Tuesday, June 16, 2009

In Patagonia

In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin
1977, 204 pp.

To this day, the more remote and exotic parts of the world are crawling with unshaven backpackers clutching Moleskine notebooks, desperately trying to be Bruce Chatwin. This is understandable. After reading In Patagonia in about two sittings, I too wanted to be Bruce Chatwin. You should go read it right now, and then you can join me in wanting to be Bruce Chatwin. You won't regret it.

In 1974, Chatwin was the art and architecture writer for the Sunday Times. He flew to Buenos Aires, ostensibly to do research, and promptly quit his job with the following telegram: "Have gone to Patagonia." This book is the product of his months spent walking, riding, hitchhiking, and generally browsing around Patagonia, the vast and desolate southern triangle of Chile and Argentina. He claims to have been driven there by a childhood curiosity brought on by a small patch of skin ("brontosaurus skin," his mother tells him) sent home by his great-uncle, who was briefly consul in Punta Arenas. More broadly, he appears to have been fascinated his entire life by the most distant parts of the earth and by the nomadic lifestyles of the people who inhabit them. To this end, he wrote a couple of volumes of essays, a couple novels, and In Patagonia, which secured him immortality and which stands as the antithesis to Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar in the founding pantheon on modern travel writing.

Theroux's book was a linear, almost claustrophobic narrative of an endless, virtuoso train journey. Its skin and bones were details of cabin comforts, meals, stations, tickets, and the other banal details of travel. Theroux's account of the London to Paris stretch differed only slightly from the Madras to Sri Lanka passage, and his glacial indifference to local people, history, culture, and specific stories made any given piece of the book as closely centered on Paul Theroux's personal comfort as any other given piece. When In Patagonia came out two years later, Theroux gave it a bad review, complaining that Chatwin never explains how he gets from one place to another, what he eats there, or how he pays for it all. And quite rightly. Chatwin recognized that those things are only interesting to the people who actually experienced them. To everyone else, they just sound like monotonous whining. It may be that the central experience of your vacation was the bus breaking down and you getting ameobic dystentery, but nobody else wants to hear about that. It was probably subjectively important, but it is objectively tedious. Instead Chatwin alternates his short, punchy chapters between travelogue and encounters and full stories explaining the background of the subjects he's investigating. So (for example) there are a couple chapters about his progress finding one specific cabin high up in the mountains and trying to determine who built it and when. Eventually it becomes clear that it was built by none other than Butch Cassidy, so we get a chapter about the Cassidy gang staging heists and running from the law. Chatwin tells a hell of a good story, and treats us variously to rousing sea adventures, an anarchist uprising, the origins of the Welsh exile community, meditations on Darwin, a connection between a book about Magellan and the origin of Caliban in The Tempest, and a 19th century European lawyer who convinces the local Araucanian Indians to elect him King of Patagonia. It is true that Chatwin never dwells for very long on these things and presents travel as too neat, too comfortable, and too romantic an experience. He also never wastes your time, talks down to you, or tells you something boring or obvious. He works his way down the coast, cutting back and forth from the sea to the mountains, from Argentina to Chile, all the way down to Tierra del Fuego, to the most southern city in the world. Along the way he investigates every story and legend of interest, always on the trail of his great uncle, the sailor and diplomat, and the origin of that "brontosaurus skin."

It helps that Chatwin is a splendid writer, with a confident, clipped, laconic voice and a keen eye not just for startling visual descriptions, but for emotions and relationships. Theroux is good at exotic absurdity; Chatwin is just as good, but recognizes pathos as well. Consider this description of a dying exiled poet in an empty, run-down cabin:

"She was waiting for me, a white face behind a dusty window. She smiled, her painted mouth unfurling as a red flag caught in a sudden breeze. Her hair was dyed dark-auburn. Her legs were a mesopotamia of varicose veins. She still had the tatters of an extraordinary beauty."

A mesopotamia!

Or consider this description of a little crossroads town:

"The city kept reminding me of Russia--the cars of the secret police bristling with aerials; women with splayed haunches licking ice-cream in dusty parks; the same bullying statues, the pie-crust architecture, the same avenues that were not quite straight, giving the illusion of endless space and leading out into nowhere."

And this:

"The cliffs were a lighter grey than the grey of the sea and the sky. The beach was grey and littered with dead penguins."


I trust by now that I've made my point. I've never read a book quite like In Patagonia, despite being a great aficionado of travel writing. Chatwin comes across like the most grizzled, fascinating, taciturn fellow in a dark expat bar, and it is a pleasure to have spent 204 pages with him. That his life ended so prematurely is a tragedy, and I lament that he left us so few books. Had he written only In Patagonia, though, his immortality would probably still be assured. It really is a splendid read for anyone with an interest in anything: at once exotic, romantic, erudite, lapidary, fascinating, and totally unique, it cannot be too highly recommended.

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