Category Archives: South America

Travel Classics 3: V. S. Naipaul

Caribbean storm

Caribbean storm

Destination: Caribbean and British Guiana

Book: The Middle Passage by V. S. Naipaul

Quotable Thursday quote: I’m the kind of writer that people think other people are reading. V. S. Naipaul

The question is, if a man writes well, does it matter what kind of human being he is?

I delayed reading V. S. Naipaul because although he is always listed as one of the great travel writers, excerpts indicated that he is of that school that dwells on the negative wherever he goes.  ( I learned after I read the book, that he is an abuser of women and a racist.)

How, I wondered, could Naipaul be so revered as a writer if his travel writing consistently discouraged going to the places he explored? In order to find my own answer, I would have to read his work.

I bought two books, The Middle Passage (1962), his first travel book, and An Area of Darkness (1964) which relates to his first journey to India. In an introduction to the edition I read,  he introduces The Middle Passage as his first travel book, but it was not his first published work. He had already gained a reputation as a writer of fiction by 1962. I unwittingly picked up the two books which drew the most criticism to Naipaul as non-sympathetic to third-world countries.

For those who want to know more about the man behind the writing, Paul Theroux, former friend turned caustic truth-teller,wrote Sir Vidia’s Shadow in 1998. An authorized biography by Patrick French, The World Is What It Is, was published in 2008 and is no less disturbing, according to Theroux himself in this lengthy piece .

In The Middle Passage, Naipaul writes with the observant eye of a sociologist or anthropologist, but without the scientific detachment. The title refers to the route taken by slave ships between Africa and the Caribbean, and tips off his focus in the book.  His visit to Trinidad (where he grew up), British Guiana, Suriname, Martinique and Jamaica constantly circles back to race relations. Allegedly, he is comparing the effect of colonizers from Britain, France and Holland on the West Indies and the northern edge of South America. In fact, he pretty much lumps the colonizers together and lines up with them.

Although he refers to his family history–India to Trinidad to England–he does not openly acknowledge the personal prejudice this brings to his observations.  In each society he mocks the people in power, but lives with them and complains about hardship, while he claims to be wanting to find out about those on the bottom rung and wondering aloud why they don’t feel more pride.  He seeks out connections to slavery and racial division wherever he goes.

The cynicism wears thin, and yet–a big fat “yet”–I don’t believe I have ever read anyone who could as deftly bring to life a character and a setting.  I could see the buildings, rooms, and people he described.

With his pompous air of superiority, Naipaul is not a person I would want to dwell with on a desert island . (Particularly after reading about the way he has treated the women in his life.) However, that biting intelligence and felicity of expression would make for an interesting dinner party.

And, oh, yes, I am going to read the second book.

Now please let me know if the kind of person an author is in “real life” affects your enjoyment of his or her work? Would you rather just not know? Or do you think it is important to know something of the life of the author in order to understand the work?  Let’s have some exchange of views on this. I know you have an opinion.

Photograph by Vera Marie Badertscher. All rights reserved.

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Filed under Books, Caribbean, Destinations, South America

Travel Classic Two: Bruce Chatwin

Cerro Tennerife Patagonia

Cerro Tennerife Patagonia

Destination: Chile and Argentina, South America

Book: In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

Bruce Chatwin uses one of the most engaging opening lines found in travel literature, or any other kind of literature, for that matter, to start In Patagonia (1977).

The classic of travel books begins , “In my grandmother’s dining room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in the cabinet a piece of skin.”

When he asked about the strange object, he was told it was a brontosaurus that had lived in Patagonia in South America, “at the far end of the world.”  The hairy piece of skin becomes what Alfred Hitchcock called “the Magilla”–the object around which the drama builds. As he searches for the true story of the piece of skin, Chatwin develops a fascination for Patagonia which inevitably leads him to the far end of the world.

Chatwin tells stories in every paragraph, practically in every sentence.  He has the gift of looking at things in a skewed fashion and seeing them in completely new ways. “About fifty million years ago, when continents were wandering about…” he says. He leaves a museum, “reeling under the blows of Linnaean Latin.”

As he works his way south through Argentina and Chile, Chatwin meets with many people whose stories surprise and entertain the reader.  He also tells anecdotes about people who were once here, from Butch Cassidy and his gang to Darwin and his gang. Even Edgar Allen Poe plays a bit part in a story about the real life origins of his story Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. It is surprising the far-reaching impact of this remote place. But particularly, he is interested in the story of Charley Milward, a distant relative who found that piece of skin that was unfortuitously discarded, and of course must be rediscovered–or at least replaced.

Sometimes the journey, mostly on foot and hitch hiking on various decrepit vehicles, is very difficult. Sometimes it is very dangerous, as when a drunken sheepherder plays with his knife and wonders aloud what it would do the a gringo.  But regardless of whether you have the stamina to follow his route on the ground (and numerous travel agents stand ready to help you these days), In Patagonia provides a grand tour to take through reading a great piece of travel literature.

Photo by “Florasol” from Flickr, under Creative Commons License

Have you read it? Are you two for two this week? Or are you making a list? Share, please, we’re dying to know.

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Filed under Argentina, Books, Chile, South America