Review: Iain Sinclair – “The Gold Machine: In the Tracks of the Mule Dancers “

by Hannah Denno
Iain Sinclair The Gold Machine

Iain Sinclair – The Gold Machine: In the Tracks of the Mule Dancers (Oneworld 2021), pp 423

Book review by Hannah Denno

In Primer, the 2004 low-budget time travel film, we see the same series of events played out a number of times, unfolding slightly differently on each occasion. As the story progresses, the audience becomes aware that there are multiple versions of each of the two main characters, and we lose track of which version we are watching, the originals or some returnees from the future, and therefore of how much they already know.

Iain Sinclair’s new book, The Gold Machine, reminds me of this film. The heart of the book’s narrative is the author’s journey, in company with his daughter Farne and the filmmaker Grant Gee, to the Perené Valley in Peru, following in the footsteps of his great grandfather, Arthur Sinclair, who travelled there in 1891 as a surveyor for the Peruvian Corporation of London. But it also traces Iain’s preparations for the journey at home in London, and his meetings in Brussels with a mysterious character he calls “The Advocate,” who helped him to organise the venture. And it weaves in the story of the meandering life of Arthur Sinclair, from growing potatoes as a youngster in Scotland, through working on coffee estates in Ceylon and gold prospecting in Tasmania, to his adventures in Peru.

So, it is not a straightforwardly chronological read. And as the author loses his bearings in the feverish humidity of the Peruvian jungle, so goes his certainty about which character, or which version of each character, is appearing where on the timeline. He senses his great grandfather walking beside them, and when the party he is traveling with leave a road to plunge deeper into the cloud forest, he feels he is traveling back in time.

Within minutes, so it seems, the Trans-Amazonian road no longer exists. It has not yet been built.

Iain Sinclair, The Gold Machine

At one point, Sinclair even questions if he is actually there, and not some shadow of himself.

“If I had made the journey,” he begins. “And I was no longer sure of that…”

These perceptions echo concepts known to the Ashaninka people who are native to this part of the Amazon. They use the term chullachaqui to describe a hollow replica of a person. When the Ashaninka receive visitors, it is their custom to walk behind them to check that they have solid backs and are not hollow spirits. And, for these jungle-dwellers, time is not linear but the past, the present and the future are all in motion concurrently.

All of Sinclair’s ambiguity about time and self gloriously captures the disorientating spell of the rain forest. As do some wonderful descriptions such as cicadas who “launched their irritated summons to cloud jungle vespers.”

A comparison with Primer is perhaps obscure but it seems apt as Iain Sinclair is fond of finding the connections between everything, and he peppers his own text with references to film and literature, such as the Colombian film Embrace of the Serpent. This is a story, like Sinclair’s book, of two similar voyages separated by many years. It also has for a theme the destruction of the Amazonian way of life by white colonialism.

This is a theme that Sinclair grapples with, since the result of his great grandfather’s expedition was that half a million hectares of land were enclosed and devoted to coffee plantation for export to Europe, with the locals pushed deeper into the jungle or coerced into working for the colonists.

He identifies with the poet Allen Ginsberg coming to Peru in 1960 “in search of something undefined.” He cannot put his finger on why he wants to retrace the footsteps of Arthur. He has a fascination with him, but also a sense that he needs to repent on his behalf for colonial misdeeds. Like the characters in Primer, he wants to go back into the past and put something right.

This quest for something elusive is symbolised for Iain by his search for the rapids where Arthur Sinclair’s expedition ended. Arthur’s party had been guided down the Perené by a shady priest named Padre Sala. When they reached the white water of the rapids, the Padre abandoned them, their servants disappeared and the natives seemed to be readying their bows and arrows to attack them. They turned back. His great grandson dreams of some kind of resolution to the story by travelling beyond the rapids to a place which local tradition says is a shadow zone where one can commune with the ancestors.

The modern day party’s local guide, Lucho Hurtado, who has taken everything else in hand, seems stumped when it comes to finding the rapids. At every turn, he tells them the rapids are just ten minutes away but the hours pass by. When they finally reach these wild waters, a young lad agrees to take Iain on his boat but has to stop or his craft will be smashed to pieces.

Thus, for all the allusions to time travel and walking alongside ghosts of the past, Sinclair ultimately concludes that communion with his forbear is not possible.

As he has explored the jungle and the past, he has wished that time travel were attainable. Arthur Sinclair was a botanist and delighted and fascinated by all the plants he encountered in the rain forest. Yet Iain knows that, infused with the preconceptions of his time and culture, Arthur considered the Amazon natives as ignorant savages and would not have seen them as a source of valuable information about the fauna. Iain has fantasised that were Arthur with them now, he could tap the botanical knowledge of Lucho and others they have met, like the shaman Shima-Shima.

But, defeated by the Perené, he recognises it as a fantasy.

I would never understand or retrace the epic journey undertaken by my courageous and undeniable great-grandfather.

Yet, one senses that the quest will not stop there. Iain Sinclair will keep on moving, like Ginsberg, “in search of something undefined.” Joining him for the portion of the quest covered by this book is a perplexing, enriching, exhilarating ride.

Iain Sinclair – The Gold Machine: In the Tracks of the Mule Dancers (Oneworld 2021), pp 423

Book review by Hannah Denno

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