Monday, July 05, 2010

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

Patagonia is a place of extremes which harbors descendants of many wandering tribes of humanity. Mixed in its valleys, deserts, and mountains are people of astonishing origins. Welsh, Germans, Italians, Brits, Scots, Spaniards, Turks, Arabs, Russians, Hindus, Africans, Japanese, New Zealanders, and North Americans have all sought wealth or refuge in South America's southernmost region. The late Bruce Chatwin reported on meeting many of them in his now classic travel account In Patagonia.

Despite being only 199 pages and made up of 97 short episodes, In Patagonia is not a book to read in a day. Chatwin wrote minimal, economic prose to report his wandering through the region. The sharp-image quality may make little sense to someone plowing through the book quickly. To them it may seem to be just one thing after another. Readers need to pause and contemplate what Chatwin has shown them to draw their own conclusions about the place and its people.

There is much in the text to disturb the reader. I particularly noticed how the Native Americans who work on the ranches and in factories are referred to by everyone as "peons." Even in the 1970s, they often did hard labor for little pay. In the historical accounts that Chatwin includes, they were often killed for sport or just to lay claim to land. Even the missionaries, who seem to have had some good intentions, often betrayed them.

Chatwin says very little about himself other than how he travels, which might be hiking across a desert or hitchhiking with truck drivers or riding with the engineer in a train. In conversations, he mostly asks question or otherwise spurs conversation. Almost everyone other than an old priest who wanted to be left alone spoke to Chatwin readily and many gave him a meal and a place to stay. More than most travel writers, he made the journey not about himself.

In Patagonia is a book that might be quite different if written today, when people are leery of travel writers, who often go with film crews into even the remotest regions. We should be thankful for this broadcast pre-media account, which may still be found in many libraries.

Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. Summit Books, 1977. ISBN 0671400452

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