Posted by: Lizzie Ross | May 31, 2010

Chatwin at the antipodes

In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin (1977), Penguin, 199 pp.

Chatwin strikes me as the epitome of the intrepid travel writer. He seemed always to be roughing it in exotic places, putting his health in danger while in search of good material. And I love the story behind the start for this book, Chatwin’s first. He was working in the early 1970s for Britain’s Sunday Times Magazine when he decided to head to the southern end of South America. He quit his job with the following telegraphed message: “Have gone to Patagonia.”

In Patagonia combines biography (of Chatwin’s great-uncle, who died in Chile), autobiography, in-the-footsteps-of quest, and the usual history/geography/economy one finds in most travel books. It’s interesting that the commentaries that appeared after the book’s publication denied some of the events Chatwin witnessed. Evidently fictionalized non-fiction didn’t begin with James Frey.

Despite the chances of parts being created from Chatwin’s imagination, the book thrills the reader with grand vistas, horrendous weather, and hard lives. Running from southern latitudes of 42 to 56 degrees (the equivalent of Barcelona to Copenhagen in the Northern Hemisphere), Patagonia includes the southern ends of Chile and Argentina. The solid line of the Andes sinks into an archipelago and fjords, and the Strait of Magellan separates the large island of Tierra del Fuego from the rest of the continent. Sailors rounding the Cape on the first round-the-world voyages expected to find mythical beasts roaming the shoreline.

Welsh miners settled here in the 1860s, and you can see evidence of their influence in place names: Puerto Madryn, Trelew, Dolavon, Trevelin, and Rawson in the province of Chobut, for example. (Today, 150 years later, there are still some 1000+ Welsh speakers in Patagonia; a linguist could no doubt write a thesis comparing Patagonia Welsh with Welsh Welsh.)

Chatwin discusses politics (including anarchists in Buenos Aires in the early 1900s), railways, industry, family life, and centuries-old fables of Golden Cities in the hidden reaches of the Andes. According to Chatwin, in once instance,

Around 1650 two Spanish sailors, both deserters and murderers, stumbled out of the forests opposite the island of Chiloé, after walking up the eastern side of the Andes from the Strait of Magellan. Perhaps to divert the Governor’s attention from their crimes, they reported the existence of a city of silver-roofed palaces, whose inhabitants where white-skinned, spoke Spanish and were descendants of survivors from Pedro de Sarmiento’s colony on the Strait.

As with gold strikes elsewhere, such news was enough to set off a greedy rush for riches, one that we know from experience very likely won’t end well, and Chatwin tells us the whole story.

If you’re willing to risk a bit of unidentified fiction in the mix, this book of traveler’s tales will satisfy. It’s a shame that Chatwin died so young (at 48, in 1989), but he left us with several novels and travel books that can inspire us to pack a bag and light out for the territories.

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