I thought about giving Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia a proper review — oh, not really, I never review things properly, but I mean as proper as I get — but I just don’t have the energy or interest in it. I didn’t like the book very much. I found myself bored with it, and I only finished it because I’m obsessive that way and it was short, only 200 quick pages.
I think my problem with the book is that I never learned much about Chatwin himself, or his persona, to be more accurate about it. The book’s focus is not on the traveler, but on the people he meets, the places he sees, the stories he comes across, and the history of the land he travels over. Now those things shouldn’t be boring, should they? But I found myself not caring much. The stories he told tended to be short ones, and they tended to focus on externals — what people did and what they looked like. Without some attention paid to internal things — emotions, thoughts — I remain unconnected.
It’s curious that I wouldn’t like this classic of travel literature, since the scholarly work I’ve done is on travel writing. But here’s the thing — I’ve studied “sentimental” travel, meaning travel writing that focuses on emotions and on internal states (see Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey for a prime example). In a way, this is an odd type of travel writing, since one would think the genre is valuable because of what it can tell us about the world, not so much because of what it tells about the traveler (although of course it does both). But, although I like reading about the world, I want to know about the traveler too, or if not the traveler, then I want to know about the people that traveler meets, and I want to know not just brief summaries of their lives, but something about who they are and why they are the way they are. If there’s no emotional element or if there are no ideas, then I’m left cold.
And In Patagonia didn’t have anything in the way of emotions and not much in the way of ideas either. It had a lot of cool facts and some interesting speculations about things like the inspiration of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the Patagonian sources of Darwin’s theories. But this wasn’t enough.
This is not to say that you won’t like the book. You may love it; it’s probably a great book for people who like this kind of book — and I don’t mean to sound judgmental when I say that. In some cases when I don’t like books it’s because I think they are genuinely bad, but in this case, it’s simply that this was not the book for me.