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‘In Patagonia’

As part of Literature Week, the Chronicle is publishing book reviews. The event organised by Gibraltar Cultural Services includes discussions with local authors live streamed on their Facebook page and talks in schools. Today Chronicle Editor Brian Reyes shares his book recommendation.

There isn’t much to do or see in Puerto Montt, a thriving industrial port city in southern Chile. The pitched roofs of its colourful wooden houses hint at its origins as a settlement of German immigrants, but also at its harsh climate. This is the end of the road south. Most visitors who arrive in Puerto Montt leave soon after, bound east for the Chilean lake district or overland into Argentina via Bariloche. Or, as we had planned in 1994, on a ferry south to Patagonia and the bottom of the world.

For company on that trip, I had a copy of ‘In Patagonia’ in my backpack, a lyrical text by Bruce Chatwin that charts a journey through the Argentine Patagonia, mixing travelogue, journalism, history and memoir. It is as much an account of trip through a desolate, austere and brooding landscape, as it is a foray into the psyche and the stories of the people who live there. Because Chatwin, above all, wrote about people.

I was on the wrong side of the continent but, like so many others, I wanted to read ‘In Patagonia’ in Patagonia.

Chatwin made the trip in 1974, inspired by a childhood memory of a scrap of brontosaurus skin rescued by his grandmother’s cousin, Charley Milward the Sailor, who survived a shipwreck in the Strait of Megallan and settled in Punta Arenas. He had found the perfectly preserved brontosaurus at the bottom of a glacier and had it shipped to the National History Museum in South Kensington. He posted the scrap of skin to Chatwin’s grandmother.

The book is a collection of short chapters, a cinematic sequence of imagery, conversations and stories as Chatwin makes his way over a period of several months from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, overlooking the Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego, where he found “blue-faced inhabitants” in an “apparently childless town” who “glared at strangers unkindly”.

En route he slept in the houses of people who had drifted south and somehow settled in this inhospitable land, like the Welsh in Rio Negro, who chose Patagonia “…for its absolute remoteness and foul climate; they did not want to get rich.”

Our plan was to take the ferry down from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, in the Chilean Patagonia, a four-day trip through empty fjords with their black water and rugged mountains capped with snow.

Chatwin had been here too. “There is a man in Punta Arenas,” he wrote, “who dreams of pine forests, hums Lieder, wakes each morning and sees the black strait. He drives to a factory that smells of the sea. All about him are scarlet crabs, crawling, then steaming. He hears the shells crack and the claws breaking, sees the sweet white flesh packed firm in metal cans. He is an efficient man, with some previous experience of the production line. Does he remember that other smell, of burning? And that other sound, of low voices singing? And the piles of hair cast away as the claws of crabs?”

“Herman Rauff is credited with the invention and administration of the Mobile Gas Oven.”

Because Patagonia, in the 70s at least, was a place in which some people came to hide. And Chatwin was a collector of stories that showed the best, and the worst, of humanity.

The weather put paid to our plans.

We waited over a week for it to clear, but instead it worsened. As the wind and rain lashed the window of our room, I read Chatwin lying on a bed in a wooden guesthouse at the gateway to Patagonia, warmed by a rickety stove and hot meals cooked by an elderly woman with a German surname who could trace her ancestry in that city back to the 1800s.

Somehow, it seemed perfect.