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Comparative Literature Studies 43.1-2 (2006) 57-78

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Luis Sepúlveda, Bruce Chatwin and the Global Travel Writing Circuit1

University College London

In a 1993 interview with Andrew Graham-Yooll, the Chilean author Luis Sepúlveda heralded the advent of his forthcoming publications and new literary projects. In the wake of the success of previous work such as Un viejo que leía novelas de amor (The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, 1989), his first, perhaps best known novel, and Mundo del fin del mundo (World at the End of the World, 1991), Sepúlveda announced what he called "a rather rumbustious project" which, he claimed, "was to be written jointly with the English author Bruce Chatwin." In the interview, Sepúlveda recalled how "[w]e met and went to Patagonia together. It was [Bruce's] second visit, after he had published In Patagonia. We wanted to write a four-handed story about the last two days in the life of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The novel will be called Two Gringos.2 " While the story of a joint sojourn to Patagonia may be apocryphal, Sepúlveda did publish a book about a journey to the region which famously, for Paul Theroux, is the ultimate nowhere place.3 Rather than a novel, however, Sepúlveda went on to write Patagonia Express, a travelogue which relates in part the author's return to a Chile from which he had been exiled for many years and in the course of which he repeatedly invokes the memory of Chatwin and his 1997 book In Patagonia. Published in Spanish in 1995, Sepúlveda's book was translated the following year into English as Full Circle: A South American Journey. Tracing the footsteps of itinerant precursors is a commonplace of contemporary travel writing: indeed, as a number of scholars have pointed out, the experience of travel itself is fundamentally intertextual.4 Chatwin's In Patagonia is especially significant in this regard, not only in terms of its own pervasive citation of other works of travel literature but also in the sense that it in turn has become, in the words of Daniel Buck, "the most widely read work about [End Page 57] South America's bright-skied south."5 It is within this intertextual context that I shall frame the first part of my discussion in this article, in order to map out the apparently anomalous yet heterogeneous correspondences between the two chronicles of journeys to the region by the English aesthete and nomad and the former Chilean political activist. In doing so I want to explore the somewhat overlooked "Chilean" travelogue rather than dwell in much length on the already well-documented subject of Bruce Chatwin's work.6 In effect, I aim to reveal how a reading of Patagonia Express through its intertext can shed light on a number of wider issues (some of them profoundly problematic), which pertain to processes of modernization and globalization. Therefore, a second matter that I shall explore in this essay regards a reading of Sepúlveda and his book within this broader context: as narratives (both biographical and "literary") that not only engage but are also bound up in a global travel network.

First, a word about Luis Sepúlveda and his own journeys is in order. In Chile, Sepúlveda worked as a theatre director, writer and was also active for many years in the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende. When it fell in the military coup of 1973 led by General Augusto Pinochet, Sepúlveda was sent to prison for twenty eight years, a sentence which was quashed in 1976 thanks to a successful campaign for his release on an expatriation clause by the German section of Amnesty International. Initially reluctant to go to Europe (and follow in the footsteps of many other political exiles from the Southern Cone in this period), Sepúlveda subsequently spent some years "travelling" around Latin America. After becoming involved in and imprisoned for further left-wing activism in Nicaragua...


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