TDA June Book Review – In Patagonia
In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin
“The book that redefined travel writing”, reads a commentary in the Guardian. Another review by prolific travel writer, William Dalrymple, states, “The pendulum of fashion has swung against Chatwin”.
In Patagonia was published in 1977. Is it dated? I disagree with Dalrymple. Chatwin’s writing style is a carefully pared prose about roughshod characters and peculiar places vividly painted from a unique perspective. Dangerous and intriguing encounters and foreign landscapes brought to life from the pen of a gifted writer will surely never become dated.
The first chapter is a real cracker. Chatwin, the child, becomes obsessed with an old leathery bit of skin stuck onto a card with a rusty pin – his granny’s possession. She tells him it was from a brontosaurus. She knew only two prehistoric animals; the other was a mammoth – which he knew was from Siberia. He goes on to tell the story of how this Patagonian Brontosaurus fell into a glacier, and was trapped in a ‘prison of blue ice’, until it was discovered by his granny’s cousin Charley, who shipped the skin to her house. Chatwin never got the much desired treasure. After granny’s death his mom carelessly threw it out. But his fascination with Patagonia kept growing when the first tremors of the Cold War were felt and he figured Patagonia as the safest place on earth. And so it all begins.
The book is divided into short chapters. Obviously they’re all linked to make one travelogue, but some you may isolate and read it as a short, short story: just a few pages opening with a meeting of a character, or a glimpse into the life of one drought-stricken family desperate to elk out a living, whom he meets on his travels. “At every place I came to it wasn’t a question of hunting for the story, it was a question of the story coming at you,” writes Chatwin. Ingenious, dangerous, capricious, daring, heroic and desperate: you get to discover Patagonia through the people he meets along his journey.
One of my favourite characters is the adventurer and self-styled sheriff, Martin Sheffield. Rumored to look a bit like Hemmingway, Sheffield suffered from gold-fever, womanizing, and drank like a mule. He went to Patagonia with only a white mare and an Alsatian for company – ‘Poor as Job’. He would do anything to find his personal Klondike: most of it illegal. “He shot trout from the rivers, a cigarette packet from the police commissioner’s mouth; and had the habit of picking off ladies’ high-heels”, says Chatwin. Yes, maybe Dalrymple is somewhat right after all, they don’t make them like Sheffield, or Chatwin, anymore.
Discover your own Patagonia on the South American Epic Cycling Expedition. Not to sure where Patagonia is? It is a region located at the southern end of South America, shared by Argentina and Chile. The Expedition itself is Tour d’Afrique’s longest bicycle tour – a whopping 15 000km -and also part of Tour d’Afrique’s 7Epics – 7 Epic bicycle journeys across the world.