Sequels to a Patagonian Journal (page 2)
Sequels to a Patagonian Journal
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  Travel book? Travel writer?
Whether Chatwin’s readers picked up on his fascination with nomadism or not, they did notice his writing. They couldn’t help it: In Patagonia was not your ordinary travel book. Spanish Nobel Laureate Camilo José Cela coined the word vagabundaje, for the picaresque travel book, though for Cela, the traveler is front and center, whereas Chatwin evaporates. In Patagonia, an almost plotless, loose skein of ninety-seven numbered sketches or episodes, displays elements of the picaresque novel. (There is no table of contents or index, though an appendix lists a couple of dozen sources for aspects of Patagonian history touched on in the book.) Chatwin did not recommend hotels with fluffy pillows, pass on the names of favorite restaurants, or suggest scenic routes. What he did was to sketch portraits, and like all artists, he subtracted and added. The pictures he created are vivid. Recalling his visit to Sonny Urquhart’s farm near Bahía Blanca, for example, Chatwin wrote:

    The Scot called the dogs off and led the way down a narrow green corridor into a tall, darker green room lit by a single bulb. Round the fire were some Victorian easy chairs with flat wooden armrests. Damp whisky glasses had bitten rings into the French polish. High on the walls were prints of willowy gentlemen and ladies in crinolines.
         Sonny Urquhart was a hard stringy man with blond hair swept back and parted in the center. He had moles on his face and a big Adam’s apple. The back of his neck was criss-crossed with lines from working hatless in the sun. His eyes were watery blue, and rather bloodshot.

Ernest Hemingway was one of Chatwin’s favorite writers. Like him, he had a knack for capturing snapshots, lean and quick, of places he had seen:

    Las Pampas was twenty miles on from Río Pico, the last settlement before the frontier. To the north towered El Cono, an extinct volcano of bone-white screes and brighter snows. In the valley the river ran fast and green over white stones. Each log cabin had a potato patch, barricaded from cattle by stakes and thorns.

     Chatwin dubbed his book “cubist.” He traveled and observed, making sardonic, witty, and occasionally moralizing comments as he went. He narrated, but he was not necessarily telling the literal truth in every instance; he was creating his own Patagonian journal, written as if he had seen it all.

  A used copy of the Indiana University Press reprint (1965) of El Lazarillo is available at Amazon.com’s zShops      The eighteenth-century post-road inspector Concolorcorvo wrote in El Lazarillo: A Guide for Inexperienced Travelers Between Buenos Aires and Lima (1773) that if “the words traveler and liar are synonymous, then the reading of fables should be preferred to that of history.” His point was that much history is based on the accounts of travelers. “Granted, then, the uncertain nature of history,” he continued, “I say again that the reading and study of fables ought to be preferable inasmuch as, being the offspring of free and unfettered imagination, they offer more inspiration and pleasure.”
     A traveler and a fabulist, Chatwin might have agreed. Responding to a query about his book, he said, “As you can read into the text of In Patagonia: this was not serious history!” When an interviewer asked where “the division between fiction and nonfiction” lay in his work, he replied, “I don’t think there is one. There definitely should be, but I don’t know where it is. I’ve always written very close to the line. I’ve tried applying fiction techniques to actual bits of travel. I once made the experiment of counting up the lies in the book I wrote about Patagonia. It wasn’t, in fact, too bad; there weren’t too many.”
     One critic called him “the best travel writer of his generation,” but Chatwin perversely denied that In Patagonia was a travel book, although that’s where bookshops invariably shelve it. “It always irritated me,” he complained, “to be called a travel writer.” His obituary in the New York Times identified him as a “one of his generation’s ranking travel writers,” adding that he was also “an elegant literary craftsman and storyteller.” He was all three.
     Whatever the validity of his nomadic theory (many of the people he met found themselves in Patagonia as a result not of their DNA but of wars, economic travails, and religious upheavals in their homelands), Chatwin’s In Patagonia impelled many a traveler to venture into deepest Argentina and Chile.
     But, when In Patagonia, first published in England in 1977, made its way to Argentina and Chile it met a chilly reception that had nothing to do with the climate, but everything to do with his penchant for mixing literary fancy with historical facts: He highlighted the strange and the unconventional — sometimes inventing the strange and the unconventional, and describing a few locals in less than handsome terms. In a few cases, he gave his subjects thinly veiled pseudonyms.
 
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