How many children become adults fulfilling a childhood dream by visiting remote places? Bruce Chatwin, driven by memories of his grandfather's strange artifact, takes us with him to the farthest reaches of South America. His travels in that mysterious realm result in this masterfully done account of journeys in Patagonia - southern Argentina and Chile. It's not an exaggeration to praise this work as the first to supplement Darwin's. Both sought fossils, although Chatwin's pursuit is rather more specific. Both described the land, the people and events in the most captivating and readable manner. A rare treasure in travel literature, this book is a timeless treasure.
Patagonia has been a haven for many European nationalities besides the Spanish. British, Welsh, Scots and the Germans have found refuge and opportunities here. Chatwin encounters a wide spectrum of the inhabitants. By touring on foot, bus and horse, as well as obtaining the occasional lift, he is able to garner intense impressions. Lacing the account of what he observes with numerous piquant historical side notes, he imparts the place along with the spirit of the residents. The history varies as the land itself. Rising from the Atlantic across a vast plain until reaching the rising slopes of the "back" of the Andes, Patagonia offers incredible vistas and diversity. Decades of building immense rancheros and farms have been punctuated by social and political upheavals. Chatwin recounts the lives of many of the rebels and how they impacted the pampas scene. His literary capacity seems as vast as the territory. We even encounter The Ancient Mariner. There are no dull moments in this book.
Chatwin presents a more knowledgeable view in discussing aboriginal people than that of most travel writers. There's nothing patronizing in his tone as he tries to address their plight. "Tries to" because European intrusion has left so little for researchers of indigenous cultures to address. He cites the expressive terms in the Yamana language to point out how culturally inept the colonizing powers have been. We learn to use the term "primitive" with caution. Millennia of residence gained the original peoples skills the Europeans disparaged, often to
their regret. It's becoming a familiar story, made sadder at the realization the loss of cultures swept away by colonization.
At the end, his original quest brings him to a cave visited by Charley Milward, wrecked ship's captain. He cannot replace the artifact Milward left in Chatwin's grandmother's house, but there is other compensation. That the quest isn't a failure adds further lustre to an incredible journey. But what Chatwin has gained is as nothing compared to what he's given us. This book will remain a classic for years to come. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]