Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In Patagonia

In Patagonia
By Bruce Chatwin

Bruce Chatwin's book In Patagonia is a minor classic in the genre of travel literature. Initially written in 1977 as a series of magazine articles, Chatwin's travels through the Argentina and Chile are chronicled in a mesmerizing freeform style that intertwines his own travels with the unique, and often bizarre history of the region. Furthermore, In Patagonia confirms to me that a certain element in the art of travel has been lost in recent years, but I'll get to that soon enough.

In the course of this book, Chatwin travels from Buenos Aires in the north as far as Tierra Del Fuego in the south (which would be the entire length of Patagonia, in fact). Rather than simply cataloguing the sights and events of his travels Chatwin entrusts himself with a host of locals, depicting the area as one of the most ethnically diverse areas of South America. Not only does he chronicles the stories of the indigenous people in Patagonia but also the surprisingly large numbers of immigrant populations: Aside from the obvious Spanish population, Patagonia is rife with Welsh, English, German, North American, Italian and Jewish families. Chatwin, who has the sort of detached writing style you expect from a British big game hunter in Africa circa 1870. There is a certain laconic wit that pervades through the entire narrative giving it an airy, formless feel.

And that's what's so wonderful about In Patagonia. It encapsulates that wondrous sense of unstructured excitement and discovery that comes from travel. The book ambles along, randomly picking up the travel narrative between nuggets of esoteric history (I had absolutely no idea that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had any connection whatsoever with Patagonia. As it turns out, they have a significant connection). In Patagonia brings us face to face with outlaws, cannibals, con-artists and unicorns. There are a host of eccentric men and women who dazzle us with their stories and Chatwin delivers simply by engaging in conversation and dinner.

Chatwin dishes the story in utmost style. I especially liked the way in which Chatwin bookends his narrative with his own personal story about a piece of skin from an extinct giant sloth that his grandmother kept at her house. The skin fragment was the only surviving piece from the remnants of a giant sloth uncovered from the ice in Patagonia years earlier by Chatwin's grandfather and would go on to the the physical impetus for Chatwin's wanderlust.

The structure of the book alone is worth the price of admission, but the way in which Chatwin weaves the narratives of the local people along with the history into one long, meandering river of words and meaning, it is so much more than a simple travelogue. In fact, I wouldn't use this book if I ever traveled the same course. In Patagonia is just as much about it's time as it is its place, which is why I loved it so much. It's a snapshot into the heady days of Peronist Argentina and the Chile of Allende. While many of the people Chatwin spoke with during his time in Patagonia have since denied much of what he published in In Patagonia, it hardly seems to matter. Such controversial issues don't dissuade from the enjoyment of a good story. It is travel literature the way it is supposed to be written.

See, I love aged travel literature. I have no interest in reading current travel literature. It's all the same. Fly here, see time, talk with him, eat that, lesson learned. Much like travel itself, travel literature has fallen into a predictable rut. This blog is not the place to discuss the pros and cons of globalization but Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat mentality has done irreparable harm to the travel industry. I don't mean tourism, which is alive and well and relaxing on a beach in Cancun. I mean travel. The make-your-way-however-and-with-whoever-you-can mentality of seeing the word. Hitting the road with a pack over your shoulder and no idea where you will be spending the night. Packing light and traveling hard. Travel is supposed to be about discovering the world and all it has to offer. Culture, food, people, ideas, experience. Travel used to offer it all. Now it's been reduced to tracks.

Nowadays you get off the airplane in Beijing, Budapest or Buenos Aires and you have the same stuff waiting for you. The same Starbucks coffee and the same Subway sandwiches. Travelers are given a menu of routes to take and it it increasingly difficult to skip you way off the well-travelled trail. Sure there are out-of-the-way places that you can visit to experience "authentic XXXXX culture," but one more often than not comes away from those experiences feeling as though they duped into yet another culture-for-profit display. It can all be a bit unsettling.

Even those who travel in search of extreme adventure have found themselves pigeon-holed, classified and market researched. Given the popularity of hiking to Everest base camp in Nepal, Arctic adventures and the parade of tourists who climb Kilimanjaro every day, even though who excel at finding out-of-the-way places are having trouble finding themselves off the beaten track.

This isn't to say there aren't places on this Earth that don't offer the real deal for travelers in 2012. Certainly I can think of dozens of locales that have not fallen prey to McTravel, but the ability to travel and immerse yourself in a culture off the tourist track becomes less and less likely as cultures trade their uniqueness for a pair of Adidas shoes and an iPhone. Perhaps my next vacation will be to Antarctica. The cooping of that experience is still a few decades away, one hopes.

But I digress.

In Patagonia is a travel story that would be extremely difficult to write today. Much of Chatwin's narrative would be stories about arguing with taxi drivers and the throng of touts that lurk in the shadows of train stations and descend on people with backpacks like a pack of wolves. I'm not hating on travel, I adore traveling, but it's not the same anymore.

And this is why In Patagonia is a classic. It's a glimpse into what used to be.


Sam (Tiny Library) said...

I love aged travel literature too, I will have to add this one to my wishlist. I have a great collection of older travel books called Penguin Great Journeys. I don't know where in the world you are but here's a link with all the titles: Might be worth a look?

Brian Joseph said...

This book sounds great. Though I have only had the chance to travel a fair amount, explorations as detailed in this book must be so much more enriching then than standard tourist fair or the pre packaged corporate travel that so many are engaged in. As the world is becoming more homogenized humanity is losing some of its self.

Ryan said...

@Sam: Thanks for the link. I'll use it as a reference!

@Brian Joseph: Bang on.

Marie said...

I think you're right about all of it! That era of travel is over; the world is too connected now. At least we have the great books to remind us how travel was once about possibility, not predictability.

Sarah said...

"McTravel" ;)

Man of la Book said...

Wow, sounds like a great book. I've been there (Patagonia) many years ago but have not forgotten a moment.

Jean-Paul Thuot said...

Bruce Chatwin is one of my favourite authors of all time, and I'm glad you enjoyed the book, Ryan. I've read two biographies about him, and the sense I got from both of them was he was a genius in many ways, but also known to prevaricate and embellish. In my mind none of it detracts from his beautiful way with words. Your next Chatwin book should be "Songlines".

Ryan said...

I'm going to keep my eyes peeled for Songlines, thanks!

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