Sunday, January 27, 2008

Patagonia in words

It struck me recently that there is very little modern literature on Patagonia.

Bruce Chatwin did a good job both romanticising and objurgating the place on his whirlwind tour, as well as winding up the locals with his foppish Oxford pretensions and fictional journalism. Nevertheless, his In Patagonia is fascinating in its study and contemplation of exile. As Chatwin says, ´if the world blew up tomorrow, you would still find in Patagonia an astonishing cross section of the world's nationalities´. The real history of Patagonia, is the history of everywhere else.

The most thorough job, ironically, was the first. A certain Mr Darwin came down here, looked at the place with youthful vigour and perception, then headed back and never left the Home Counties for the rest of his life. His Voyage of the Beagle licenced everything that came after. And those days spent geologising in Puerto Deseado and San Julián, and taming the Tehuelche Indians in the Beagle Channel, were as critical as his Galapagos finches in progressing his nascent idea, that from the comfort of the drawing room in Kent, would eventually become his very big idea.
Darwin spent 5 weeks in the Galapagos. And 2 years in Patagonia.

W H Hudson is Patagonia's unsung chronicler. He had by far the best sense of the place, but no one reads him and his books are out of print. If you can find them, check out ´Idle Days in Patagonia´ and ´Long Ago and Far Away´. Hudson had Darwin´s sense of detail, and Thoreau's philosophy. Jorge Luis Borges didn´t quite see the value of this, and had a thing or two to say about it: ´You will find nothing there. There is nothing in Patagonia. That´s why Hudson liked it.´

More recently of course, there have been the cursory forays into the Patagonian literary landscape by various adventurers; cycling from Cape Horn to Alaska, walking from Cape Horn to Alaska, driving a 1920s Model T from Cape Horn to Alaska, and inumerable more versions of the same rather unoriginal theme.

Less vainglorious adventurers had already made these journeys and written about them. Waterstone's travel section would do better to stock Lady Florence Dixie´s Across Patagonia, Colonel George Musters´ At Home with the Patagonians, George Shevlocke´s A Voyage Around the World, JB Hatcher´s Bone Hunters, Miguel de Larminat's A Pioneer in Patagonia, amongst others. All of these are worth reading. John Byron´s (yes, the grandfather of the poet) account of his shipwreck in the Chilean fjords, The Loss of the Wager will transform your own experience of sailing through the very same channels.

Many ecologists and naturalists have also followed Darwin's precedent and written about the wild side of Patagonia, and Argentine and Chilean historians have dealt with the human, with varying degrees of anachronism, bias, and makebelieve. Patricia Halvorsen (those of you who have stayed at her estancia La Quinta will know her) has written almost singlehandedly the history of Santa Cruz, some of the books of which have made it into English.

But, perhaps the best places to find the literary Patagonia are also the most unexpected. Shakespeare's The Tempest, Coleridge's Rhime of the Ancient Mariner, Conan Doyle's Lost World, and Antonio Pigafetta. Even Poe's the Narrative of Pym was based on a voyage into Patagonia, in this case Captain James Weddell's. Which in turn inspired Baudelaire's Le Voyage.

And it does not stop there. For all the books based on Patagonia, in a strange literary reversal, Patagonia itself was based on a book. Primaleon of Greece was a romping Medieval saga concerning knights, dragons and princesses. It also happened to be published only a few years before Magellan´s voyage, and was almost certainly read by him. Its principal baddy was a giant ´puppy headed monster´, to paraphrase Caliban in the Tempest, called Patagon... And therein lies the name.

For all Chatwin's misperceptions about Patagonia, he had the last word on its literary origins.

´I think we have here a situation in which a bad novel inspired a great explorer to do something shoddy, which in turn, inspired the greatest playwright to one of his greatest creations.´

Either way, good airport reading....