Books have always been a source of inspiration, information and even comfort for travellers but until now you could only pack as many books as you could comfortably carry. Luckily for us, e-readers present the perfect solution to this age-old problem and now the traveller’s only constraint is the number of decent ebooks on the market. In this blog series, Cascada scours the internet so you don’t have to, picking out and reviewing the best Patagonia-related ebooks for your trip, to help you choose which to download and which to dismiss. You won't find any guidebook reviews here, this is a space for novels, travelogues, memoirs… anything that will get you in the mood for your journey to Patagonia.
So far in this series on ebooks relating to Patagonia, we’ve reviewed Simon Worrall’s memoir The River of Desire, The Tourist Trail by John Yunker, Three Journeys to Patagonia by Nick Green, The Condor’s Feather by Margaret Muir, Patagonia – A Cultural History by Chris Moss, Enduring Patagonia by Gregory Crouch and The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. This time, we read Patagonia by Jaime Said (thanks to the publisher for a review copy), a recent attempt at a comprehensive survey of Patagonia – with unimpressive results.
Sudamericana (July, 2014)
The history of Patagonia is a dramatic account of exploration, endurance, suffering and survival, full of extraordinary characters and amazing natural settings. Covering three centuries since the Renaissance, the stories grip the imagination and invite you to explore this great virgin territory. Venice flourished through the silk and spice routes maintaining a trade monopoly. An amazing discovery made history in 1520, the Strait of Magellan in Patagonia opened the new Southern route to the Indies and the circumnavigation around the world. The trade hegemony over the Indies was fractured, thus balancing the power of commerce towards Spain. These explorations started the search for El Dorado, the golden city that tempted Europeans to explore even further the great territory of Patagonia. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was inspired in Patagonia with the analysis of its flora and fauna, including the biggest bird on earth, the condor. The discovery of the Beagle Channel by Robert Fitz Roy in 1830 was also a historical accomplishment. Previous visitors such as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Thomas Cavendish from England, sailed the Southern ocean where the Menendez family later built an empire in Punta Arenas and Tierra del Fuego.
In 1492, Columbus sighted land and “discovered” America. In 1520, Magellan became the first European to set foot on the what is now known as Patagonia. In 1584, the first settlement in Patagonia, Rey Don Felipe (later known as Port Famine), was founded, but was soon reduced to ruins by the harsh climate. For centuries, a succession of brave sailors and explorers sailed around and surveyed the Patagonian coast: Francisco de Hoces, Francis Drake, Thomas Cavendish, Juan Ladrillero, Sarmiento de Gamboa, Issac Le Maire, but none dared to venture very deep into that unknown land, let alone build a permanent colony there. Only in 1848, more than 400 years after Columbus arrived, was the town of Punta Arenas founded in Chilean Patagonia. The taming of Patagonia, from discovery to exploration to settlement, was a long, difficult process.
Patagonia, by Jaime Said, purports to give us not only a picture of this process, but also an account of Patagonia’s pre-history, geography, flora and fauna and other subjects of intellectual interest. The title, consisting solely of that magic word which names the promised land, surely intends to convey something of the breadth envisioned in this project. However, like the generations of early explorers sailing up and down, back and forth along the Patagonian coast, Said never seems to get round to Patagonia itself. If Patagonia is a literary space created by the body of explorers’ reports, histories and travelogues accumulated through the ages, then the reader of Patagonia can only view it from afar on the ship’s deck through a blurry telescope.
The book is unsatisfactory for many reasons. First, the organisation of material is woeful. Often, there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to why a paragraph appears under a certain heading, and then that heading as part of a certain chapter. For instance, under the heading of “The first explorations via land routes”, we are told that Spain divided South America into four zones, but save a bare statement that “Charles V began to send missions charged with exploring and establishing settlements inland”, no mention is made of any particular expedition. Another passage that concerns the geography of Chilean Patagonia puzzlingly appears in a chapter titled “Mapping the World”, where one would expect a discussion of the challenges faced by early cartographers. Although Said writes for a few paragraphs about the mistaken conception cartographers had about the world, he jumps to giving a detailed description of Western Patagonia. And then the chapter ends abruptly. What is the relation between that and the history of cartography? And if he talks about Western Patagonia, why doesn’t he do the same for Eastern Patagonia? These questions don’t seem to trouble the author, as this type of inexplicable shifts and mismatches of content abound in the book.
But where is Patagonia?
A more serious problem is that the bulk of Patagonia isn’t about Patagonia at all. I’ve already alluded to the impression that Said’s book merely lingers on the periphery of Patagonia but never comes to grips with Patagonia itself. He expounds page after page on, for example, British maritime supremacy, the decline of Spanish power in Europe, the impact of the Industrial Revolution etc. Tenuous links are sometimes drawn between these European themes with Patagonia. But Said’s account of European history is too general, little more than a rehearsal of common platitudes about the rise and fall of naval powers, not to mention that much of it is told in jumbled, confusing narratives. There is precious little of Said’s own insights or any attempt of providing a unifying vision on the history of Patagonia through an understanding of European history. In a book explicitly titled ‘Patagonia’, Said’s suffers from a baffling fixation on Europe, so much so that in many places it becomes repetitive. I’ve lost count of how many times Said reminds the reader of what happened in the Spanish Conquest. Yes, the need for a new trade route to Asia is what spurred the Spanish and Portuguese on a frenzy of exploration at sea, and that led to the discovery of Patagonia. But Said fails to throw any new light on Patagonia by repeating this familiar story. It is a background fact that deserves to be mentioned, but the reader is reasonably expecting a more detailed focus on Patagonia once the stage has been set. Instead, the same stage is set multiple times in a trying test of the reader's patience.
The conquistador of Mexico is mentioned several times, but the author doesn't tell us what he has to do with Patagonia.
An illuminating study of Patagonian culture and history is what Said consistently fails to deliver. To take one example, anyone who has been to Patagonia has spotted burnt tree trunks everywhere, the remains of a big fire that raged on for years in the last century. This is an under-documented subject that Said would have done well to delve deeper into. Unfortunately, it is not even mentioned. General Roca’s Desert Campaign and its aftermath is another important subject which should be explored in depth, but it receives a disappointing treatment, nothing more than a glancing look. Said attempts no profound analysis of historical causes for crucial events such as German immigration or Jesuit evangelizing activities. In general, where the book finally leaves Europe and gets round to Patagonia, it is utterly superficial, and unforgivably so, given that many of the pages have already been wasted on orthogonal European matters.
The Argentine Conquest of the Desert: One of the many important topics given a passing treatment in Said's book
Said claims that the book is the culmination of six years’ work. All the more troubling then, is the presence of factual errors in its passages. Said claims that Alexander von Humboldt resided in Venezuela from 1807, and subsequently in Chile, where he studied the Humboldt current of the Pacific. However, I could find no other source that supports these claims. As far as I know, Humboldt’s travels in Latin America took him as far as Lima, but he has never been in present-day Chile. How such an egregious error creeped into a book published by an imprint of Penguin Random House is beyond me.
A map of Humboldt's journey (by Alexander Karnstedt)
Patagonia is a total disappointment by all measures. While a quick flip through it gives a promising impression, the work proves to be of little value, beyond the handful of pleasing illustrations and the dropping of important names. The book talks too little about Patagonia, and when it does so, deals with the subject in a hopelessly shallow manner. It is badly edited, with perhaps a third being irrelevant or repetitive material. Besides, the writing is as dry as Argentine Patagonia. Diffuse, schematic and inaccurate, if you’re looking for a way into the study of Patagonian geography, culture and history, Patagonia will probably be as useful to you as Pigafetta’s map would be to a modern sailor.
As useful as Pigafetta's map
Once in a while we come across a book that falls short of our expectations. Do you know of any books that give a good overview of Patagonia's geography, wildlife, culture or history? Tell us about it by leaving a comment below.