Destination: Chile and Argentina, South America
Book: In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
Bruce Chatwin uses one of the most engaging opening lines found in travel literature, or any other kind of literature, for that matter, to start In Patagonia (1977).
“In my grandmother’s dining room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in the cabinet a piece of skin.”
When he asked about the strange object, he was told it was a brontosaurus that had lived in Patagonia in South America, “at the far end of the world.” The hairy piece of skin becomes what Alfred Hitchcock called the MacGuffin –the object around which the drama builds. As he searches for the true story of the piece of skin, Chatwin develops a fascination for Patagonia which inevitably leads him to the far end of the world.
Chatwin tells stories in every paragraph, practically in every sentence. He has the gift of looking at things in a skewed fashion and seeing them in completely new ways. “About fifty million years ago, when continents were wandering about…” he says. He leaves a museum, “reeling under the blows of Linnaean Latin.”
As he works his way south through Argentina and Chile, Chatwin meets with many people whose stories surprise and entertain the reader. He also tells anecdotes about people who were once here, from Butch Cassidy and his gang to Darwin and his gang. Even Edgar Allan Poe plays a bit part in a story about the real life origins of his story Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. It is surprising the far-reaching impact of this remote place. But particularly, he is interested in the story of Charley Milward, a distant relative who found that piece of skin that was unfortuitously discarded, and of course must be rediscovered–or at least replaced.
Sometimes the journey, mostly on foot and hitchhiking on various decrepit vehicles, is very difficult. Sometimes it is very dangerous, as when a drunken sheepherder plays with his knife and wonders aloud what it would do the a gringo. But regardless of whether you have the stamina to follow his route on the ground (and numerous travel agents stand ready to help you these days), In Patagonia provides a grand tour to take through reading a great piece of travel literature.
Photo by Davidlohr Bueso from Flickr, under Creative Commons License.