Monday, 12 August 2013

the last cowboys at the end of the world [nick reding]

The travel book is a strange beast. Of late I’ve enjoyed Stasiuk’s poeticised wanderings around the Eastern European hinterland. However, all too often, travel writing allows for someone connected enough to the publishing industry to fly in, sample a culture, offer their opinion, however well educated, and move on. Travel writing as an extension of the Sunday supplement. This tends to lead to an account which says more about the writer’s own culture than it does about the cultures he or she have chosen to visit.

Reding’s book is nothing like this. It would be harsh to even describe it as travel writing, although it recounts his journeys to Chilean Patagonia in the nineties. It reads more like a novel. Both on account of the engrossing narrative and also for the way in which this narrative succeeds in encapsulating the arresting, harsh changes which “progress” brings in its wake. Which is another way of saying that it touches on the grand themes of history post the industrial revolution, an ongoing revolution whose reach grows ever more pervasive as the world shrinks.

The book recounts Reding’s stays with a Chilean Gaucho, Duck (or Pato) and his wife, Edith, and their three children. Pato and his family live an isolated life which is not much different to the one lead for hundreds of years by gauchos in the Southern cone of South America. It’s a harsh life which Reding does his best not to sentimentalise. For all the beauty of the relationship with nature and the dignity of an existence which does not depend on possessions, it is also a life beset by boredom, superstition and alcohol. Duck possesses the kind of cowboy charisma which Hollywood stars aspire to. He can ride a herd through mountain passes, butcher a ewe in the flash of an eye and cope with anything mother nature wants to throw at him.

Only things are not quite what they seem. Were this the standard fare of travel writing we would be given a homily to gaucho life and its nobility and the writer would move on. Reding stays. He witnesses Pato’s alcoholic binges and the slow decline of his relationship with Edith. But even more heartbreakingly, he documents the way in which both tire of their rural idyll, with dreams of moving to the nearest town, Coihaique, a town which has been transformed by the arrival of Pinochet’s road. The hardship of living on the land proves too much and they leave. Knowing, in their heart of hearts, that the town is liable to destroy them. Just as the arrival of paved roads and later the internet, (the book hints, even if it was written before the digital revolution really took off), will end up destroying the itinerant gaucho existence. The gauchos, Reding seems to suggest, have become anachronistic. Modernity will change farming methods and destroy the very isolation that has helped to preserve their way of life. A way of life that Reding seeks to document, aware that it is ebbing away.

Hence the decision of Pato and his family to move to the town mirrors the societal changes that are occurring in Southern Chile. Although Reding has noted the downsides of their rural life, there is still something desperate about seeing humans stripped of their savage independence by the onset of progress. It may be a choice that Duck and Edith make themselves, but it is also clear they cannot fight history. The last line of the book, one that is self-consciously understated, comes like a hammer blow, a terrible vengeance on the part of modernity, that devil, for anyone who seeks to stand in the way of the road it is driving through nature.

Reding does the job of a historian and a novelist. He captures the dying of a light which few cared about in the first place. It is a beautiful, terrible story, one which succeeds in telling us as much about the shape the world has chosen to take as it does about the gauchos, their myths and their fading, compromised glory. The only question the book cannot answer is to what degree his own arrival, like the bearded white men of yore,  contributed to the changes in the perspectives of Duck and Edith. There is a hint of guilt, which is only to writer’s credit. He too is part of the destructive wave of change coming to Patagonia. As the tale unwinds you can smell the melancholy that cloaks the writer’s words.

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