You can take the author out of Hackney, but you can’t remove Hackney from an Iain Sinclair book, no matter if he is tramping through the cloud jungle high in the Andes. In The Gold Machine: In the Tracks of the Mule Dancers Sinclair has temporarily forsaken London, the central character of so many of his books, for Peru. Like the literary shaman that he is, Sinclair seeks to summon the spirit of his great-grandfather Arthur Sinclair, but still manages to mention his home borough of Hackney on the first page.
Arthur, a bearded and bright-eyed Scotsman from Aberdeen, was a Victorian bio-pirate: an expert gardener and self-taught botanist who initially made good advising wealthy British coffee planters in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. From the early 19th century, in-demand plants started to be shipped around the world and Arthur was part of a community of scientists and surveyors who roamed the British Empire and beyond searching for the most convenient and profitable places to grow them.
In 1891, he was commissioned by the Peruvian Corporation, based in the City of London, to assess the suitability of a vast tract of land in the Andes for the growing of coffee. This was to be no modest plantation. The Corporation was planning industrial-scale exploitation of the area, which would have dire consequences for the Ashaninka Indians who call the cloud forest of central Peru home.
Sinclair is quick to note the bleak ironies involved here, not least that Arthur’s family had lost their land in northern Scotland during the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. But Arthur, who published an 1895 account of his journeys around the world, didn’t have a problem with Indians being evicted from their territory and then essentially enslaved to work the new coffee plantations.
His great-grandson decides to follow in his footsteps, and much of The Gold Machine serves as an indictment of the colonial system that sent clever men such as Arthur to tap the resources of countries far from home for the benefit of British companies and the UK government. It includes sections on Arthur’s earlier experiences in Ceylon and Tasmania which, while interesting, feel a little out of place in a book ostensibly about Peru.
It is when Sinclair lands in Lima to begin ‘ancestor-stalking’ in earnest that the book really comes alive. He is accompanied by his daughter, Farne, and the filmmaker Grant Gee. Farne is the sensible one who does all the tedious work of travelling: booking guides and tickets, arranging interviews and keeping the expedition funds safely strapped around her waist.
That leaves her dad free to do what he does best, which is to riff in his exuberant and endlessly allusive prose on everything around him, always seeking to connect his subject with his own obsessions, especially the authors he most admires. Sinclair skips from the hallucinogenic Latin American experiences of the Beat writers William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg to the American poet Ed Dorn, William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad and another Arthur: Rimbaud, the French poet and adventurer. But he also manages to bring in 1970s Californian skateboard stars, as well as frequent references to the East London he knows so well.
As the party heads into the Andes, suffering from altitude-induced headaches, grimy digs and too many yucca-based meals, Sinclair’s observations are sharp and vital. Whether he is passing through the blighted town of La Oroya with its pollution-spewing smelters or is stuck in one of the supremely sketchy frontier settlements found across Latin America, at both internal borders and national ones, Sinclair is never stuck for an eye-catching and evocative phrase. Straws in a pair of coconuts are ‘pink plastic catheters drilled into hairy bovine testicles’.
He quotes extensively from his great-grandfather’s often prescient record of his travels. Ninety years before Pablo Escobar and the Medellin and Cali cartels of Colombia turned cocaine into a global business, the canny Arthur recognises the economic potential of the coca plant. As Arthur notes of chewing coca, ‘the taste is soon acquired’. He was also ahead of his time in picking the Chinese as having the right stuff to work and exploit such remote lands. Now it is Chinese-owned farms and mines in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia that are the present-day equivalents of the rapacious Peruvian Corporation.
Sinclair’s encounters with the Ashaninka Indians are less satisfactory. After being harassed over the centuries by Spanish conquistadors, the Catholic Church, Marxist guerrillas and narco-traffickers, their land ever-encroached upon by domestic and foreign companies looking for a quick profit, the locals are frankly suspicious of Sinclair and his companions. They offer them a desultory tourist experience – jungle barbecues, dancing around the fire, dugout canoe rides – while keeping their secrets to themselves. Sinclair is honest and wise enough to understand that is probably for the best.
Nor do we learn very much about Arthur. Retracing his journey raises as many questions as answers, as his great-grandson acknowledges. I was reminded of Charles Nicholl’s The Fruit Palace, in which the author ventures to 1980s Colombia to research a book about the cocaine trade, only to realise that the people and country around him are much more interesting than the mechanics of drug dealing. The Gold Machine, too, stands in the long line of travel books where it is the journey, rather than its inspiration, that proves to be compelling.