Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Exploring Patagonia with Bruce Chatwin

In the spirit of embracing summer travel plans on a stay-at-home budget, I have been wanting to schedule at least one vacation via excellent travel book. This is what led me on a memorable tour through Patagonia with Bruce Chatwin, via the author's 1977 publication of In Patagonia. Although I had no prior knowledge of the author prior to the journey, I noticed that his name consistently ranked among the great travel writers of all time.  My high expectations were not disappointed.

Documenting the expedition he undertook during the 1970s, Chatwin describes his work as such:

In Patagonia is not a travel book in the usual sense but a Quest or Wonder Voyage.  It is about wandering and exile, and its structure is as old as literature itself: the narrator travels to a remote country in search of a strange beast and, as he goes along, describes his encounters with other people who delay him en route.
The “strange beast” Chatwin references at the opening of the narrative is a “replacement of the lost piece of skin” which had so mystified the author in his youth.   Chatwin’s grandfather, sailor Charley Milward, had kept the artifact in a jar throughout his life, claiming it to be the skin of a brontosaurus discovered soon after the merchant ship he captained sunk off the Strait of Magellan.  Upon Millward’s death, the legendary skin-in-a-jar was promptly discarded by his wife, and so Chatwin sets out to unpack the mystery of its origins, discovering the beast to be not a brontosaurus but most certainly the mylodon, otherwise known as giant ground sloth, a prehistoric mammal of dino-esque proportions.  It does not take long to understand that the “strange beast” of this story is more complex than the either brontosaurus or mylodon: a sort of chimera comprised of the mythical image of his grandfather, “a god among men,” the paths that people take to exile, and the vast and intricate history of a region ripe with mythical, cultural, and political history.  

Chatwin’s “godlike” characterization his grandfather - who settled in Punta Arenas after the demise of his vessel, sets the stage for a journey steeped in  wonder and mythos that turns out to be perfectly appropriate to a region so richly imbued not only with a rich and varied fossil record, but also with stratified layers of legend and intrigue. The artists, priests, merchants, expats, stock-herders, and other characters encountered throughout the journey seem to continually reinforce an implication that the lore and mystery of the place seems not at all dulled by living there.  Ripe history of colonial occupation and expat relocation leaves a tapestry of people of varied ancestry behind: history of various stripes: Welsh, English, Persian, Spanish, Scottish, French.  One example of the author’s nuanced presentation of the region’s history can be found in an early passage, narrating his voyage southward:
Mylodon model (from wikimedia)
The history of Buenos Aires is written in its telephone directory. Pompey Romanov, Emilio Rommel, Crisping D.Z. de Rose, Ladislao Radziwil, and Elizabeth Marta Callman de Rothschild - five names taken at random from among the R’s - told a story of exile, disillusion, and anxiety behind lace curtains.
Part of the delight in reading Chatwin comes from the author’s excellent characterizations.  One is swept up in the story by virtue of the rich interplay between characters possessed of both mythical and personable charms.  Take for example, Mrs. Jones, a “squat old lady in her eighties” who runs a teashop with her son, who introduces herself from her seat at the table with this line: “I can’t move, my dear… You’ll have to come and talk to me in the kitchen… I’m crippled. I’ve had arthritis since the flood and have to be carried everywhere.”  Or Alan Powell, “a small man, crinkled by the sun and wind,” and his wife, who “had shiny cheeks and was always laughing.” His taut descriptions are precise and I am pulled along on his adventure, swiftly; I  can see these people, and their presence, in Chatwin’s lively and well-honed voice keeps the journey immersive, real, and never abstract.  Add to this the shared meals: asado with a salmuera sauce of vinegar, garlic, chiles, and oregano, washed down with vino rosado at midday in shepherd’s kitchen The evolving narrative moves less towards a resolution, and instead towards an immersion in strange delicious midday dreaminess.  Traveling primarily on foot between hitchhiking jags, it seems as though every new chapter (many of them fewer than three pages) finds the author in a new kitchen, bed, or mishap, like walking past midnight, laying awake with raucous or suspicious bunkmates, or being stranded on the side of the road after an unfortunate tire blowout at the bottom of a backcountry hill.  

The structure lends itself to being interpreted (and I have read that this was Chatwin's intention) as a series of photographs kept in an album.  One of the most memorable of the recurring characters, in addition to Chatwins seafaring grandfather, whose story is traced throughout the narrative - is Father Manuel Palacios, “a comprehensive genius of the South” who lived in the Salesian College, and who shares with Chatwin a rich history including: "statistics, radio-carbon dates, migrations of men and animals, marine regressions, upheavals of the Andes or the appearance of new artifacts.  Possessed of a photographic memory he could describe in detail every Indian rock-painting of the South…  "

Palacios' lecture, as Chatwin recalls, “melted into a dream voyage,” in which “Marquesans beached their canoes in the fjords of Southern Chile, scaled the Andes, settled by Lake Musters and merged with the indigenous population.  Father Palacios described his own discovery, in Tierra del Fuego, the sculpture of a headless woman, life sized and smothered in red ochre” and goes on to detail his theory that the origin of the species can be traced to the Andes.  The fact that this theory yet fails to achieve widespread acknowledgment as valid in the eyes of the scientific community matters little in the context of this book of abundant legend and mystery.  

Image of the Patagonian Unicorn
The brontosaurus/mylodon is  one of many mythical beings appearing throughout the journey.  Others include ‘The Cappadocian Dragon,’ The Sect of Brujeria,  Charles Darwin, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and those tasked with stalking them, to name a few.

Attempting to unpack the mysterious nature of a place can be problematic.  To paraphrase an insight offered by Fr. Greg Boyle on the problem of explaining humor: “It’s sort of like dissecting a frog.  You can do it, but you have to kill the frog first.”  So, instead of attempting to do so, I’ll attempt to detail a few of the elements of Patagonian lore which linger in the imagination long after the last page, and which prompted me to do a fair amount of follow up internet research to verify the veracity of their existence. 

In Fr. Palacios’s encyclopedic description of regional history, he mentions the Patagonian unicorn, which were “hunted to extinction by man in the fifth or sixth millennium B.C.” which are depicted in cave paintings near Lago Posados by  (“Really?” I think when I first read the account, recalling the burning shame of being scolded by my first grade teacher for including a unicorn in my painstaking  depiction of the garden of Eden.  “That’s not one of God’s creatures,” she barked.) I am pleased to learn that its existence is quite plausibly traced to the Toxodon, a “large hippo-like South American mammal that belonged to the now totally extinct order Nitingulata, hoofed mammals endemic to the American continent,” according to research compiled by Austin Whitthall, author of Monsters of Patagonia, and others.  There are other theories about this creature, including the rare but documented presence of one-horned deer. With a loud internal Hooray, I make a mental note to recover a favorite movie of childhood, The Last Unicorn, in order to watch it with my five year old in celebration. 
Follow this finding with the discovery of furry humanoid dwarves living in trees.  To be more specific, the Yoshil, a “tail-less protohominid with lichenous hair of yellowish green colour" dwarves that lived in trees and are rumored to have come into the beds of local women in the middle of the night.  These rumors may have countless other explanations, but fossil record and the testimony of numerous regional Salesian priests and others indicate the plausibility of reality of a Fuegian homunculus that fits the description of the Yoshil, who may also have been hunted to extinction at times when other prey were scarce.

Add to this, the fossil records of plesiosaurus, glyptodon, and macrauchenia,  ‘The Cappadocian Dragon,’  and the beaches of the here-and now (at least as they were, circa 1970s) scattered with carcasses of penguins.  Then there’s The Sect of Brujeria, a devilish cult of witchcraft rumored to dismember infants as part of initiation, and  the giant Patagons,  members of the Tehuelche Indian tribe, renamed by Magellan at first sight of their large physical stature, who are said to have been inspiration for the Shakespeare’s Caliban of The Tempest, whose voice utters the bitterness of the New World in the face of colonization: “This island’s mine, by Sycorax  my mother, which you take’s from me” (the reference, provided by Chatwin, calls to mind another, line of the same play, uttered by Sebastian (Act III, scene iii), as referenced by Whitthall: “Now I will believe, that there are unicorns…”) .  

Black-browed albatross
In this vein it is interesting to recall another legendary  figure, one John Davis, a mariner whose fateful journey is rumored to have inspired the voice of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner, for whom, after shooting the bird: “Instead of the cross, the Albatross/ About my neck was hung.”  Considering the length of the ensuing journey, and the image I had in mind of the massive (by avian standards) albatross, the veracity of such a circumstance seemed so implausible that I have always thought that it must surely be meant as metaphor.  However, as Chatwin explains, the epic poem was in fact an historically-informed rendering of the records of voyages as recorded by John Davis, and there are in fact two much smaller members of the albatross family, both natives to Patagonia,  who are likely candidates for the role.  

As presented by Chatwin: "There are two contenders and I saw them both on Tierra del Fuego: the Sooty Albatross, ashy bird, smoke-grey all over and known to sailors as the Stinkpot or Prophet; or, less likely, the Black-browed Albatross or Mollymauk, fearless and attached to human company."

I could go on, but in the interest of time I’ll simply posit the question,  "Can you imagine?" against the tacit understanding that those who can will get it.  This is a place where over and over again, the supposed boundaries between imagination and reality and consistently blurred.  I cannot speak for other readers, but this is enough to keep me coming back for more.  

Although he was most often described as a travel writer, Chatwin did not see himself as such.  I suspect that this may have something to do with why he is such an excellent writer of travel narratives. Also generally reluctant to to identify as a novelist, Chatwin preferred to be acknowledged as a storyteller.  He is, indeed a storyteller, and his prose shimmers with wit, verve, and down-to-earth sensibilities that pair nicely with the affinity towards subtle shades of magical realism that he displays in this volume - and, I’ve read, in his other works, although Patagonia is the first of his that I am reading. 

The story lingers with a gossamer dreamlike quality, and after spending some time afterwards attempting to discern what parts were fact and what were fiction, I have given up.  It seems that some of the controversy surrounding aspects of the veracity of some of the stories within it is perhaps misplaced, although I sympathize with the tendency of outsiders to scrutinize, fact-check, and note disparities as they are found.  It seems that Chitin’s narrative is composed in the spirit of the place he is documenting, a place where, each mythical beast, as the mylodon he comes to find.  In attempting to record various human and animal histories, Chatwin observes how - in more than one instance, though this passage refers to the mylodon:
there was… a point at which the extinct beast merged with the living beast and the beast of the imagination.
This observation cuts to the heart of what is so memorable about this journey.  I cannot definitively draw the line between fact and fiction, and this seems to me to be true to experience in a way that the idea of a dichotomy between the two is not.  I have never had a significant experience which I did not burnish and polish over time as I handled it over and over again as memory.  I am certain only of the rich magic of Patagonia, and of my intention to plan future vacations with Mr. Chatwin.

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