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  • Imagining the Atacama Desert: A Five-Hundred-Year Journey of Discovery by Richard V. Francaviglia
  • Joseph L. Scarpaci
Imagining the Atacama Desert: A Five-Hundred-Year Journey of Discovery. Richard V. Francaviglia. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2018. Pp. xviii+ 435, color photographs, color maps, notes. $29.95, cloth, ISBN 978-1-60781-610-2.

This book "analyzes maps and written narratives to demonstrate how the Atacama was discovered, and then rediscovered, over five centuries." Its premise "is that time and place—which is to say history and geography—are inseparable" (xvi). Richard V. Francaviglia brings to bear his training at the "UC Berkeley north" (University of Oregon) (361), decades of work in museums and cartography, and published works on arid lands. His training in art and geography is evident in the six chapters, which loosely parallel an overview of the place's aesthetic features, early conquest, science and industry, exceptionalism, and muddy- boots- beget- knowledge tales.

Cultural geographers will recognize this Sauerian historicalgeographic approach. Although Sauer's classic essay on the personalities of Mexico is cited, alas, it is introduced only a few pages from the book's end. "As I continued to write this book and recognize I was unusual as an American geographer studying the Atacama broadly, I took some solace in realizing that geography has always [emphasis original] been an interdisciplinary endeavor. Some old-school geographers may stubbornly claim to be the real [emphasis added] geographers, but this type of inquiry is boundless, and like the polymath Alexander von Humboldt himself that each discipline claims, really belongs to us all" (361). Sauer's thesis that the Mexican desert north was more adventurous than the staider colonial south may correlate to northern versus central and southern Chile. Had that argument been set up in the introductory chapter, we would have had a more tightly packaged work. While I agree that "Carl Sauer's essay on the personality of Mexico, and for that matter Isaiah Bowman's Desert Trails of the Atacama, represent a time when geographers' abilities at generalization were not only well honed but highly respected, both within and outside the discipline" (361–62), the method, structure, and conclusions of this book are significantly different. The only passing reference to "imagining" in a theoretical sense is Edward Said's concept of Orientalism (222). This book draws heavily on the exploration and documentation by the German-Chilean Rudolph Philipi and the interesting relationship Philipi had with a [End Page 241] German cartographer who never set foot in Chile. The reading is best when the author is retracing (reimagining) what geographers Isaiah Bowman and William Rudolph wrote a century earlier.

Imagining shows us that promoting economic prosperity in the parched Atacama was driven by mining and tourism. The author's review of more than four hundred postcards printed a hundred years ago failed to reveal a single arid landscape. Instead, the colorized cards underscored urban settings: tranquil plazas, prosperous factories, inviting street scenes, and beautifully ornate homes. Rarely will geographers find a richer use of the archival resources from the American Geographical Society's library in Milwaukee. Creatively, the author shows that the buried bodies of the Pinochet military regime (1973–1990) reflect how the desert preserves human remains and artifacts that span the pre-Columbian to modern eras. Welcome here too is how the literary works of Gabriela Mistral, Isabel Allende, Lake Sagaris, Paula Allen, and others give texture to the arid landscape and its green valleys. Francaviglia's singular contribution to the realm of arid studies may be his creation of the word and notion desiertismo [desertism]: a reference to all things pertinent to hyper-arid landscapes (339). Still, some ideas are not fleshed out. For example, when the author writes that "women … are among the modern-day discoverers of the Atacama. Their works underscore this desert's importance in the prospective cathartic role for Chileans hoping to move beyond an era of genocide that refuses to stay buried" (324), the thought ends there; no paragraph or insightful references wrap up this statement.

High-gloss paper and clear black-and-white and color photographs extend a rich, coffee-table feel to the...


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