"The Man who Swam the Amazon: 3,274 miles down the world's deadliest river"
by Martin Strel and Matthew Mohlke
Reading history and reviews
Finished on 24th December 2009This book is an account of the 3,000-plus mile swim down the Amazon river undertaken by Slovenian ultramarathon swimmer Martin Strel in 2007. It's told largely from the viewpoint of his co-author and river navigator Matthew Mohlke, and is a very engaging read - Mohlke has an easy style and is quite candid about the various happenings on the expedition, the problems of travelling down the river and the frictions between the various crew members and Strel himself.
Given that his endevour is central to the book, somewhat strangely Martin Strel is often an almost peripheral figure, perhaps not surprisingly given his physical and mental separation from the rest of the crew (he is the only one actually swimming). It's this psychological distance that Mohkle captures well, and which in retrospect I find so interesting - as Strel's navigator, responsible for directing the swimmer into fast waters and away from danger, he spends a lot of time alongside Strel and observes how he deals with the challenge. But we never really hear Strel's own voice and his motivation for taking on the journey aren't really explored (ostensibly he swims to raise awareness about the levels of pollution and ecological damage found in the major rivers of the world).
While Strel is swimming there are plenty of incidents both with the support crew, as well as the people they meet and with the river itself (it almosts seems like a cliché that journeys through a jungle river end up becoming a "Heart of Darkness"-esque trip into insanity), and Mohlke is a good story teller. Ultimately these incidents become the principal focus of the book, with Strel remaining a looming and sometimes slightly menacing presence mostly off-screen - less a man and perhaps more like another uncontrollable force of nature that Mohlke and the crew have to deal with.
For all that though it's a great read, and for me a bit more satisfying than the film "Big River Man" (interestingly though the film often has difficulties getting any insight into Strel's inner world - for example, in one scene Strel says "Today was a hard day for me", but then never elaborates further). I'm now wondering about reading Charles Sprawston's book about Strel Big River Man: The Incredible Life of Martin Strel when it comes out.