Forgetting Chatwin?

Forgetting Chatwin?

Nia Davies recounts the voyage in translation of poets from Wales, Argentina and Chile across the Andes in August/September 2013. To view the photographs accompanying this article click on the galleries at the bottom or click here.

On the 26th of August, a group of writers from Wales - Tiffany Atkinson, Richard Gwyn, Mererid Hopwood and Karen Owen, and myself traveling on behalf of Wales Literature Exchange - arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We were met by our host Argentinian poet, translator and critic, Jorge Fondebrider, and the short story writer and translator, Inès Garland. It was the start of an unforgettable and considerably epic journey, around 2000 kilometres of it overland, across Patagonia and the Andes.

The journey was entitled Forgetting Chatwin and was led by Jorge Fondebrider as part of the Writers' Chain Wales-Latin America project developed by Wales Literature Exchange. Chatwin’s book On Patagonia is still the go-to book about the region in Britain and other parts of the literary English-reading world. But according to many it is riddled with inaccuracies, hastily-made impressions and fictional Patagonian people. We know when we pick up the book that it’s a work of literature, and we might remember that a writer is partial and imaginative. But if we never read another book about Patagonia what is lost? What is Patagonia? We were about to find out and to have our literary preconceptions of the people and place reformed.

Buenos Aires

We arrived to a seasonal shift - the end of our summer is the end of the Latin American winter. Immediately we set off walking and explored the markets, bookshops and tango venues of the city. Along with Jorge Fondebrider and Inès Garland, we also met Silvia Camerotto and Jorge Aulicino, writers with whom the Welsh participants had been exchanging translations with prior to departure.

In Buenos Aires the poets read from their work and talked about writing in Wales in Welsh and English at the Centro Cultural España Buenos Aires. The following night, Richard Gwyn and Tiffany Atkinson launched new Spanish translations of their books at Eterna Cadencia bookshop in Palermo with publisher Gog y Magog.

From Buenos Aires we took a flight to Puerto Madryn. As our plane came in to land it pitched and swayed in the strong Patagonian wind and we got our first glimpse of the sparse land. Emerging onto the Patagonian soil we felt that wind in our faces and hair - those gusts that scrape the earth, whipping up striking white clouds in a huge blue sky.

Eastern Patagonia

At my first encounter with Patagonia I thought of how the Welsh settlers disembarking from the Mimosa must have felt in July 1855. The dry, treeless land was not what they had been led to expect when they signed up to a life-changing decampment to the far side of the world. Later that day Fernando from the Museum of Disembarcation showed us the shallow niches in the rocks, caves where the settlers constructed tents and lived in their first few weeks in Patagonia. Marina Kohon - a poet from Bahia Blanca in the northern part of Patagonia who joined us in Puerto Madryn - remarked on what many of us were thinking: those first weeks and years of life in Patagonia must have been extremely hard. It was a struggle to make Y Wladfa work.

Later we were to see how the initial determination and struggle of the Welsh to live their lives as they wanted to had developed into the present day in the schools, chapels, community centres and halls of Puerto Madryn, Trelew, Gaiman and across the ‘Paith’ - the Patagonian plains and desert - to Trevelin and Esquel.

We visited a bilingual school - Ysgol yr Hendre - where Welsh-language poets Karen Owen and Mererid Hopwood ran a surprise poetry workshop for one of the classes. You can listen to the cynghanedd they wrote together here. Everywhere we went poetry was celebrated - recited, created and sung.

In thanks to our host in Welsh Patagonia, Luned Gonzales, Karen Owen and Mererid Hopwood wrote a cywydd in the backseat of Chilean poet Verónica Zondek’s car (where we were to spend a lot more time in the coming journey). You can read it here on the Cynghanedd website. In Gaiman the poem was presented to Luned Gonzales and we were shown around the village, its museum and given a thoroughly warm welcome. Gaiman has a blend of Welsh, Argentine and ‘frontier’ aesthetics. It was interesting to hear that the village is growing - people want to live here and many who come build their own houses. Gaiman is becoming a town.

After another trilingual poetry reading in Puerto Madryn, the writers embarked on the epic journey along the Rio Chubut across what is known to many as the Paith - a stretch of sparsely inhabited but spectacular land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Andes.

In the village of Las Plumas (Dôl y Plu) - a small collection of houses, a petrol station and a cafe on the banks of the Rio Chubut - we had to wait whilst the drivers fixed a puncture. If you’re driving across the quiet Patagonian continent you must be self-sufficient as you might not see another car for a whole day. Locals who do pass by tend to be extra helpful if you get into a scrape. Thanks to farmer Rodolfo who gave some of us a lift to Las Plumas (50km away from the scene of the puncture). You can read more about this incident in one of Richard Gwyn’s blogs.

Cwm Hyfryd at the foot of the Andes

We arrived in Cwm Hyfryd, the ‘pleasant valley’ - a green and fertile spot at the foot of the Andes at midnight. Trevelin is surrounded by mountains and bordered by Los Alerces national park. Here we met Snr Muñoz, a Goucho tending his sheep. And at the reading held that evening it was heartening to find young people in Trevelin enthusiastically celebrating the Welsh language and culture.

Back on the road the next day we headed for the town of Bariloche in the foothills of the Andes. As well as co-ordinator Jorge Fondebrider we travelled with Verónica Zondek - Chilean poet and long-distance driver, and poet, translator and journalist Jorge Aulicino.

Our other driver was Hans Schulz, an anthropologist, columnist and expert on the cultural history of the region. Along the way he shared some of his knowledge of the many different cultures of Patagonia - the people who travelled and settled who are still trying to find ways of coexisting together. Bariloche is Hans’s hometown and a centre of German and Central European Argentinian culture. It is also home to the beautiful Hotel Llao Llao where we were lucky enough to be staying. Here we had one of our most scenic readings - in a room overlooking lake Nahuel Wuappi. The hotel kindly hosted us in its lap of luxury and we were loathe to leave the next day. But we were also excited to be heading to Chile - over the Andes range, through the border pass to Valdivia, Veronica’s home city. The rain had begun in Bariloche and didn’t leave us for several days.


On entering the Chilean part of Patagonia we noticed immediately the difference in landscape, architecture and flora and fauna. In fact on first glimpse it looked rather like Wales... until that is, you looked a little closer at the details - birds, faces, wooden houses, trees. And yes even the rain was different. On arrival we held more readings and talks.

A highlight of our stay in Chile was a conversation at the Anthropological museum between Mererid Hopwood and Mapuche poet and translator Victor Cifuentes on how language and thought are linked and how smaller languages and cultures survive when they are dominated by larger ones.

The sun came out on our last day and we explored Valdivia - a town of dog lovers, students, political resistance, sea lions at the fish market, ship building and greenery.    

We had crossed from Atlantic to Pacific and met people and cultures mixing Welsh, English, Argentine, Chilean, Mapuche, German, Jewish and other identities. There had been several wide-ranging conversations, exchange of ideas and opinions and poems translated.  In Valdivia we felt a strong culmination of experiences, impressions, conversations and questions encountered at each stage of the journey. We’d been made to think about how cultures interact and coexist and about the friction and fruitful exchange that takes place not only between centralised and peripheral cultures but also between unified or fragmented senses of ‘nation’, between urban and rural and European and American paradigms.

Running counter to these questions was also the temptation to reject identity politics altogether, to remember that it’s an accident where we are born. Identity is our inherited culture, but it’s also what we make of ourselves, what we read, where we travel, the languages we know and so on.

The Mapuche and the Telhueche 

And yet one fact remained difficult to ignore: if your language, and with it your culture, is being erased by globalisation or violent domination, the loss is huge and irrevocable. The Mapuche people, the original inhabitants of Patagonia, along with the Telhueche and other groups, are fighting to stop the land and culture/language loss that impoverishes them physically and spiritually. Whilst we were in Valdivia, Mapuche activists bombed the Chilean consulate in Bariloche - which was empty of people at the time. We remembered the bombing of empty holiday cottages in Wales and were made to think: what is the ‘right’ way to defend cultures on the brink? Through pacifism or more direct or even violent action?

And how far should a country go in compensating for its past violence to minorities? The 40th anniversary of the military coup in Chile was approaching and the question of how a nation remembers dark periods of its history was on everyone’s minds. How should history be told and remembered? Were the Argentine government right to take down the statue of Christopher Columbus in Buenos Aires recently? Is it correct, as we are taught in Wales, that the Welsh and Indian communities lived and traded together respectfully at the start of Y Wladfa? Where does that leave the two communities today? If culture is made up of stories, writing them is subject to all kinds of agendas and misinformation. A writer’s freedom is to present, interpret and do whatever feels right to make an exciting and thought-provoking text but they also have a certain responsibility in how they present their fellow human beings to the rest of the world.

Which leads us finally back to Chatwin. Instead of forgetting Chatwin entirely, perhaps we can add his view to the many others. The writers on this translation journey now have ideas, impressions, people, questions and landscapes in their minds. I’m looking forward to seeing whether Chatwin is forgotten and how the next chapter of Patagonia will be written, both by Welsh writers, Latin American and Welsh-Patagonian writers.

Nia Davies

Forgetting Chatwin was part of Writers’ Chain Wales-Latin America, a co-operation between Wales Literature Exchange and the Club de Traductores Literarios de Buenos with support from Wales Arts International, Centro Cultural España Buenos Aires, City Government of Buenos Aires, City Government of Bariloche and Valdivia, Province of Chubut, Hotel Llao Llao and Universidad Austral de Chile.

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