Thursday, 14 January 2016

in patagonia [bruce chatwin]

I read In Patagonia in Patagonia. The reading of it was more accidental than that phrase might suggest. A few days before travelling, we went for supper with my old friend Mr Jorge Suarez, who said he had some books in English he was throwing out and asked if I wanted to have a look to see if there was any I was interested in. In Patagonia appeared with the kind of serendipity that occurs with a frequency to make you question whether more time and trouble shouldn’t be dedicated to the understanding of the term ‘serendipity’. 

The book has received a certain amount of revisionist criticism of late. Michael Jacobs, in his tome The Andes, suggests that Chatwin went around making things up. Jorge’s notes in the margin are not exactly complementary. It’s not hard to view Chatwin as a slightly over-educated dilettante who’s strolling through a landscape of which he has less understanding than he claims. HIs observations sometimes verge on the trite, and Jorge didn’t like his rude comments about Buenos Aires, which have a patronising British condescension to them.

Having said this, once Chatwin gets going on his mission to explore the region, In Patagonia becomes a wonderful piece of travel writing. Chatwin peppers his narrative with anecdotes and observations. He searches out and talks to all kinds of people, lifting the lid on the hybrid immigration which helped to define a remarkable, secluded part of the world. Plenty of doughty elderly British ladies, along with Scots, Germans, Persians and who knows what. There’s always an edge to Chatwin’s descriptions, but that just makes them all the more entertaining. Travel writing is an inevitably selective exercise. The writer picks out the things that grab their attention, missing all the other everyday material that doesn’t. Chatwin is constantly on the look-out for the offbeat, for the curious tale. Maybe it makes for a distorted picture, but any picture painted by the traveller is liable to be distorted. 

I’d hazard a guess that the Patagonia that Chatwin got to know, 40 years ago, has changed dramatically. National identities have been cemented in that time, and communication has changed beyond recognition. Chatwin doesn’t seem to have much interest in the original inhabitants of this land and one suspects this matches the opinions of that generation of Patagonians. Now, there’s a clearer consciousness of the lost world of the Selk’nam and the Yanhgan, the indigenous tribes who understood this land far better than the settlers. There’s also an Antarctic identity which has evolved, with the province seeing itself as much an extension of the great white continent as part of the Americas. The Patagonia that Chatwin portrays is one that was tied to the earliest settlers, who arrived at the turn of the 19th century and the start of the 20th. New stories have emerged in the forty years since the book the book was published; the speed of change across the globe affects everyone, even the end of the world. Nevertheless, the book is a fascinating record of a time and a place, and acts as a marker for a quixotic, self-sconsicouly subjective style of travel writing that has since been much imitated; a suitable flattery for a restless, peculiarly British mind.


Another thought  upon returning: when Chatwin visited Patagonia, one imagines that, as a tourist, he was a rare beast. However, the tourist has now become a common species. The novelty factor of being an Englishman abroad has long gone in this part of the world, where goretexed folk with limited or no Spanish are ten a penny. This is clearly not just true for Patagonia, but all kinds of remote corners of the world which have recently opened up. Just as the explorers began to run out of new territory, now the travel writers’ framework has altered. He or she is no longer an emissary from a remote, exotic land; they have become commentators on cultural interchange. The anthropological aspect of travel writing recedes as every new internet connection shrink-wraps the an increasingly homogenous, globalised world. In few ways is this more apparent than in the clothing people wear; from Kashmir to Moscow to Lima, in my experience, a kind of neutralised, jeans and sweatshirt combination has become a norm. This doesn’t mean there aren’t stories to be told, (or that there’s aren’t exceptions to the rule to be hunted down), just that, from a travel writer’s point of view, the context and content of those stories have altered markedly since Chatwin’s time as a result of the abrupt rise in globalised tourism. 

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