BOOK REVIEW / Swamped and deserted in search of utopia: Land without evil - Richard Gott: Verso, pounds 18.95

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The Independent Online
HERE IS a labour of love if ever there was one: 'A book about places you have never been to, about a history you have never read and about people you have never heard of.' Richard Gott has been fascinated by the vast tracts of swamp and semi-desert between Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil since he was sent there by the Guardian to cover the hunt for Che Guevara in 1967, and he has finally produced a book about the region.

As the above quotation suggests, Gott began by thinking that this was an obscure and little-known part of the world. But his years of travel and research opened his eyes to the vast army of conquerors, explorers, missionaries, administrators and adventurers who preceded him across the watershed between the Plata and Amazon river systems, between the trade routes of the Atlantic and the silver mines of Upper Peru. The generations of travellers left vast libraries of material behind them - diaries, letters, reports, accounts - but, as Gott points out, most of this stuff has simply been forgotten. To this day nobody has written a coherent history of the region; scholars from Prescott onwards have focused on the lands of the Aztecs and Incas. This is an oversight. For centuries the continental watershed was a frontier battleground between the Spanish and Portugese empires, and between populous Indian nations and waves of European incomers, among them engineers and visionaries interested in opening up the wild heart of the new continent.

These schemes were 'utopian' partly in the sense that they came to nothing. Worse than that: Gott argues that the watershed territories are now more backward than they were at the time of the conquest, 500 years ago. This book's leitmotiv is that the Europeans brought little but death and degradation to a region that was prosperous and densely populated before the arrival of the conquerors.

The most abundant source material of all is provided by the Jesuits, who are among the few whites to emerge with any credit from this account. Not that Gott's attitude towards the stream of priests who devoted their lives to these remote outposts of empire is free of ambivalence:

as befits someone who once stood as an anti-Vietnam War candidate in a Hull by- election, Gott describes the Jesuit missions as 'strategic hamlets' which by 'brainwashing' the Indians played a crucial role in the imperial strategies of Spain and Portugal. But the idealistic fathers also saw it as their duty to preserve the lives, cultures and languages of the Indians sheltered in the Jesuit 'reductions' from the depredations of settlers from Spain and slavers from Sao Paulo, who regarded the Indians as cheap labour. The Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish empire in 1767; their experiment in 'utopian socialism' was ended by the stroke of a monarch's pen in Madrid.

But the real villains of the piece, as far as Gott is concerned, are the national governments of the three countries that replaced the imperial powers in the course of the 19th century, and which set about the systematic destruction of the Indian cultures in the name of national integration and development. Even so, it was many years before the resistance of many tribes was broken. As on the plains of north America and the pampas of Argentina to the south, it was the repeater rifle that finally finished them off; the indomitable Chiriguanos, the Sioux of South America, were not defeated until 1892.

Gott has done a real service in rescuing much valuable material from oblivion and in pointing the way for further research. But his book, as is often the way with

heroic enterprises, has some defects. His publishers have done him no favours

by promoting this volume as a 'trend- breaking anti-travel book'. The truth is that Gott is not much of a travel writer, and the account of his journeys is little more than a perfunctory transcription of his notebooks.

Partly as a consequence, the book as a whole is a little less than the sum of its parts. Gott optimistically describes its unusual structure as a canvas, which the artist fills with blobs of colour here and broad sweeps of narrative there. But the effect is more like a patchwork: the vivid interspersed with the rather dull.