This was a great read for those long South America bus rides, so an In Patagonia book review was definitely in order.
Bruce Chatwin, 1977
This book has been perpetuating the myth and mystery of the no-man's-land at the end of the world, Patagonia, since its publication in 1977. Chronicling the journey of renowned travel writer Bruce Chatwin as he journeys from boyhood dreams to Buenos Aires and from the southern pampas region to Tierra del Fuego, "In Patagonia" tells the story not mainly of Chatwin but of the people he meets along the way.
I picked up the paperback version of this book in Ushuaia after struggling through it via eBook on my iPhone for a few weeks. It was the beginning of my journey through Patagonia, and it seemed like an interesting companion to keep me entertained during the bus rides and airline flights. Knowing of Chatwin's relevance in the travel writing world, it was already a must-read on my list, but I had no idea how different I would find his style of writing from others of the same era.
Chatwin's story begins when he is a boy growing up in London, and he recalls seeing the skin and fur of a mysterious beast in his grandmother's house. She told him that the "brontosaurus" hyde was sent to her from a relative living in Patagonia after being shipwrecked. He soon learns in school that it could not be from a brontosaurus (because dinosaurs don't have fur), and the idea of the mystery animal eats away at him for years. Later, during the rise of the cold war, the sentiment of Patagonia comes into view again for Chatwin as the safest place to hide from nuclear fallout–the most uninhabited and unexplored piece of land left in the world. In 1974, after working for a magazine in London for several years, Chatwin flies to South America to begin his six-month journey, giving notice to his boss with only a telegram stating, "Have gone to Patagonia."
This book is not necessarily an account of his personal journeys, but an account of the diverse people and histories that are scattered throughout the Argentine and Chilean lands from Bariloche to Ushuaia. It details the stories told by locals of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the authoritarian military regimes the area has seen, the explorers that sailed the cold, dark channels, and the immigrants from all reaches of the world who came to farm estancias in the fertile lands of Patagonia. It is indeed a work of travel writing, but not seen from the eyes of the writer. Rather, it is through the stories of the local people that Chatwin recounts in detail the history and the social climate of the region. It is not a book about trekking through mountains, visiting glaciers, or seeing guanacos (which were all my favorite parts of visiting Patagonia), but it is a highly journalistic work built around interviews that paint a colorful picture of the diversity of the area, and although the flora and fauna are some of the most beautiful and rare in the world, this book is a great reminder that experiencing local culture and learning about local history is a vital aspect of travel that is often overlooked on the way to the next viewpoint.