Going to El and back

THE CREATURE IN THE MAP by Charles Nicholl, Cape pounds 20
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THERE are two Nicholls. Charles is the dedicated, painstaking Elizabethan scholar who pieced together the death of Christopher Marlowe in The Reckoning, distilled the history of alchemy and anatomised Thomas Nashe.

Charlie, on the other hand, is the unfortunate traveller who threw himself enthusiastically into an exploration of the cocaine industry in The Fruit Palace and was charged by HM Customs with importing coca leaves to a street value of pounds 1; the faintly sleazy farang who, writing about Buddhism in Borderlines, got straight on a train and headed for the Golden Triangle; who, following in the North African footsteps of Rimbaud on TV, took as his motto, "Have A Break: Have Some Khat".

The Creature In The Map sees both Nicholls uniting to tell the story of Sir Walter Ralegh's expedition to Venezuela in 1595. It must have seemed like a perfect combination: Charles back in the 16th century, full of "backbiting and envy, suspicion and surveillance, the creak of the floorboards, the listener at the door", while Charlie samples the local vegetation and indulges his penchant for conducting dodgy deals in deadpan Spanish. But then, Ralegh's voyage seemed like a good idea at the time, too.

Ralegh is 40 in 1595, banished to Dorset after secretly marrying one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting. His voyage to Guiana is intended to discover El Dorado, that legendary city of gold deep in the Americas, one jump ahead of the Spanish. In a single coup, he can restore his dwindling fortunes and return himself to favour with the Queen, who will take a twentieth of the profits as customs dues and 20 per cent of the gold, silver and jewellery off the top as "Her Majestys fyfte".

Ralegh equips himself with a motley crew, sells shares in the venture, and sets off for the New World. This is his first visit: although he is identified with settling Virginia and importing the potato and tobacco and the rest of the "English Heritage biscuit-tin" myth that Nicholl disparages, he has never been there in person.

Taking a knowledgeable Spaniard as hostage and guide, the expedition ventures up the Orinoco. At this point in the book, they are joined by Nicholl, dogging their paddle-strikes at a distance of 400 years, throwing up over the side of the boat and accompanied only by a Channel 4 film crew, a fixer, a translator, a boatman, two policemen and a "chef de camp".

Ralegh's men treat with the local Indians, lose the odd member of the company to water serpents, get close to El Dorado but find it slip ever further from their reach, and return home empty-handed. Captain Nicholl's crew drink the Indian villages dry and have an unsettling encounter with a tobacco shaman (the author finds that the local tobacco has "no psycho- active properties that my jaded palate could discern", a bitter disappointment for his fans). They duly leave Ralegh on the banks of the lower Caroni, where he turns back, and set off on an expedition of their own devising.

A trip to the gold country where Ralegh was heading, to see the despoliation of wildcat mining and the tourist-brochure beauty of Angel Falls, produces some run-of-the-mill travel-writing. The documentary that the crew are filming ends with shots of Nicholl's retreating back as he wanders away down a jungle road on his own. Encumber-ing himself with a party of annoying companions has done little more than cramp his style and stop him making a Charlie of himself. Even if it has given him insights into the frustrations of venturing en masse into unknown territory, he keeps them largely to himself.

The closing section deals with what Ralegh brought home and what it all meant, and here Nicholl's obsessions are allowed full play. A chapter muses on why Ralegh named one of his discoveries the Red Cross River, and unravels links between Ralegh, Spenser's Faerie Queene, the Magus Doctor Dee and Rosicrucianism; another examines Elizabethan herbalism in the light of Ralegh's famous Balsam of Guiana; one muses on different notions of the Indians, from wild Salvages to noble savages, and different metaphors of colonialism, from the penetrative violence of the Spanish entrada to the loving embrace of Albion. In the end, Nicholl concludes that the search for El Dorado, like the alchemical search for gold, is both an inner and an outer journey. The obsession is the point of the obsession.

It is an irritating, enthralling, dense, magical, personal book, packed with lapidary descriptions; and while one might wish that the modern material had been saved for colour supplements, it does give a sideways glimpse of author mingling with subject, a worrying suspicion that Nicholl sees himself as a latter-day Ralegh.

There is one last irony, not mentioned by Nicholl. No one ever found El Dorado, but the Spanish did bring home to Europe prodigious quantities of gold and, especially, of silver. If this did not cause, it certainly contributed to the massive inflation which hampered that country's economy in the late 16th century and hastened its eclipse as a great power. As any monetarist could have told them, the search for El Dorado is a seductive and fatal illusion.