RENTON: Some people hate the English, but I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent culture to be colonized by. We are ruled by effete arseholes. It’s a shite state of affairs and all the fresh air in the world will not make any fucking difference. –Trainspotting
My most recent reading project: Fordlândia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s forgotten Jungle City, by Greg Grandin.
Used (very good): $15 bucks. When translated, no doubt by Compahia das Letras, into Portuguese (Brazilian), it will be at least twice that and maybe 8x that relative to local mean per capita income. (95% of Brazilians make less than R$800 ($400) per month.)
The startling and untold story of a Quixotic attempt to recreate small-town America in the heart of the Amazon.
Top Amazon review:
Proving that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction, Fordlandia is the story of Henry Ford’s ill-advised attempt to transform raw Brazilian rainforest into homespun slices of Americana.
More tandom blurbs:
Fordlandia was, ultimately, the classic American parable of a failed Utopia, of soft dreams running aground on a hard world—which tends to make the most compelling tale of all.
To be read in the light of a recently launched Brazilian documentary, with the same title, on the same subject.
Publisher’s extended blurb:
More than a parable of one man’s arrogant attempt to force his will on the natural world, Fordlandia depicts a desperate quest to salvage the bygone America that the Ford factory system did much to dispatch.
There are some impediments to this, my FitzCarraldean project:
- The delay in receiving shipments from Amazon through Cedex, the Sambodian government version of Fedex, and
- the fact that the documentary is not available from your local locadoura, or video rental joint, despite a constant clamor on the Internets: “Anyone know where to get a copy of Fordlândia (disambiguation:film)?”
In the meantime, I have been collecting what background material there is to be had from those crazy Internets and writing up some preliminary questions on my Lusophone blog, O Bicho, Preguiça — the title is a pun on “that beast, the sin of sloth” and bicho-preguiça, the three-toed tree sloth, its mascot.
A basic account of the historical facts that I found very useful is offered by the Web site of Conexão Oeste Produtora — a tourism-promotion company based in Santarem, Pará – although without attribution to any author that I can find.
One of the things I find interesting about both accounts, insofar as I can know about them from reading various reviews, is the shared, essentially apocalyptic reading of the rise and fall of the City of Mahaggony — sorry, I mean Fordlândia — they offer.
Both perspectives tend to focus on the FitzCarraldo-Kurtz archetype, after the film by Werner Herzog and the novel by Joseph Conrad about the rape of the Belgian Congo.
Both center the historical snapshot on the “ghost town” of Fordlândia — the failed company town rotting in the jungle after a failed experiment by the Ford Motor Company to produce its own rubber in the Brazilian Amazon, thereby busting the British Southeast Asian rubber cartel.
Neither history seems to take into account the continued existence of Belterra, a second stab at a company town along the banks of the same river, which continues down the present day as a duly constituted municipality of the state of Pará, not far down river from Santarém and the port being built there by Cargill.
As this account notes, Ford abanoned Fordlândia in 1934, six years into an 18-year experience, swapping its original land concession for a new one of equal size and continuing the experiment for 12 more years, operated out of the city of Belterra — which again, survives down to the present day.
(The plantation project actually reached the rubber-production stage at Belterra in 1941, before being abandoned in 1945-6, when the commodity price trends and market dynamics which motivated the project started to move in other directions.)
Also notable is their personalization of the epic struggle, as though Henry Ford himself rolled up his sleeves and climbed the ladder to personally place the holy cross atop the New England-style clapboard church. Ford himself never set foot on Brazilian soil.
I reproduce this anonymous historical outline here, in my hasty and libertine translation, with a few medieval interlinear scolia and the usual midrash-inspired buttinskiisms.
In the Amazon region as a whole, no other economic cycle has been more intensely studied and researched than the rubber cycle. Even today, scholars are interested in the apogee and decadence of black gold, which rapidly transformed Manaus and Belém into major commercial centers, the metropoles of Amazônia It was a cycle that made the fortunes of the rubber barons, men who imposed their dominance through tyranny, such as Julio Cesar Arana, who used slave labor on his lands.
On the subject of Arana, see Grandin’s recent review of The Devil and Mr. Casement: One Man’s Struggle for Human Rights in the Heart of Darkness (New York Times Book Reviews, via a post on the Verso blog dated February 16, 2010 — Fat Tuesday on the brink of Ash Wednesday).
Also, on the face of it, a personalization and moralization of the forces that shaped the South American rubber cycle.
(This New Historicism: It just can’t seem to let go of that Jungian archetypalism, can it?)
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