Undercover: The Pleasures of Patagonia (08/10/78)

Here now, the perfect summer book: Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (Summit, 205 pp., $8.95). This is travel writing, full of intricately reconstructed tales and legends; characters appear for a few pages and then disappear as the author moves on down the trail. There’s no chance to go much beneath the surface, and the surface is shining with detail to which one cannot attach any meaning. The book offers nothing but pleasure.

Patagonia—the lower fifth of South America, most of it taken up by Argentina, the rest by Chile—is a place that everyone knows is “fascinating” even if they don’t have a very clear idea what, or where, it is. Like other geographical dead ends, it is filled with exiles and immigrants: Chatwin seems to have encountered representatives of every white nation, carefully tending their severed cultural identities at the end of the earth. Russians, Germans, Welsh, Galatians, the English, Latvians—none have roots in the land or links to each other. They are simply there, perhaps with families going back over a hundred years; the place keeps an invisible barrier between itself and those who live on it. For an American, the sense of almost recognizing what Chatwin is describing is spooky: it’s as if the United States, as a country populated by those who came from somewhere else, had never even given birth to the impulse to make itself over in an image that could be shared.

With the help of the people he meets, Chatwin traces the story of Butch Cassidy, who hid out in Patagonia and probably did not die there; describes a sect of hideous witches, “The Central Committee” (“The candidate must submerge himself in a waterfall of the Thraiguén River, to wash off the effects of his Christian baptism”); tracks down mad pretenders to nonexistent thrones; pursues the remains of the giant sloth. Mariners, ancient and fairly recent, appear again and again. Curses rise out of old crimes. Either Chatwin has been deeply influenced by South American fiction, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s hallucinatory novels are simply his version of realism: there’s much here that matches the tone of The Autumn of the Patriarch, and Chatwin’s pages on an anarchist rebellion of 1920 read like an incident straight out of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

It may be the extreme stylization of Chatwin’s prose that makes his book so accessible, and at the same time makes depth inaccessible to Chatwin: when Marquez wasn’t on my mind, I often felt I was reading outtakes from the pastoral sections of The Sun Also Rises. “He had come down to exchange a cow for groceries and stayed for the asado,” Chatwin writes. “He was awkward in company. All day he did not drink but sat by the stream, alone, picking his teeth with grass stems.” Hemingway would have omitted the commas in the last sentence, and likely taken “stems” for granted, but otherwise the imitation is perfect. It’s not a book of much emotion; Chatwin himself is only the thinnest presence. The stories, almost one to a page, are what count; you may not remember them long, but if anyone is near you as you read, you’ll find yourself pressing Chatwin’s tales on them one after the other. Such as this:

His first plan was to advertise English and American products lining the Strait of Magellan with blue and white enamel billboards. These were not principally for the benefit of steamer passengers. He intended to write illustrated articles in the international press calling the public’s attention to “the desecration of beautiful scenery by advertising fiends.”

For this scheme he did not find a backer.

Messianic Fraud and the Single Woman

Fighting Back, a novel by Ronni Sandroff (Knopf, 214 pp., $8.95). In her first book, Party Party/Girlfriends (two short novels), Sandroff showed affinities with Ann Beattie in her ability to go beneath the surface of late-Sixties and early-Seventies lifestyles; her eye for promise was as sure as her eye for betrayal. Unlike most first novelists, she had no problem getting more than one man or woman to come off the page at a time. In Fighting Back, Sandroff can’t seem to decide if she’s writing a character study of a late-Seventies single mother or a thriller about a young woman’s attempt to save herself and her daughter from a Moonie-like cult the CIA is using as a front for mind control. She doesn’t always keep her characters breathing; they have to submit to the plot, dropping complexities, reservations and desires Sandroff has given them as the pages turn. The pages do turn, though: for all its clichés, including the strong, silent, faithful lover, Fighting Back is the most convincing account of how and why a smart, rational, even political person might get caught up in messianic fraud I’ve found in recent fiction. And many books that work better do not contain a line this good: “He liked her in the morning with nothing but thirty years on her face.”

Rolling Stone, August 10, 1978

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