Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin – A review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 15, 2008

An effective remedy for a restless mind and an itchy sole appears to be travel. And if that restlessness and itch occur to a writer of Bruce Chatwin‘s caliber, the consequent travel writing is simply scintillating. I have come to develop an awed sense of respect for him. In the past I had read and written my impressions about his “What Am I Doing Here” and “The Viceroy of Ouidah“. But nothing prepared me for his “In Patagonia” – An absolute delight of travel writing that one can lay hands on. I am gradually leaning towards a belief that it may be the best travel book that I read so far and more importantly Chatwin is probably the best travel writer ever. When it comes to travel writing he is simply nonpareil. In one of my previous postings, I had opined that travel writing is neither about travel nor about places but about people and their histories. Chatwin more than proves that assertion in “In Patagonia

Patagonia is the border region between Argentina and Chile in the southern part of South America extending all the way down south. Like its unique place in South America, Patagonia occupies a unique and obsessive place in Chatwin‘s mind – driven by childhood myths of existence of fantastic pre historic beasts. It is through this place that Chatwin travels on foot and thumbing rides where possible. Chatwin meets a variety of people – natives, generations of settlers – Welsh, Scottish, English, German, missionaries, ex- revolutionaries, officials and in the process gradually unravels glimpses of the strange and fascinating history and the political landscape of the place. Especially those glimpses of history that are closely related to the forays of empire building by Europe and the political landscape which was given birth to as part of experimentation of the ideas of west in newer climes. After I was done with reading the book, I tried to run it over in my mind and while doing so I felt that I have personally come back from an adventerous trip to a very strange and unusual place which has left me with an amorphous feel for its history, geography, culture and people

Through the book Chatwin weaves magic with intoxicating prose  which is supplemented with wide research. There is an indescribably healthy leanness to his prose. With very minimal words he describes a scene even while bringing forth its utmost essence — almost like well shot masterly photographs. Consider a few of his descriptions  – “The train started with two whistles and a jerk. Ostriches bounded off the track as we passed, their feather billowing like smoke. The mountains were grey, flickering in the heat haze. Sometimes a truck smeared a cloud dust along the horizon“…. …..or…………… “She smiled , her painted mouth unfurling as a red flag caught in a sudden breeze. Her hair was dyed dark auburn. Her legs were a mesopotamia of varicose veins. She still had tatters  of an extraordinary beauty” ……. or…..”Ranged round the walls was an aviary of stuffed birds. Their red-painted throats screeched at their preserver with terrible silence“. This brilliance with observations and words is one of the many aspects of Chatwin‘s writing that makes me believe that he probably is the best of travel writers despite his very limited output. May be it is this that prompted Salman Rushdie to coin the term “Chatwinisque”

Chatwin meets an Argentinian poet who says “Patagonia!” ……. ” She is a hard mistress. She casts her spell. An enchantress! She folds you in her arms and never lets go.’  Not having visited, while I can’t say the same for the place… I can definitely say that for the book. For anyone who wants to get a first hand experience of Bruce Chatwin,  “In Patagonia” can be a definitive choice. A wonderful read worth having in ones collection

Afterword: There is a preponderence of Brits in travel writing. They appear to outclass any country both in quantity and quality terms. Is it one of the many vestiges of empire building?

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