There are so many things wrong with Along the River that Flows Uphill that it’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps at the beginning, or even before, with the cover: the title of this book is a lie, a piece of marketing hype that the authors blandly dismiss about midway through their meandering tale.
Rivers in the Amazon-Orinoco system don’t flow uphill anymore than syrup on a Nebraska pancake does. The fact that there’s an old confusion about which way the “mysterious” Casiquiare river flows is due to the fact that the basis is so damn flat rivers can flow inland during one season and toward the Atlantic during flood season.
But what’s so mysterious about the Casiquiare, anyway? We’ll never know, other than it is, because Richard Starks and Miriam Murcutt never get around to telling us.
Which is a shame, because their book is thin gruel and could have used some meat and spice. The book is based on an article they wrote for Geographical, the magazine of the Royal Geographical Society. The book has about a magazine-article’s worth of interest in it; the rest is puffed up philosophizing that quickly tires and annoys the reader.
For instance, the authors compare himself (more on that odd construction momentarily) to Henry Morton Stanley, the con artist “explorer” who “found” David Livingstone near Lake Tanganyika in 1871. Why anyone would want to compare himself to such a lame-arse specimen of getting-over (and still expect to be taken seriously) is beyond me.
But then there’s the risk aversion theme that makes the book nearly unreadable. Here’s the setup: the authors (and there are two of them, one male, one female, but they write “together” as one male voice - what’s up with that?; a note at the end of the book offers an explanation which explains nothing at all) always wanted to be an explorer. But he’s chicken. On their journey, they come upon a Yanamami Indian village. The author whips out one of his many cameras and starts snapping. And, yo! A male villager draws out his bow, notches an arrow and draws a bead on our intrepid explorer. Who nearly shits his drawers.
What we get then is the cliched “many peoples of the world don’t like cameras because they think photos steal their souls,” which is unsubstantiated horse manure, followed by endless pages about how to calculate risk. Trite pages with thinking about as dimensional as the Platte river: a mile wide and an inch deep, like a self-help book that actually takes itself seriously.
The authors’ treatment of the native population only gets worse. Although they never quite step into outright racism, their attitude is paternalistic: "The Yanomami are not an attractive people - at least not to Western eyes,” on the one hand, while on the other, "The... [woman] is young and strikingly attractive - much too attractive for her own good."
Most of all, though, for an “armchair” travel adventure, nothing much really happens in this yarn. The press release hyping the book claims that the writers were taken hostage by FARC - but, in fact, they weren’t. They spent a nervous afternoon in a riverside cafe in the jungle fretting after having been verbally threatened by someone they assumed was FARC, but they were never in fact taken captive.
The only redeeming feature of the book is the fact that it is so simplistic that it takes but an hour or two to whip through it. If you’re in need of a fat book with ten pages worth of content to waste some time on, then Along the River that Flows Uphill is for you.