Sunday, February 10, 2013

Book reviews: Patagonian travels, one great, one not

 A few months ago I picked up an old Swedish book given to me by a friend, who I have long forgotten, but it was a book I had wanted to read for a long time: Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia.  I think my copy might be the first edition from 1981 in Swedish.  I dug in and started to read, with high expectations, because this was a 'real travel writer'!.  As you might know, I mostly read right before I fall asleep, maybe half an hour a day, at the most.
  Bruce Chatwin leaves work and travels to Patagonia, seemingly unplanned, a place he has always wanted to visit.  His travel diary is not a diary in the regular sense, more broken pieces and fragments of text from his experiences in Patagonia with inserts of history, commentary, and cultural reflections.

And here is the main problem.  Bruce stands outside the whole travel experience.  He reports like a objective journalist, not a person present in the moment.  And he even fails at being objective, because many times you can clearly feel the aversion he has to the people he meets.  It is not a boring book, and the text is excellently written, beautiful in fact, but it is not a good book.  You don't get a feel for the place, and it is too fragmented.

The detachedness of Bruce Chatwin is disturbing.  I can't remember any of the persons he describes in such detail, no stories, no places, no names or characters. No recollection.  There is no focus at all.   How can that be?  It was like nothing as memorable.  I know that this is considered one of the best travel books ever written, but I will have to disagree, strongly.  So I gave up, 10-20 pages from the end.

A few weeks later I needed a book with me when I had to wait for my daughter at the dentists.  I looked in our bookshelf and found "The Old Patagonian Express" by Paul Theroux!  I remember buying this book for my husband, but none of us had read it yet.  I brought it with me, read a few pages at the dentist, and was hooked.  And last night, I finished it.  What a difference.  What joy.  I envy people that haven't read this book, they have such a good read in front of them.

Paul Theroux's book was published a year (1979) after Bruce Chatwin's book and they were friends.  The books are like night and day in difference.  While Bruce Chatwin talks about Patagonia, he never explains how he got there, and his book has not one structured path in it.  Paul Theroux, on the other hand, has a plan, and he loves travel, which for him means to GET TO another place, not BE IN another place.  And I think he is right.  True travel is the transportation phase, the active movement through places, not being dumped in a place and staying there.

The way Paul Theroux traveled to Patagonia is the focus, the structure, of the whole book.  He gets on the subway and then commuter train in Boston in a snowstorm, and then takes local train after local train down to Mexico, through Central America, along the Andes, through long Argentina, and then eventually ends up on The Old Patagonian Express, the narrowgauge steam train that goes to Esquel.  And then the book is over.

This book is not about Patagonia, this book is about human nature, nature and humans. Culture, politics, some natural history, pestering travel companions, good and bad hotel rooms, dusty old railroad cars, giant steaks in dining cars, delays, landslides, revolts, and rats chewing holes in the ceiling above your bed.  It also has great interactions between Paul Theroux and the people he meets, from street urchins in Colombia to impossible Mr Thornberry in Costa Rica and the Argentinians need to be superior while having the right to complain about anything in their own country (and nobody else should).

It is a fantastic story, a meandering travel path through not only North and Latin American geography, but also classic literature (Paul Theroux discusses the books he reads during the trip), and it feels real and human.  He is not trying to be some übermensch, not someone that stands above or besides his co-travelers or people he meets.  He just is.  Now I have to read his other travel books!  Wow, what a read!  Yes, A+ and five stars of course.

There are a lot of great passages in The Old Patagonian Express, and here is one that I think fits this review pretty well:

Reading alters the appearance of a book. Once it has been read, it never looks the same again, and people leave their individual imprint on a book they have read. One of the pleasures of reading is seeing this alteration on the pages, and the way, by reading it, you have made the book yours.

And now, The Old Patagonian Express is mine, forever.  The physical book is still my husband's book, of course. 


Unknown said...

I read the same way! Only lately, more like five minutes (sometimes including the time I spend trying to remember where I left off last night) and then I fall asleep with the book on my face. I love this sentence, "I envy people that haven't read this book, they have such a good read in front of them." I know that feeling with so many books!

LS said...

Thanks Sarah for your comment!

I read some other reviews of The Old Patagonian Express last night, and apparently many people complain about Paul Theroux being grouchy, complaining, or negative about the places he visits. But that is mostly likely how it is! People don't live in paradise, many people are very poor, have nothing, travel means sweat, bad food, undrinkable water, and heat and cold that you can't control. People impose on you, and you travel through their lives, which might not be very remarkable or fun. So I think he is just unusually honest and says how things are, not how we want them to be.