Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Conquest of the Useless by Werner Herzog

Camisea June 1984

This first of June seems like a momentous day to me because we still have not begun to haul the ship. I keep thinking, in a panic: it is June, it is June. I wish I could hold back time. Kinski paddled clumsily and unsteadily past our camp in a dugout, without any of the gentle elegance of the Indians. He was wearing his olive-green made-to-order fatigues, had girded on a machete and a knife, and had jungle and survival rations in a small, sturdy canvas backpack. He managed to go about a hundred meters, but the illusion he creates for himself that is expedition is taking hm into the heart of the inscrutable but inspiring natural wonders of the jungle apparently makes him happy...

Wisps of smoke are eddying through our camp today, and under the large, patient trees peace reigns. Today the sun feels gentle for the first time, without any of its usual vicious aggression. My existence is reduced to one dimension: a cleared landing strip up a steep hillside and a ship at the bottom. White, firm clumps of foam drift quietly by on the river, and they will still be doing that long after we have left these parts, and even when there are no humans beings on earth, only insects.

Today the jungle seemed peaceful on the mild light, self-absorbed and resting contentedly. On the gravel bank I saw stones into which the Campas have scratched their names. I feel as if I were in a concert hall where a little-known orchestral work is being performed, and at the end no one is sure whether it is finished and one should clap. Since no one wants to appear ignorant by clapping too soon, everyone waits for a moment to see what the others are going to do: this moment of silence and irresolution in which the applause does not set in to provide release: I am irreversibly thrust into this moment, which, however, continues for months.

In its all-encompassing, majestic misery, of which it has no knowledge and no hint of a notion, the massive jungle stood completely still for another night which, true to its innermost nature, it did not let pass unused for incredible destruction, incredible strangulation.

In the face of the obscene, explicit malice of the jungle, which lacks only dinosaurs as punctuation, I feel like a half-finished, poorly expressed sentence in a cheap novel. While hauling away a mud-smeared, uncooperative cable, one of the Indians farted from the effort with such force and duration that it sounded amid the roaring vulgarity of nature like the first indication of a human will to impose order. In my imagination my wishes carry me away to a place where people fly over church towers, church towers over farmland, ships over mountains, and continents over oceans.

Our kitchen crew slaughter our last four ducks. While they were still alive Julian plucked their neck feathers, before chopping off their heads on the execution block. The albino turkey, that vain creature, the survivor of so many roast chickens and ducks transformed into soup, came over to inspect, gobbling and displaying, used his ugly feet to push one of the beheaded ducks, as it lay there on the ground bleeding and flapping its wings, into what he thought was a proper position, and making gurgling sounds while his bluish red wattles swelled, he mounted the dying duck and copulated with it.

The next day the camp is silent with resignation; only the turkey is making a racket. It attacked me, overestimating its own strength, and I quickly grabbed its neck, which squirmed and tried to swallow, slapped him left-right with the casual elegance of the arrogant cavaliers I had seen in the French Musketeer films, who dutifully do fancy swordplay, and then let the albino go. His feelings hurt, he trotted away, wiggling his rump but with his wings still spread in conceited display.

It was already dark when I was called to the medic's station in the big camp. Up on the plateau between the two rivers, woodsman had been felling trees, barefoot as usual, and one of them had been bitten by a snake. Snakes had never been seen anywhere near chainsaws, because the noise and the exhaust fumes drive the snakes deep into the jungle, but this man had suddenly been bitten twice in the foot. He had dropped his chain saw and just caught a glimpse of the snake before it disappeared into the underbrush; it was a chuchupe. Usually this snake's bite causes cardiac arrest and stops breathing in less than a minute, and cases in which a person has survived a bite longer than seven or eight minutes without treatment are almost unknown. Our camp doctor and the antivenom serum was twenty minutes away. The man, so I was told by someone who was working next to him, had stood motionless for a few seconds thinking hard. Then he plucked up his chain saw, which had stalled when it hit the ground, pulled the chord to start it, the way you pull an outboard motor, and had sawed off his foot above the ankle.

I saw the man- his whole body was gray. He was alive, perfectly collected, and very calm. Before they took him to the doctor, the others had tied off his leg in three places with lianas; below his crotch, below his knee, and above the stump and had twisted the lianas with sticks to make a tight tourniquet. They had stuck a kind of moss on the stump to stop the bleeding. I had a plane readied to fly him out to Lima the next day. It is better in any case to keep him under observation overnight to make sure he does not go into shock.


  1. Twenty years later I returned to Camisea, on the trail of my collaboration with Kinski.. I found not a trace of either of our camps, even after a careful search- not a nail, not a post, not even a hole where a post had been. The strip we had cleared was completely overgrown, as if we had never been there. Only the forest was a lighter green there, if you knew where we had dragged the ship over the mountain. But the vegetation had grown to its previous height. It was midday and very still.

    I looked around, because everything was so motionless. I recognized the jungle as something familiar, something I had inside me, and I knew that I loved it: yet against my better judgment. Then words came back to me that had been circling, swirling inside me through all those years: Hearken, heifer, hoarfrost. Denizens of the crag, will-o'-the wisp, hogwash. Uncouth, flotsam, fiend. Only now did it seem as though I could escape from the vortex of words.

    Something struck me, a change that actually was no change at all. I had simply not noticed it when I was working there. There had been an odd tension hovering over the huts, a brooding hostility. The native families hardly had any contact with each other, as if a feud reined among them. But I had always overlooked that somehow, or denied it. Only the children had played together. Now, as I made my way past the huts and asked for directions, it was hardly possible to get one family to acknowledge another. The seething hatred was undeniable, as if something like a climate of vengeance prevailed, from hut to hut, from family to family, from clan to can.

    I looked around, and there was the jungle, manifesting the same seething hatred, wrathful and steaming, while the river flowed by in majestic indifference and scornful condescension, ignoring everything: the plight of man, the burden of dreams, and the torments of time.

  2. "Conquest of the Useless; Reflections from the Making of 'Fitzcarraldo'" by Werner Herzog; translated from the German by Krishna Winston; HarperCollins; 2009