Monday, February 3, 2014

Book review: "Jungle" by Yossi Ghinsberg

If you like your adventure books pure and raw that is, free of political back story, historical sidelights or cultural observations you'll enjoy "The Jungle" by Yossi Ghinsburg.

"The Jungle" (formerly called "Back from Tuichi") is an uncomplicated and gripping first-person story about men trying to survive in the Amazon rainforest against great odds. I blazed through it in just three days.

The non-fiction story centers on three young backpackers who thirst for adventure while visiting Bolivia in 1981. There is Ghinsberg, 22, an Israeli; Marcus Stamm, 28, a Swiss; and Kevin Gale, 29, an American. Together, they hire Karl Ruchprecter, 35, an uber-capable Austrian outdoorsman with a mysterious past, to lead them through the jungle.

As you might guess, things go wrong.

Soon, personality clashes emerge. Ghinsberg finds his friendship with Marcus strained. The tough and strong Kevin judges Marcus too weak and sensitive and soon they can't stand each other. Kevin bristles against Karl's leadership, too. All the backpackers feel like Karl is hiding something.

Besides battling each other, the men must deal with disease, injuries, dangerous animals, whitewater rapids and hunger. 

Ghinsberg is a deft writer with an eye for the kind of details that help place you at the scene, as in this passage where the men are rafting down the Rio Tuichi:

After about an hour we came to shallow waters where large rocks jutted out. 

"Watch out! Now pull to the left, Kevin, to the left!" Karl pulled at the oar with all his might. "Yossi, get ready to push us off that rock with the pole," he said to me, as we rapidly approached a boulder. We all rowed. Marcus tried to push off from the rocks on the bottom. His pole snagged on one of them and was torn from his hands.

"Ive lost my pole!" he cried. "I lost it!"

The question I would like to ask Ghinsberg is how he remembered all the details of the 7-week adventure. About halfway through, he mentions stopping and writing down the events up to that point, but otherwise he doesn't indicate that he kept a diary (and believe me, he mentions every single item he is carrying, multiple times). Is he recounting this all from memory?

Certainly, at a minimum, he had to re-invent much of the dialogue, since there's no way someone can remember conversations verbatim. Did he re-invent other parts of the book?  I feel reasonably confident that the basic facts of the book are true Kevin Gale has publicly backed up the parts of Ghinsberg's story that he can   but I wish he would have explained, in the foreword or afterword, how he wrote the book.

If you like "Jungle," you will also like "River of Doubt," the story of a 1914 expedition that included Theodore Roosevelt into a mysterious part of the Amazon rain forest. I found it interesting that while the Roosevelt expedition could find very little food in the jungle, Ghinsberg and his compatriots found quite a few options: different kinds of fruit, birds' eggs, birds themselves, fish and at least one monkey that they killed.

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