There are five or six different types of places in this world in my opinion. Most of them are synonymous with one of your own emotions – remember that I said yours and not the generalized human emotion, because emotions are purely subjective, a customized version atop a common platform. So what Kolkata might evoke in you may not elicit the same emotional response in me. But then there are places that come very close to defying that rule. Places that are either too crowded, overbuilt and infested with civilization to the bones – your days are too sped up there for you to conjure up things in your mind. It’s like a whole array of art installations on a conveyor belt. The moment you blink, the visceral statue of a muscular, dead horse is replaced by a rather jaunty, psychedelic picture of a man screaming his head off.
Then there are places that are so derelict, so devoid, so empty, so abyssal that the small bubble of human emotion just fizzles out in front of it. The absorbing power of such place is unheard of, not only because human beings have not yet stepped on it, but also because of the core ingredients that constitute such an ocean of emptiness has yet to come into contact with enough of our species to form a bond. Hence the stories that are found there are conserved ferociously, almost like the treasures of Nassau, and are being passed from generation to generation with occult like precision.
Patagonia – or where the memories evolve.
Bruce Chatwin, born and brewed in the society that rejected the tribalness in human nature, took it upon himself to fancy a chance in exploring the extreme nomadism that existed in the loneliest parts of our planet. It all started with his childhood fascination for a Brontosaurus bone (in actuality, a giant sloth’s called the Mylodon) that he saw in his grandparent’s home. The bone was found in Patagonia, a large, mostly uninhabited land on the southernmost part of Argentina and Chile that stretches from the prairie like grasslands of the Pampas to green and yellowish lakes to the remote snowladen peaks of the mighty Andes that stretches to Antarctica. To the child, it was a land of never before seen stories, of giant animals and long lost worlds, but he never thought about it before his monotonous work took him to Eileen Gray, the then 93 year old architect who had a map of Patagonia printed on her salon wall. There, revitalized by the nonagenarian’s inspirational words, he flew to Lima two years later on a whim, to find out what that world had to offer.
In Patagonia is a two-hundred page book filled with Chatwin’s recollection of the stories that he collected in his multiple travels. The stories, often criticized as more a figment of his own mind mixed with some truth, are disjointed, experimental, and divided into nearly a hundred chapters that range from a paragraph to two pages. The biggest flaw of the book turns out to be this: the nomadism that Chatwin so wishes to experience ends up being so evident in his writing that he ends up not building any sort of flow whatsoever. You can safely skip pages without any consequences here.
While that is my biggest gripe, there are some more glaring omissions as well. Reading through the chapters felt like Chatwin was aiming for a cheap recipe of storytelling : not investing in any characters that he met, rather swiftly browsing through their daily lives, trying to cover as much as possible. Hence we never get any ramblings of his mind, just a clean, journalism-esque reporting of incidents. This puts him in accordance to his then livelihood and hammers any prospect of getting a Borges out of his diaries.
So after trudging through halfway of this book, I am heavily inclined to abandon my journey through Bruce Chatwin’s eyes. Not like I don’t like Patagonia – I want to go there, I want to experience the lack of emotions myself, I want to feel the vastness of absolutely nothing, the fiendish preservation of culture of the people surviving there, albeit I want to take time to assimilate them all. A fast one won’t do.
Brontosaurus bones or not, the Chatwin Patagonia continues to be one of the best travelogues, popular amongst many book lovers. I agree to this: read this book as a simple travel diary – just don’t expect anything better.