Sara Wheeler: Travels in a Thin Country

August 25, 2022

     On a map, Chile does look weird, so long and narrow a country, stretching through desert almost to the Antarctic. And, for those of us of a certain generation, there are the memories of Augusto Pinochet, one of the vilest men on the planet in his day, murdering and torturing in the name of the free market and anti-communism. So I was drawn to what purported to be travels through that country, perhaps in the same way that the writer was. She certainly seems to have had a good time; me not so much. And let’s get my usual gripe out of the way at the start: poor maps. And sizeable sections of the country do not seem to feature in her travelogue at all…

Wheeler exemplifies the issues I have with recent and contemporary travellers: how is it different from tourism – not a lot – and what sort of a picture can they convey of a country? This book is so self-focused it’s hard to put together a real, continuous picture of Chile, although glimpses do emerge from time to time. She is political, and there are regular reminders of the awfulness of the Pinochet era and its effects on the nation and its people, as well as the engineering of that dictatorship by the USA; such things must not be forgotten. I still cannot bring myself to re-read Isabel Allende’s novel The House of the Spirits

Wheeler’s account of the Atacama desert, which I was really looking forward to, disappoints. It’s the driest place on the planet and a world centre for astronomy because of its clear skies; it’s a good job I knew that before I read this book. In the end there is a lack of coherent context and background to this picture of Chile; a mishmash of brief nuggets and throwaway references does not suffice, in my opinion. The writer came across as very lucky or privileged to be able to travel freely and widely, with nary a problem or a difficulty, and friends aplenty to jet in and join her whenever she was bored or needed company. I tired of the drinking exploits, too.

So, I felt very deceived by the time I got to the end of this; I was tempted to give up several times. Here was a wealthy and privileged Western tourist gadding about and having a good time, getting a few exotic places ticked off the list. I learned very little about Chile, really; I did have my prejudices about modern travel writing confirmed…

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