Thursday, 29 January 2015

In Patagonia - Bruce Chatwin (1977)

I read In Patagonia because it features in 501 Must Read Books (2007) as an example of great travel writing. I found a copy sitting on top of a pile of donated books to the library; it was not accepted into the collection due to its poor condition and in fact it degraded badly as I handled it, the brittle cover breaking off and pages falling out whilst I was trying to read it on a crowded work-bound train. I was primed to enjoy In Patagonia, but unfortunately it was not to be and often I found the people on the train and the view racing by more entertaining.

In Patagonia is not your typical travel writing; its structure is fragmented and a significant portion of the text concentrates on past events in Patagonia, rather than Chatwin’s own ‘adventures’. For example Chatwin traces the movements of Butch Cassidy and his gang, who fled to Patagonia in the early 1900‘s to avoid the authorities. The book is filled with the lives and histories of significant people who spent time in the region and ordinary immigrants who hoped to to make their riches with the wool trade. Chatwin’s writing is elegant but quite formal and I felt like there was something missing as the book progressed, perhaps a sense of adventure or danger, instead there are more potted histories and land owners complaining about the government. Chatwin does succeed in giving a strong impression of Patagonia’s landscape, which seems mysterious and breathtaking; a land of half mythical prehistoric creatures and mountainous terrain.

I mostly enjoyed the first half, however In Patagonia’s limited charm began to wear thin and the mini history lessons and formal style became almost intolerable. It’s not often I consider giving up on a book, but I came very close with what is meant to be a classic of travel writing. In amongst the historical anecdotes the closest Chatwin came to adventure was walking a mostly disused trail through a mountainous region. He ends up thinking he is lost as darkness approaches, only to hear cars nearby. Relieved he promptly camps for the night and is safe and sound the next morning - exciting stuff! If travel writing is meant to make you long to wander the world’s lost byways, then In Patagonia fails miserably. Far better is Ryszard Kapuscinski’s brilliant The Shadow of the Sun (1998), detailing his travels through Africa. Kapuscinski’s writing conveys tension and verve that Chatwin doesn’t come close to emulating. This particular copy of In Patagonia days are numbered and it will end up in the recycling bin; a nice metaphor perhaps?

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