I have previously read and reviewed four other books by Peter Matthiessen, all of which I thought were fine books and to which I gave four stars. But I never quite thought of them as works of pure genius, not until I read this book. Here, Matthiessen's writing is so exquisite, nuanced and daringly spot-on that one scarcely knows how to describe it. He writes like an an angel or dæmon swooping down upon the South American jungle landscape and deep into the inner lives of those who populate it with a searing lyrical torch. I've never read anything quite like it.
The setting could not seem more banal or clichéd: hypocritical evangelists, a jaded Catholic priest, primitive Indian tribes, a corrupt Spanish officer etc. But Matthiessen sets them all to dancing through dark and light, death and life in this book.
He describes the Spanish cathedral as seen though the eyes of a Protestant missionary's wife thus:
"Though she knew no Latin, the priest's ritual voice in the unearthly light evoked half-memories of illuminated manuscripts, of fat abbeys and round-pated monks, fair countrysides and far cathedrals against towering windy skies crossed by dark birds."
and he describes the jungle as seen by a missionary thus:
"He had wandered into a cathedral of Satan where all prayer was abomination, a place without a sky, a stench of death, vast somber naves and clerestories, the lost cries of savage birds - he whooped and called, but no voice answered."
But, most of all, he describes the world as seen by Lewis Moon, the anti-hero of the book, with a frightening, magical sharpness, as when he parachutes into the jungle here:
"He blinked, in tears; he was alive again, laughing idiotically in the clean sunlight of the upper air, legs dangling and swaying like the legs of a rag doll, drifting, drifting down through the great morning, in a wild silence like the wake of bells."
I quote so extensively because it's simply impossible to convey the power of the book without putting its unearthly lyricism on display. Matthiessen is also a naturalist, of course, and his descriptions of the environment are as precise as his writing is ensorcelling, as profound as the depths to which he takes the readers into the souls of his characters.
I don't know what else I can say save to urge every lover of literature to please, please don't let your life end without first reading this coruscating work of highest art.