Published back in 1978, Bruce Chatwin's seamless mix of fact and fiction is still among the most enthralling of travel books. Prompted by a piece of reddish animal skin he found in his grandmother's curio cabinet when he was a child, the author ignites himself on a flight of fancy about its origin. This leads him to an expansive area of wild beauty, Patagonia on South America's southernmost tip. I have been lucky enough to visit this part of the world myself about four years ago, and I can confirm from my travels that Chatwin does an amazing job of capturing not only its physical splendor but its colorful inhabitants. However, this is no linear travel narrative, as the author breaks his stories down into mini-sections, ninety-seven in total.
Several of the episodes deal with his own experiences on the road and the individuals he encounters like the gauchos on the pampas, the Welsh-originated villagers, a French soprano, and a hippie from Haight-Ashbury looking for work in the mines. Interspersed with these accounts are snippets of history, real or imagined, such as an unknown connection between Magellan's expedition and Shakespeare's "The Tempest", the whereabouts of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid after they left the states, and a 19th-century European lawyer who convinced the local Araucanian Indians to elect him their monarch. Chatwin shows particular gift for culling whimsical trivia into a greater storytelling context that is hard to resist as long as the reader is aware that little of it is verifiable. He inevitably ends the book the way he started - by finding the source of the animal scrap. Few writers have shown such a vivid imagination and a powerful sense of imagery as Chatwin has with his splendid travelogue. This will make those with an extreme case of wanderlust want to book their flights to Punta Arenas, Chile, right away.