Wednesday, April 8, 2009

From the Shelves of the Paco Library

Patagonia is a region that encompasses the long tail of South America, and was considered by early European explorers to be a fabulous land of giants, cannibals and monsters. It extends from the bitter-cold wilderness of Tierra del Fuego, up the eastern side of the Andean cordillera in Chile to the grasslands of the pampas (where the cattle industry once made Argentina the sixth wealthiest country in the world). A forbidding country of extremes in weather and geography, Patagonia naturally appealed to people from around the world who sought a new start or anonymity or simply isolation.

The late Bruce Chatwin produced an intriguingly impressionistic book titled In Patagonia, which portrays the austere charm of the region, as well as depicting the personal histories of many of the quirky individuals who either made their homes there or stayed long enough to make their mark. Certainly not the least interesting characters described in the book are the famous American desperadoes, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (born, respectively, Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Longabaugh), and their female accomplice, Etta Place. The final end of Cassidy and the Kid is still wrapped in mystery (the popular movie treatment notwithstanding). Here is Chatwin on the subject:

“The classic account of their death, at San Vicente, Bolivia, in December 1909, following their theft of a mine payroll, was first set down in Elk’s Magazine for 1930 by the Western poet, Arthur Chapman. It was an ideal scenario for the movie-makers; the brave cavalry captain shot while trying to arrest the gringos; the mud-walled courtyard full of dead mules; the impossible odds; the Kid first wounded, then shot through the head by Butch, who, having now killed a man, reserves the last bullet for himself. The episode ends with the Bolivian soldiers finding Etta’s Tiffany watch on one of the bodies.”

And the verdict of later Bolivian investigators and the Pinkertons? “[T]he whole thing was a fabrication.” Cassidy may have invented the story himself; “[h]is aim, after all, was to ‘die’ in South America and re-emerge under a new name.” Chatwin continues: “I went to see the star witness to his return; his sister, Mrs. Lula Parker Betenson, a forthright and energetic woman in her nineties…She has no doubts; her brother came back and ate blueberry pie with the family at Circleville in the fall of 1925. She believes he died of pneumonia in Washington state in the late 1930’s.”

The book includes descriptions of historical events based on interviews with priests, Indians, and ranchers, fascinating entries culled from the diaries of 19th-century sailors, recollections by old-timers of anarchist rebellions and union strikes, and toward the end, this haunting meditation on a Nazi war criminal:

“There is a man in Punta Arenas, dreams pine forests, hums Lieder, wakes each morning and sees the black strait. He drives to a factory that smells of the sea. All about him are scarlet crabs, crawling, then steaming. He hears the shells crack and the claws breaking, sees the sweet white flesh packed firm in metal cans. He is an efficient man, with some previous experience of the production line. Does he remember that other smell, of burning? And that other sound, of low voices singing? And the piles of hair cast away as the claws of crabs?

Herman Rauff is credited with the invention and administration of the Mobile Gas Oven.”

Chatwin possessed the enviable skill of collecting and synthesizing information from a vast array of sources and giving voice to both past and contemporary generations – a talent which contributed substantially to his success as a literary travel-writer.

An interesting companion piece to In Patagonia is the small (62 pages) volume, Patagonia Revisited, co-authored by Chatwin and Paul Theroux, which contains additional recollections and historical anecdotes of this exotic land.

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