Vote It Up: Book Blip

May 3, 2010

Exile in Mylodon-ville

Bruce Chatwin is a curious writer.  Or at least, was.  He died in 1989.  In Patagonia is a strange quest, a weird Goethe journey in which Chatwin's inspiration is a piece of Mylodon (or Giant Sloth) skin rather than a cookie.  The skin belonged to his grandmother and most likely was a (again, strange) wedding gift from a compulsive explorer named Charley Milward.  Chatwin travels to and throughout the Patagonian pampas, ostensibly to replace the Mylondon skin that he recalls from childhood hanging behind a glass cabinet.  Along the way, we meet outcast after outcast - somber residents and international transplants, who fill in the stories of the region, including a long section on Charley Milward.  The book is arranged in micro chapters, usually 1-4 pages at the most. Some link together to tell a complete story while some are simply vignettes or descriptions.  I enjoy non-linear narratives, but In Patagonia had my ADD brain completely unsettled.  I referred to the map of the region located at the frontispiece of the book, but other than that I had no key for the untranslated Spanish and no historical context for the tales of revolution and massacre.  But in spite of my ignorance of the region, both culturally and geographically, I did understand that humankind is dastardly; no matter where we live or during which century, people have mistreated people for the sake of money and power.  Corruption is universal.

Chatwin doesn't address his personal quest for the Mylondon skin until the final chapters.  It seems so beside-the-point of his journey.  Perhaps, he originally went looking for the skin and was surprised by what more there was to discover about the land and the people.  Perhaps the piece of skin was a hook to draw in the reader (who wouldn't be interested in a prehistoric mammal that might still be living in the 20th century?).  In the introduction to the book, biographer Nicholas Shakespeare (not making that up) suggests that Chatwin was contemplating the theme of exile.

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