It’s been said that In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin is one of the pivotal pieces of modern travel writing. When I picked it up, I knew I would be reading something out of my normal reading range, though I wasn’t sure in what way.
The book is unassuming. My version, published by Penguin Classics is less than 200 pages long — a tiny thing compared to some of the tomes that are published these days. The chapters were short, perfect to pack while traveling so I could start and stop at a moment’s notice. I pulled it off the shelf for such a trip, and I dove in, curious what all the hullabaloo was about.
In Patagonia starts curiously. It recounts Bruce’s memory of a piece of skin his grandmother had, which family members believe to be from a brontosaurus. We learn that it’s actually from a mylodon or giant sloth, found in a cave on Last Hope Sound in Chilean Patagonia. From that piece of skin, Chatwin’s interest in Patagonia is born.
From there, the story is a simple one: Chatwin travels to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and records his observations as he makes his way to the Last Hope Sound. That’s pretty much the gist of this book: Raw, real observations about the landscape and people around him as he travels. I guess that’s what make this such a popular book in the travel writing world. There is no fluff, no beautifying or demonizing his surroundings. It is what it is. As much as I appreciated his observations of the world around him, especially his notes on color, this turns into first a dozen, and then 50, and then 100 pages or more of description.
I understand that inserting his own opinion about what’s going on around him versus simply stating how things are forces readers of the book to look at this place through his eyes instead of simply observing it for themselves, but I’ve got to believe that Chatwin had some reactions or thoughts about his experiences. Inserting even a bit of humanness into his writing would have gone a long way in enhancing my enjoyment of this book.
The other thing that I found a bit disconcerting about In Patagonia is the fact that chapters upon chapters tell the stories of other people who have left their footprints upon Patagonia. I felt like I learned more about these characters than I did about Chatwin, and yet their stories were simple diversions of the journey he was on.
Ultimately, In Patagonia left me feeling unsatisfied. Chatwin tracks down the cave and the story about the piece of skin in his grandmother’s home, and while I felt like I’ve seen the path he’s taken, I didn’t feel like I was given any direction on what to think about it. I appreciate his ability to write about the world as if it was completely exposed and something to be broken down into observable details, but I don’t care when I have no other personal context in which to place those observations.
If you’ve read In Patagonia, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Were you enamored, or did you want more from the book?
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