This is a fascinating book, but if you are expecting a description of the geography of the Southernmost part of South America, you are likely to be disappointed. Chatwin offers very few details of the landscape, but instead focuses on the people and their dwellings, a strange mix of natives and pioneers from, it seems, every other country in the world, living almost exclusively in miserable run-down relics of an age long gone. The majority of the book, however, is taken up with exploring the stories these people tell. From Chatwin's search for the past of his Grandmother's cousin, Charley Milward, through his exploration of the various myths surrounding Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Charles Darwin, various revolutionaries, 16th century explorers, and others, to delving into possible inspirations for Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Shakespear's Tempest; this book is about human legends and how they diverge and take on a life of their own over time. Because of the way the book is structured and the very nature of its subject matter, it feels rather fragmented and piecemeal. But nontheless it is an astounding, enlightening achievement, and a fascinating read. Just don't expect to learn much about the Patagonian landscape from it.
This book is not like any other travel journal I have ever read. The text does not stick rigidly to what Bruce did or what he saw, but branches off into the realms of history and culture, giving the reader so much to think about. The real beauty is that towards the end, all the various paths and routes seem to coincide to nicely tie the storyline up into one overall piece. I would greatly recommend this book, since it is a refreshing change of style to the more modern travel experience books on the market, and so makes for very compelling reading.
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]
His interest in Patagonia first awakened by a piece of sloth skin from that region that hung in his grandmother's house, Chatwin sets out on a mazy route from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego. As he makes for where the ancient sloth was discovered a century before, he glimpses into the lives of the settlers, gauchos and Indians who have spread themselves thinly across the pampas. The deep loneliness, isolation and fatalism implicit in the lives of those living at the end of the earth is conveyed starkly in Chatwin's laconic prose. Roaming between these outposts of humanity, he amuses himself in the pursuit of a series of riddles aside from the sloth mission - and as we are drawn into Chatwin's world of esoterica, where Butch Cassidy lived to a ripe old age, and revolutionaries become barbers, the lines between fact, supposition and invention become almost impossible to discern. Which is what makes this intellectual odyssey - or 'ridiculous journey', as Chatwin self-deprecatingly puts it - such fun; the recondite histories woven into the narrative only enrich Patagonia as a land of dreams and possibility. Be warned, though, that this book is thin on descriptive passages, and gives a largely impressionistic vision of Patagonia: it is more concerned with the region's idiosyncrasies and curious history than rendering a sense of what it's like to be there. Utterly unique: I recommend it highly.
Having read Nicholas Shapespeare's biography of Bruce Chatwin, I was keen to read Chatwin's "In Patagonia", although I had no idea what his writing would be like. I was therefore very surprised as to how readable the book was, with many insights into the people and the country, particularly of Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn, which I had always imagined as being wild, rough and uninhabitable. The book has been described as breaking all the rules of travel writing, but not being a "travel reader" all I can say that it is well worth reading and that I am looking forward to getting hold of his book on Wales, "Under the Black Hill".
I wanted to love this book but ended up a little frustrated with or at least ambivalent about it. Chatwin has made many errors through it and stylistically it changes towards the end like his editor has chased him up for missing a deadline or something. Errors and thoughts:
Salmuera is a brine which is doused on an asado to keep the meat moist whilst grilled. It is not a sauce made of garlic, vinegar and parsley/coriander.
Inability to spell Cymru - he spells it Cymry. That's not a thing.
He seems to have been using people for free food and drink despite having a flat in South Kensington.
He uses the language and idioms of the 18th century when writing in the 20th century. Who has apoplexy now? When did anyone ever use the word peon in a sentence?
It's like a traveller's Ulysees. Rambling stream of consciousness. It's like a conversation with me.
When I arrived in Welsh North eastern Patagonia (Trelew) a few weeks ago, our guide said that most of his clients carried Chatwyn's book and were keen to see what remains of Welsh culture in the towns around the region. 4000 Welsh speakers were given a land grant in 1865 and there are a few Welsh speakers who have survived the generations. There are still many Evans, Roberts and Williams around, most of whom only speak Spanish.
The guide who bore the curious name of Washington (curious that is for Argentina)) was right to point out that Bruce Chatwyn's book is an iconic introduction to the region. However, he wrote it 40 years ago when Patagonia was even more of a frontier region than it is today - although many of the places we visited still bear the marks of recent development.
I read In Patagonia on my return and it is somewhat dated. However, Chatwyn has the ability to draw some of the extraordinary characters he met on his journeys. I was somewhat disappointed that much of the book was historical and not Patagonia as he saw it. But if you want a literary introduction to the region, you could do worse than to read it. It is absolutely not a travel guide and nor was it intended to be.