“Chile – Travels in a thin country”, by Sara Wheeler, Abacus


Having spent most of my reading time engrossed in travel literature I think I’m now adequately equipped to put together a brief phenomonology of the writer of this genre that I so much adore. Let’s assume to have a chart, with the classical X and Y axis. Let’s now assume that one of them plots the degree of preparation made before a trip, from 0 to maniacal level of German planning, whilst the other one marks the truthfulness of the experiences, from absolutely true to prettu much invented, written in the book, or article, or blog post.

On a so-arranged chart we’d have, in my opinion, your average magazine article in the top right-hand corner (maximum bullshitness and preparation). Bruce Chatwin – and I know I’m being controversial – would be a tad low on preparation, but still quite high on inventing stuff (am I the only one thinking “In Patagonia” as having a good % of fiction?). Sara Wheeler, instead, is in the top left hand side of our chart, with great deal of preparation and an attitude for sticking to the facts, or at least this seems to me.

In “Travels in a thin country” Sara sets the record straight, despite the publisher’s blurb trying to sell it as a chronicle of an impromptu voyage: she decides to go to Chile on an assignment and, basically, does her homework. Gets in touch with local contacts, uses the echelons of British influence in the country, befriends local heavyweights – such as the ubiquitous Mr Fixit – and prepares a sort of a plan, travelling the country from north to south, from the deserts on the Peruvian desert to the Anctartic peninsula, considered by many as part of Chile itself.

Yet, this is not a guide. Guides are usually thicker, and are usually labeled as such; this is, instead, a chronicle of months spent on the road, knowing Chile and its inhabitants. I’ve loved the two other books I read from Sara, describing her time around both Poles, and was very much worried at the beginning of this one, which starts with her being met by the local British Council officials, to be whisked away to a 13th-floor-penthouse cum cleaner and panoramic views over Santiago. Had Sara Wheeler, whose love of books and sleeping in igloos I so appreciated, turned posh?

Well, she hadn’t. True indeed, throughout the trip she relied on wealthy supporters (but, honestly, who wouldn’t given the chance?) but was also happy to trade feudal-like haciendas for the slums, the penthouse for kinky hotels and guesthouses of the worst grades.

What this holistic approach allowed is for the most comprehensive, complete and rounded piece of travel literature I’ve ever read about a country. I’ve had a thing about Chile for a while (it’s hard not develop an interest for a place with such an odd shape, isn’t it?) and therefore spent quite a long time studying it and I have to say that, as I turned the last of the 300-pages, she had written about every single place I wished she visited.

And don’t be fooled into thinking that it’d be a tedious, I-know-it-all kind of reading, not at all. Travels in a Thin Country feels like a travelogue, the transcript of Sara’s memories, feelings and thoughts as she crosses the 6000 kms that make Chile. It is thoughtful but not paternalistic when she faces the plight of ethnic minorities both in the deep south and remote north, nostalgic when remembering the good encounters made along the road with other travellers and peppered with undeniably funny, typically British, comments.

I also appreciated the finesse with which the Pinochet legacy had been treated; the first edition was printed out as the former dictator had only recently abdicated from power, with the scars from two decades of oppression still very well visible. She left England full of Guardian-approved Socialist reprobation for the man, obligingly dedicating lenghty paragraphs to the memory of Salvador Allende and of Pablo Neruda. But then, as she travelled the country, she started being aware of the multiple shades of gray that enriched what she previously believed was a quite black and white picture. Pinochet the murderer and the oppressor, but also the economic saviour of a country on the brink of collapse. Pinochet the enemy of the left, but also the cha,pion of large swathes of population. The truth is, then, that Sara’s Chile was going through a peculiar approach to dealing with its past and the best thing that she did was, in my opinion, to embrace it and flow with it.

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