Top positive review
33 people found this helpful
Entertaining, insightful and full of humour
on 18 August 2007
This is "travel writing" in the sense that we know it these days. Author thinks of a trip. If successfully published previously, gets an advance. Makes arrangements, connections and contacts, sharpens pencils, buys dictaphone tapes and tickets and goes. The result is what was intended from the start - a book. OK, no harm in that. This is what Sara Wheeler does for a living, just like Bryson, Theroux, Palin et al. Other authors go nowhere, make it all up - that's fiction. Somewhere in between is Bruce Chatwin, who went to places and then made a lot of it up. So, for those of us who have bought these books and in fact pay for these trips, was this one worth it?
I'd say it was. Sara Wheeler writes well. She's humorous but not jokey. She's thoughtful but not pedantic. She gives us social and historical background without becoming boring, didactic or turgid. It's very entertaining, interesting and a pleasure to read.
It's not a Guide Book. Buy one with "Guide" in the title for that. It's not even a book to guide you to Chile. It's only just a book about Chile at all. Like many books of this type, it is about the author and her reactions and reflections on being who she is wherever it is she happens to be. Of course, along the way we are told a good deal about Chile. I particularly liked the even-handed way she dealt with the Allende-Pinochet period. This is still central to Chilean life, so it was important to get it right and I believe she did. I also like her "coming out" in her admission that she does not like the poems of Chile's cultural patron saint, Pablo Neruda. She even decides she doesn't like him as a man. But she does nevertheless understand and acknowledge his importance and status in Chilean life.
I'd like to have been able to subtract another half-star. The half-star would have been deducted for the account of her final period on the Chilean mainland, down in the south. The descriptions of the landscape there become a bit over-heated. The adjectives fly thick and fast. One is up to one's ears in them in no time. This is why they say a picture is worth a thousand words because sometimes a thousand words are nine hundred and fifty too many.
The whole star I have deducted on account of her rather snooty attitude to other travellers. She even has a passage where she refers to people [back-packers, I think] "doing South America". Well, if she's not "doing Chile" I don't know what "doing" a place means. Like anyone not a resident, or employed to be in a place, she's a visitor - tourist, if you like - just like anyone else.
There's a good case for saying that those who travel in a place without any of the prior contacts that Sara Wheeler made, have a more authentic experience of that place. In my experience, one's arrival at a place can define the whole trip - it certainly sets the tone for a good deal of it. Sara Wheeler was met at the airport by a British Council couple and whisked off to a 13th floor penthouse "set amongst manicured lawns and acacia trees". When you or I get there, we'll take a cab, or maybe a bus, hoping not to be too ripped off or lost, heading for a hotel we may regret - or can't afford.
She was fortunate in the connections she established before she left UK. Persuading Linguaphone [who get a credit and recommendation, complete with contact details, in her Acknowledgements] was a fine prelude. Having a friend who can set you up to stay with staff of The British Council in the capital of the country you are going to visit is a gold-plated start: likewise having an introduction to one of the country's haute bourgeoisie, with whose family you subsequently experience la vie en rose unavailable to 99% of the local population, let alone the average visitor "doing" Chile.
Still an' all, her good fortune in this is grist to the mill and what she has written is certainly a good read, if a little lacking in humility in places. Others have said it has inspired them to visit Chile. For me, that inspiration comes from Chilean wines and Isabel Allende's "My Invented Country".