The Snake Charmer by Jamie James begins as an inverted pyramid of a story - the climax is revealed before you ever get to know the principal characters. What works in favor of the book, however, is the author’s skill in keeping us engrossed in the tale even though he has disclosed its end.
The narrative begins with Joseph Bruno Slowinski’s slow and painful death. After he is bitten by a many-banded krait in a remote village in Burma, his friends fight for nearly 30 hours to save his life, waiting for a rescue that never comes. From the beginning, the expedition is a disaster waiting to happen – they do not have enough food or medical supplies, the weather is fickle, the authorities in Burma are corrupt and uncaring, and the village is in a remote area of Burma. The timing, too, could not have been worse. The September 11 attacks have just occurred, and the officials at the American Consulate in Burma are busy sorting through the confusion of their own people. From that peg, James starts to unravel the compelling yarn of a man, intelligent and ambitious, passionate yet reckless.
James takes us through Slowinski’s early years as a budding palaeontologist, his near-obsessive fascination with reptiles, his fledgling career as a field researcher to that of a scientist at the top of his field. As a student, Slowinski was drawn to the challenging study of evolutionary theory, co-authoring a paper on the theory that was intended to eliminate the possibility that chance alone could explain patterns of diversity. Sharply anti-creationist, he used rational argument to beat down opposition to the theory of evolution.
Joe Slowinski was a study in contrasts – he was meticulously disciplined as a scientist, having published several papers and earned a name for himself in his chosen field. However tired he was, he never forgot to update his journal, the source of much of the author’s information. He noted the specimens he had collected and the prevalent conditions, embellishing the whole with a gossipy note of his doings. He was rigidly fair on the field, and his natural daring was submerged in his pursuit of knowledge. In his short but brilliant career, he had already been credited with the discovery of many hitherto unidentified species of snakes.
On the other hand, he was reckless where the objects of his fascination were concerned. He once sent a venomous snake by ordinary post to a friend and introduced a pygmy rattlesnake into a restaurant he habitually visited; he brought a cobra into the university lab, where it escaped, leading to some fear and confusion before it was captured. His death is a direct consequence of his own (inexplicable) actions – he thrusts his hand inside to pull out a bagged snake without checking to see whether it was indeed non-venomous, as his colleague thinks it is.
The Snake Charmer is, on the face of it, the biography of a charming scientist/adventurer who spent his childhood looking for snakes under every stone, all the while dreaming of becoming a scientist. It takes a peek at the young scientist who had already seen the Hopi Indian snake dance by the time he was a teenager and describes his obsessive intensity as a leading authority on Asian reptiles.
Underlying the main story of scientific accomplishment cut short in its prime is a vivid description of the extraordinary hardships and dangers attached to a scientific expedition. It is also a fascinating travelogue that describes the rainforests of Costa Rica, the tropical Caribbean, the wilderness of Peru, and the vast unexplored parts of Burma, with its small poverty-stricken villages and snake-infested plateaus. As a natural aside, the author takes a compelling look at the petty jealousies, professional backstabbing and infighting prevalent in academic circles.
James also favors us with small descriptions of the different species of poisonous snakes, the toxicity of their venom, and the geographical areas in which they are found. There are many facts about snakes and small nuggets of information about snake-catching in various parts of the world which are interesting and do not take away from the force of the narrative.
Using official written reports of that ill-fated expedition, various documents and letters, including Slowinsky’s extensive journal, interviews with family members and eyewitnesses, audio and video recordings of the late herpetologist and his own trek into the wilderness, Jamie James succeeds in piecing together a puzzle who was at once charismatic adventurer and flawed genius.