Sunday, January 25, 2015

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin (1977)

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin (1977): Chatwin's relatively small output is a treasure trove of odd travels and idiosyncratic observations, many of those observations yoked over the decades to Chatwin's fascination with nomadic humans throughout history and prehistory. Indeed, in The Songlines, Chatwin meditates on the nomadic pre-humans of a million years ago or more.

In Patagonia made the very British Chatwin a star in a very specific firmament, that of travel writing. Chatwin himself said that In Patagonia was a "Cubist" approach to travel writing, as the book consists of 97 short chapters focused on very specific incidents and individuals from Chatwin's own encounters and from histories of the Patagonia region.

Oh. Patagonia. It's a somewhat inhospitable area at the southern extremity of South America, shared between Chile and Argentina. Chatwin travelled through the area in 1974, picking up local stories to go with his experiences, and sometimes fictionalizing both. Chatwin was a New Journalist in the style of Tom Wolfe or even Hunter S. Thompson: the factuality of his narrative cannot always be trusted, though the wit of the observations can.

The book's fairly loose structure comes from Chatwin's voyage to the origin point of a Chatwin family heirloom lost in his youth -- a swatch of Patagonian hide and hair taken from the remains of one of Patagonia's extinct specimens of megafauna, a giant sloth. 

Along with a lot of South America's other megafauna, the giant sloth met its end when a land-bridge with the northern Americas brought wave after wave of new apex predators to the continent. Smaller South American animals such as the porcupine and the armadillo successfully colonized North America, but their larger cousins were pretty much wiped out.

Following this animal colonization comes wave after wave of human colonization and extinction, from prehistory to the early 20th century. Chatwin touches upon tales of natives and Europeans and more Europeans, of Americans, of Welsh settlers, of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, of worker's revolts, of South Africans, and so on, and so forth. All these nomads, settling and being unsettled.

Regardless of its truthiness, In Patagonia is a fine work, humane and searching. There's even a hook for horror fans: the section of the book devoted to the Chilitoe legend of the malign male witches of the Brujeria tickled then-comic-book-Swamp-Thing-writer Alan Moore's fancy in the early 1980's. He included the Brujeria, and their hideously and intentionally deformed servant the Invunche, in Swamp Thing's American Gothic storyline. And now NBC's Constantine series, based on another Alan Moore horror hero, has offered us much-altered versions of the Invunche and its masters. Pop will eat itself, indeed, and everything else. Highly recommended.

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