In December 1947, Bruce Chatwin began a journey through Patagonia, a "vast, vague territory that encompasses 900,000 square kilometres of Argentina and Chile." As he wandered, Chatwin recorded the stories of the people he met and those who had gone before him; "fugitives of justice, regime change, or simply 'the coop of England.'" The result was In Patagonia, an instant classic that was described as "a law unto itself."
Thirty years later, I landed in Puerto Montt, Chile at the northwestern edge of Patagonia and started my own journey through that windswept country. I toted In Patagonia along with me as I traveled through Patagonia; resolving every few days to read it, only to put in down in favor of more entertaining books after the first few pages. Despite the book's inability to really grab my attention, I had this unshakable notion that if one has a book titled In Patagonia and one is, in fact, in Patagonia, one should read the book. (This was coupled with the fact that I had used precious cargo space to haul the book 6,000 miles from home and I was damn well going to make use of it.) It wasn't until the end of the journey, while bussing it across Patagonia, that I packed all of my books *except* In Patagonia in the backpack that was stored underneath of the bus. Upon arriving in Punta Arenas ten hours later, I still didn't like In Patagonia, but I had read over a hundred pages and felt honor bound to stick it out for the rest of the book.
Paul Theroux best sums up what I didn't like about In Patagonia: "How had he traveled from here to there? How had he met this or that person? Life was never so neat as Bruce made out." In Patagonia isn't Chatwin's account of his travels through Patagonia so much as it is a collection of biographic narratives of people who have nothing in common except their inhabitance in Patagonia. There is no sense of cohesion to the book. Chatwin bounces from the story of two long-dead bandits to the possible existence of a Patagonian unicorn to the struggles of an Haight-Ashbury Flower Child stranded in Argentina to a traditional Argentinean asado then returns to further exploits of the outlaws, leaving me slightly bewildered and lost.
Nor does Chatwin dwell on most of his tales. A few accounts, such as the self proclaimed King of Patagonia and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, earned multiple chapters, but most stories were no more that a brief sketch, confined to no more than a page. I know this was a conscious stylistic choice of Chatwin, but the snippets left me feeling unsatisfied and wondering what their point was.
While I wasn't overly impressed with Chatwin's style, the main reason I continued the read In Patagonia was because in between the snippets, there was some fascinating stories. In 1859, a French lawyer called Orélie-Antoine de Tounens declared himself king of Araucania and Patagonia, a kingdom that stretches from Latitude 42 South to Cape Horn and still maintains a court in exile in Paris. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fled to Patagonia to avoid arrest in the States, but reverted to a life of crime and pulled off several successful robberies before they supposedly died in a shoot-out in Bolivia. In Patagonia reveals "the Patagonian origin of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, Darwin's theory of evolution, Shakespeare's Caliban, Dante's Hell, Conan Doyle's Lost World, Swift's Brobdignagians, Poe's Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Even the Patagonian origin of Man himself." These stories propelled me through the dull bits to the end of the book.
Furthermore, my original assessment, that I should read In Patagonia while in Patagonia, was correct and there were times when I found myself nodding and agreeing with Chatwin's descriptions and assessments. In other parts, the thirty years between Chatwin's trip and mine had wrought profound changes and Chatwin's account and mine didn't remotely match up, demonstrating the political upheaval of South America in the latter part of the twentieth century.
There is also something thrilling about reading the story of town you're currently in or have just left. During my bus journey home, I changed busses in Puerto Natalas and spend the hour between my arrival and departure wandering around the town. I stopped at the town plaza as I walked back to the bus station. In the centre of the plaza was a raised dais with a train engine sitting atop it. Back on the bus, I read Chatwin's account of his trip to the town, which included the origins of the train:
"Puerto Natalas was a Red town ever since the meat-works opened up. The English built the meat-works during the First World War, four miles along the bay, where deep water ran inshore. They build a railway to bring the men to work; and when the place ran down, the citizens painted the engine and put it in the plaza - an ambiguous memorial."
Nicholas Shakespeare, who wrote the introduction to my copy of In Patagonia, described Chatwin saying, "Bruce Chatwin was always attracted to border countries: to places on the rim of the world, sandwiched ambiguously between cultures, neither one thing nor another." I am very much the same way and despite the negative aspects of In Patagonia, Chatwin did capture the wild, untamed abandon that is my Patagonia.