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In 1974, Sunday Times journalist Bruce Chatwin headed for the most southerly region of Latin America, Patagonia, which straddles the border of Argentina and Chile. At the outset of the book, Chatwin claims an obsession with the area thanks to a hairy piece of Giant Sloth skin his grandmother owned and showed him when he was a boy. Rather than simply being an account of his travels, Chatwin focusses on the history of some of the area's more colourful inhabitants. Its remoteness seems to have attracted all kinds over the years. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid out down here. Victorian explorers and mercenaries came to the area having heard tell there were living dinosaurs. Immigrants came from many parts of the world but particularly Wales and Scotland, giving the rugged terrain a very un-Latin feel. Unlike most travel writing, where the traveller themselves is the main protagonist and the journey itself is the centre of the narrative, "In Patagonia" feels rather episodic as Chatwin relates these stories from history and provides potted biographies of the people he meets. The feeling is exacerbated by the very short chapters, and Chatwin himself is barely a presence in the book. This certainly makes "In Patagonia" an unusual, perhaps even ground breaking, contribution to the genre, creating a school of more impressionistic, rather than journalistic, travel writing. The persistent rumours that Chatwin played fast and loose with the facts contribute to the sense that Chatwin was more concerned with telling stories than documenting his travels. Having gone into the book wanting to find out more about this remote corner of the planet, I ultimately found Chatwin's approach rather frustrating, but he certainly spins a good yarn. It's a bit like bumping into a weather beaten man in some far flung bar full of tall tales. You won't believe them all, you won't learn much, but you'll probably be entertained.
Bruce Chatwin was a talented writer of travel books, but he also wrote three novels. In spite of its having won the Whitbread First Novel Award in1982, On The Black Hill was the middle one of the three. It also won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Amazon synopsis: It is this week's 'Book At Bedtime' on Radio4, and I caught the first episode last night. I read On The Black Hill many years ago, before I started to keep a record of my reading, but it is one of those books that makes an impression (even if memory fails concerning the details). I will certainly try to catch the rest of the readings on Book At Bedtime in order to jog that failing memory (Should fit well into my current reading scheme - Jude The Obscure for the last few weeks, and Ethan Frome for the coming week!)