically small drain in the middle of the room cigarette butts are swirling. The screens at the windows have turned into walls of water, pulsing downward. With a push broom and other tools we tried to direct the flood onto the vacant lot next door. From the thicket over there lightning flashed toward us, raining down from the sky.
As I was walking to my hut I observed some disturbing creatures that resembled eels, reddish brown; presumably they are a kind of very large blindworm, though they seem to dry when exposed to the air, I saw two of these weird animals, looking as though they had slipped out of an enormous cadaver. One of them was trying, with swimming movements, or perhaps they were also drowning movements, to burrow, to snake its way under a dissolving strip of pona bark in the water. I cannot imagine a more deadly, naked, wormlike eelish parasite to have in my own innards.
Waited for hours for a phone connection. First I was told it would take an hour and a half, and once that passed, two more hours, and so forth. The radio meanwhile was emitting an unending jumble of incomprehensible, distorted voices. One time I heard the whistle we had always used as a signal in Camisea, but after that our camp in the jungle remained silent. Today the rushes seemed like something I had dreamed, or rather, like something someone else had dreamed and I had merely been told about. Being wide awake at night now seems natural; I hardly sleep. I do not know what real sleep is anymore; I just have brief, strenuous fainting spells.
I followed an electrical crackling and found in the wet wall little metal doors that were wide open, inside them a tangle of cables installed by the confused man from the electric company. They are all insulated poorly or not at all. Here we have the portals to death by electrocution. Today there is supposed to have been an attempt on Reagan's life, according to the news from the local broadcasting station. In Poland Russian tanks are rolling toward Warsaw.
Iquitos, 31 March 1981
Massive burden on me; everything is too precarious: organizationally, financially, timewise, in human terms. In town I purchased a Commercio to learn more about the assassination attempt on Reagan. At breakfast, without knowing any details, we had speculated as to whether he was dead and how it would look if Bush became president as a result.
Yellow birds laid siege to me. Last night I had to combat a fresh invasion of army ants in my cabin; they overran me with their larvae, but they were easier to fight because they were so unusually large. First I tried spraying Baygon, but that did not work, and finally I swept the raving warriors off my platform into the swamp. Our work is not compatible with nature Amazon-style. The weather is bad, the chickens are not doing well, ditto the rabbit. The vermin in the earth is thriving. It is happy. The Chinese wok was filled with a jellylike, almost transparent mass, sticky and tough, and in its midst was a broken-off lizard tail, as if the poisonous bite of some nasty creature had melted the lizard into a tough, gluey mass. I set the wok to soak overnight, but even with scouring powder and a wooden stick for scraping I cannot get the disgusting stuff out. Tumors form on the trees. Roots writhe in the air. The jungle revels in debauched lewdness.
No one was affected by our problems as much as Norman R, from the lab in New York, the man who looks like Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, and who greets his visitors by projecting porn photos on the wall. He called all the department heads into his office, and technical experts crowded in. He made a short speech and bowed to me, and it did my heart good. The second one was Schlondorff, who reached me by phone and told me that he had gotten my letter belatedly after his return from Lebanon. He had prayed again for the first time since his mother's death.
Iquitos, 2 April 1981
Under the blazing hot corrugated tin roof of the house out in front, hundreds of bats have taken up residence, and at night they swarm out through the angled vents in the gable window. The washroom on the second floor has a hole in the ceiling, which has gone unrepaired all year --- the only thing that would be needed is a piece of ugly pressed cardboard. One of the bats must have come down through the hole. Yesterday it was lying, gleaming black in the white sink, its wingtips with their grappling hooks and its legs slightly extended, and gazed at me with its black eyes. It did not fly away, it was dying, very quietly yielding to its fate, and also entirely without fear in the midst of this tremendous event it was experiencing. Today the bat was still there. Someone had neatly laid a strip of toilet paper over it. It was dead, its position unchanged. I left it there and did not use the sink, not out of disgust or hygienic considerations but out of an unarticulated sense of respect. One of my favorite words in Spanish has always been murciélago, bat. My life seemed like an invention to me, with its pathos, its banalities, its dramas, its idling.
Mauch, whose birthday is Saturday, which is why we were speaking of his parents, who lived in Wurttemberg, described the death of his father at the age of eighty-two; when someone dies at that age, he said, there is a folk saying in his region to the effect that you can no longer blame the midwife. We talked about the sphinx by the Cheops pyramid in Giza, which the Ottoman Turk artillery had used for target practice. We talked about how simple mathematical rules can be translated into language, but I have long been preoccupied with the question of how Zorn's lemma could be translated into prose.
As I was on my way to the costume depot on Calle Putumayo, word came from Lucki that we are in the clear as far as the Second German Television Broadcasting Company is concerned. The others would probably follow suit, he said, and the insurance underwriters would most likely support the decision. Franz at the costume depot was visibly relieved, speaking of prayers that had been heard, and I responded, half jokingly, that our prayers resembled intense comments directed into a darkened room from which no answer came and which we had to assume was completely empty, not even occupied by a large, taciturn guy on a throne, who might be able to hear us but did not even bestow on us so much as an echo from the void, other than the echo of our stupid hopes and our self-deception. After I had got that off my chest, we laughed and had a beer.
Iquitos, 3 April 1981
Preparations for the trip to the Camisea; under pressure to get started there before the level of the river sank too far and made it impossible to get the ship back to Iquitos. I became lost in imagining an unknown river with headwaters in dreamed-up mountains of alabaster and sapphires and ending in a sea of emeralds. Lord, grant me to see an unknown fish at my feet. Was not a scaly, breathing animal caught off the coast of West Africa an actual fish that otherwise exists only in fossilized form? A Chinese general had his troops assemble and summarily baptized two hundred thousand men with a garden hose. In the depths of my heart I decided that my favorite plant was the fern, and not only because of its name: fern beaded with rain. I carry my world with me in a little net made of liana fibers. Death is hereditary.--- From Conquest of the Useless
Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo
© 2009 Ecco