In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

I selected this book because I craved for a travelogue. It fits the bill but in a very awkward and unusual and not altogether pleasing way. It’s less about the landscape, with more emphasis on portraits of inhabitants of Patagonia. In my misanthropic moods, this makes for a more annoying than enjoyable read. I understand that travel entails an observation of both the scenery and the humans who tread upon that piece of land but the lens of this book is too myopic and focused on the latter.

Upon reaching the second half of the book, I surmised that I was a tad bit interested by the casual purveying of history of the Patagonian land. From the urban legend of Butch Cassidy and his stooges, to the unruly stories of defiance of anarchists and Marxists; from the immigrants settling in from all over Europe to the natives squandering and quarreling amongst themselves – this unique travelogue bizarre but marvelous in its rendering of the region.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

The Exiles, the Natives

  • The remoter the valley, the more faithful the re-creation of an original homeland.
  • They chose Patagonia for its absolute remoteness and foul climate; they did not want to get rich.
  • Inside, the rooms were whitewashed and had brown painted doors, polished brass handles and grandfather clocks. The colonists came with few possessions but they clung to their family clocks
  • Anselmo had a passion for the culture of Europe, the authentic, blinkered passion of the exile
  • For Mrs Ivor Davies was dreaming of Italy, and of Venice in particular. She had once seen Venice and the Bridge of Sighs. And when she said the word sospiri, she said it so loudly and insistently that you knew she was pining for Italy

‘Patagonia!’ he cried. ‘She is a hard mistress. She casts her spell. An enchantress! She folds you in her arms and never lets go.’ The rain drummed on the tin roof. For the next two hours he was my Patagonia.

  • ‘She gets a bit jumpy when we have visitors. Works herself into a state. Seems to think visitors mean housework. Not the domesticated type. But don’t take any notice. She loves having visitors really.’
  • Today, he would be classed as a revolutionary. But he had no sense of political organization.
  • I sat back and watched the history of South America in miniature. The boy from Buenos Aires took his insults for half an hour, then he stood up, exploded and pointed the Indian back to his seat.
  • She picked her teeth with a thorn and laughed at the futility of existence
  • He wore chequered shirts and a red handkerchief at the neck, but when he relaxed, his face collapsed in Nordic sadness

‘And now I must go to Mass,’ he said.

‘Tell me, brother, which religion have you?’

‘Protestant.’

‘Different road,’ he sighed. ‘Same Divinity. Adiós, Hermanō.’

  • Paco loved his truck and called her Rosaura. He scrubbed her and polished her and hung her cab with lace frills. Above her dashboard he fixed a statuette of the Virgin of Luján, a St Christopher and a plastic penguin that nodded with the corrugations of the road. He pinned nudes to the roof, but somehow the girls were an abstraction whereas Rosaura was a real woman
  • The layers of metaphorical associations that made up their mental soil shackled the Indians to their homeland with ties that could not be broken
  • He was not a clever man but a wise one. He was a self-centred bachelor, who avoided complications and did little harm to anyone. His standards were Edwardian but he knew how the world changed; how to be one step ahead of change, so as not to change himself. His rules were simple: Keep liquid. Never wait for higher prices. Never use money to show off to your workers.

Then the Whites came with a new guanaco, the sheep, and a new frontier, barbed wire. At first the Indians enjoyed the taste of roast lamb, but soon learned to fear the bigger, brown guanaco and its rider that spat invisible death.

The Landscape

  • “Patagonia is the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origins. It is therefore a symbol of his restlessness. From its discovery it had the effect on the imagination something like the Moon, but in my opinion more powerful.”
  • Patagonia is as I expected but more so, inspiring violent outbursts of love and hate.
  • I pictured a low timber house with a shingled roof, caulked against storms, with blazing log fires inside and the walls lined with the best books, somewhere to live when the rest of the world blew up.
  • By day the city quivered in a silvery film of pollution.

Unalike the deserts of Arabia it has not produced any dramatic excess of the spirit, but it does have a place in the record of human experience. Charles Darwin found its negative qualities irresistible. In summing up The Voyage of the Beagle, he tried, unsuccessfully, to explain why, more than any of the wonders he had seen, these ‘arid wastes’ had taken such firm possession of his mind.

  • The Yaghan tongue—and by inference all language—proceeds as a system of navigation. Named things are fixed points, aligned or compared, which allow the speaker to plot the next move

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

  • The wind whistled in the street and the music ghosted from the piano as leaves over a headstone and you could imagine you were in the presence of genius.

and he concludes that desert wanderers discover in themselves a primaeval calmness (known also to the simplest savage), which is perhaps the same as the Peace of God.

  • His birthplace was an arbour of green saplings, sods and rancid seal-skins. His mother cut his umbilical cord with a sharp mussel-shell and rammed his head against her copper-coloured teat. For two years the teat was the centre of his universe. He went everywhere with the teat: fishing, berrying, canoeing, visiting cousins, or learning the names—as complex and precise as Linnaean Latin—of everything that swam or sprouted, crawled or flew
  • Bridges’s dilemma is common enough. Finding in ‘primitive’ languages a dearth of words for moral ideas, many people assumed these ideas did not exist. But the concepts of ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’, so essential to Western thought, are meaningless unless they are rooted to things
  • We talked late into the night, arguing whether or not we, too, have journeys mapped out in our central nervous systems; it seemed the only way to account for our insane restlessness.

In the 1890s a crude version of Darwin’s theory, which had once germinated in Patagonia, returned to Patagonia and appeared to encourage the hunting of Indians. A slogan: ‘The Survival of the Fittest’, a Winchester and a cartridge belt gave some European bodies the illusion of superiority over the far fitter bodies of the natives.

  • The cobbles underfoot, the breath of the crowd, the stuccoed buildings and sidewalk trees; the guns, horses and police helmets, carried Radowitzky back to his city and the Revolution of 1905.

Sometimes I saw him up ahead, bobbing over fallen trunks, and then I came up close. He was a single male, his coat all muddied and his front gashed with scars. He had been in a fight and lost. Now he also was a sterile wanderer.

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