Argentina's Outback

In Patagonia    by Bruce Chatwin

207 pp, penguin books 1988 (first published 1977)  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern

      Most of humanity dwells in densely developed and productive parts of the globe. Beyond those are the empty and arid deserts, and also the sparsely settled fringes of population, where life can be challenging, towns are modest and roads are few. In Australia, that is "the outback." In the United States, one such large chunk is Alaska, and Russia has Siberia; but for Argentina (and for Chile, not covered here) it is Patagonia, the southern end of the American continent--windy, icy, arid steppes and wild mountains.

      The people in such fringes are a diverse lot, and odd characters stand out. Many arrived (or else their ancestors did) to distance themselves from the common crowd, from war and poverty--and some were forced to move, like the Mormons moving to Utah in 1847. Patagonia has Welshmen who sought their own space, independently-minded Englishmen, Spaniards, Germans, and Boers, failed (or jailed) Russian revolutionaries, even outlaws such as Butch Cassidy, about whom the reader learns quite a lot.

      One settler (long ago) was Charley Milward, cousin of the writer's grandmother and captain of a ship wrecked in the Straits of Magellan. After the mishap he settled in Punta Arenas, main seaport of the straits, where he first tried various odd jobs, later ran a foundry and repaired ships. At one time he sent Bruce Chatwin's grandmother a hairy piece of skin of an extinct prehistoric giant sloth which he had dug up: it was this relic (unfortunately lost), together with accounts of Charley Milward's life, that motivated Chatwin to travel to Patagonia in the first place.

      It turned into a sort of pilgrimage. True pilgrims don't always take the shortest path, but allow time to ramble and seek out the spirit of the land in which they travel. Bruce Chatwin certainly did so--not just exploring the mountain valleys and lakes of Patagonia, but seeking out distant inhabitants and touching base with a rich history, going back to the Magellan and the 16th century.

      The result is a densely packed travelogue which many have pronounced a classic, one with unpredictable stories, experiences and characters. There is relatively little in the book about the author himself--mostly it is about people he has met, or stories he has collected, taking the reader to unexpected destinations. This book deserves to be savored slowly, because allowing stories to overlap diminishes their atmosphere. Take time reading it, and then when you are done, perhaps read it all over again.

Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated 4 August 2009