‘The Golden Age ended when men stopped hunting, settled in houses and began the daily grind…’
It’s so seldom that I read a non-fiction book that it is difficult for me to write a review as I don’t really have a frame of reference. Before reading Bruce Chatwin’s travel novel In Patagonia, I read numerous quotes on the book claiming that Chatwin had revolutionised travel writing, and, while that is certainly impressive, the fact that I had never read any kind of travel writing at all before In Patagonia renders that particular line of praise a little irrelevant for the likes of me. Luckily, to describe In Patagonia as just a travel book is reductive in the extreme.
Patagonia is a sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America, that is shared by Argentina and Peru. Bruce Chatwin was a Sheffield born journalist who harboured memories of gazing with wonder at a piece of ‘brontosaurus skin’ that adorned his grandparents’ curiosity cabinet. That marvel of modern science actually turned out to be the skin of a mylodon, otherwise known as a giant sloth. The animal skin was discovered in a cave in Patagonia and it was this unlikely incident that led Chatwin to go in search of his white whale, the brontosaurus skin that so enraptured him as a child.
It is illuminating to know that Chatwin himself considers himself a story teller rather than a travel writer. Because that is basically what In Patagonia is; a series of stories delivered with a keen eye and some beautifully simplistic prose. Indeed, Chatwin’s debut novel often seems like a work of fiction, and some have argued that parts of his novel are just that. The most obvious influence on Chatwin’s writing style is Ernest Hemingway. It’s all there in the clipped sentences and the matter-of-fact reporting style. Hem is even mentioned at one point in the novel and that is indicative of the sprawling nature of Chatwin’s writing. Some stories are from his first person account of travelling through Patagonia, but most of the book harks back a hundred years or more featuring such disparate characters as Charles Darwin, Che Guevara and Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. Some only have a passing relation to Patagonia but some lived, worked and even died there.
Chatwin can be profound without being too eager to sound so, and he also mines just the right level of emotion. He finds humour in the strange characters he meets on the road but is also never afraid to highlight the loneliness and melancholy brought on by the vast, sprawling deserts of Patagonia.
In Patagonia is far more than just a travelogue. It is fiction, myth, hearsay and stories told around the campfire, and isn’t that much more interesting that plain old facts anyway?