Friday, May 04, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #124: In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

Anyone's experience of a new place is going to be disjointed -- without cultural and personal context, many things won't be clear at all. At worst, it may all feel like entirely separated moments, removed from everything else.

Travel books don't usually try to reproduce that feeling: they embed those moments of strangeness in an overall narrative, controlling them through the writer's personality and viewpoint, to impose a single view of the new land. That view may be positive or negative, but it's the point of the travel book.

Bruce Chatwin doesn't play that way. In Patagonia is made up of nearly a hundred mostly very short chapters -- from a few paragraphs to three/four pages. Sometimes they lead one into the next, thematically or sequentially, but not all that often. They are all things that happened to him in Patagonia, or related to his wanting to travel to Patagonia, or showing his family history there. But this is not a single narrative, and Chatwin will not tell you how to feel about these places that he visited in the mid-1970s.

It's a fascinating structure, and a liberating one. We don't know how Chatwin traveled around Argentina and Chile -- he's not always clear on which country he's in, though it seems to be primarily Argentina. We don't know how he got there, how long he spent in each place, where he stayed much of the time. All of the organizing structure of the standard travel book -- taking the 5:15 from here to there, chatting with random colorful strangers on the way, the "arriving in a new town" scene -- is missing here. All Chatwin includes, all he focuses on, are the moments where he learns something, witnesses something, experiences something. All the moments when he feels that he is "In Patagonia."

Is it all true? Well, it's all what Chatwin experienced and thought on that mid-70s trip, the stories he heard as he wrote them down, and what he wanted to remember. So it's about as true as anything else -- one man's experience of a strange place where he had an intimate historical family connection, full of family legends and retold peasant tales and gossip and scurrilous rumors and explorations of the historical Butch and Sundance and stories of exploits on the unforgiving seas.

It's a unique travel book. All books of travel are as much about the traveler as the place, but Chatwin writes right at that intersection, where he reacts to Patagonia and how it reflects back his family stories to him. Every place is strange, and In Patagonia makes that real like no other book I've read.

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