In his late 70s, Jorge Luis Borges had the bizarre experience of being read to by an English schoolboy who approached him, initially, for a poem to print in a school magazine. I was 15 when I first climbed the staircase to his drawing room in Avenida Maipu: a small, dark room with a glass-fronted cabinet in which he stored his most prized texts and from which, according to his instructions, I picked out a pocket Clarendon edition of Kipling‘s poetry. That morning he requested his favorite Kipling poem, “The Harp Song of the Dane Women,” and I recall the anticipation in his face as I prepared to read his favorite line: “sicken again for the shouts and the slaughter.” The poem was about the Vikings, but Borges saw it as a commentary on his gaucho ancestors. Being blind, he had a huge appetite for violence.
Later, he held my arm and we walked to a noisy restaurant in the center of Buenos Aires, where I cut up his spaghetti for him. Either there or in his flat, he warned me: “Never look for beauty. Let beauty come to you. Those who look for beauty are mere journalists.” My first valuable lesson as a writer — though I didn’t realize it at the time.
Astonishingly, Borges gave me a poem to print, and not long afterward I went to work as a peon a caballo — a “mounted peasant” — on an estancia 300 miles west of Buenos Aires where I spent eight months herding Herefords, biting testicles off sheep, applying Geneva bols to a raw backside unused to 10-hour stretches in an English saddle. The following year, I spent another four months on horseback in northern Argentina. Once or twice I returned to the gloomy room in Avenida Maipu, where I‘d be directed to the cabinet to select a particular book — Beowulf, Chesterton, Shakespeare. I remember an old man seated in a chair and, before I started to read, leaning forward on his stick to ask me what it was like to work a caballo. By then we were halfway through what has become known as the Dirty War. The country had had a sloshing bellyful of shouts and slaughter, and I was no longer a schoolboy.
The lure of “the gaucho” — a mixed breed first referred to in Chile in 1743 — can be fatal for writers. Once in Rio Grande do Sul, a swollen river stranded the young Borges in a village for 10 days. The story is known to one of the cowhands in The Last Cowboys at the End of the World. “He said getting stuck there was, at the time, about the worst thing that ever happened to him. All he could think about was getting the hell out . . . And then it becomes the one thing he always came back to in his stories. Those 10 days in the middle of nowhere directed his writing for the rest of his life . . . I’m the same way.” So, I suspect, is Nick Reding, a tall, blue-eyed gringo from New York‘s 10th Street who has written a gripping account of 10 months and a lifetime he spent in Chilean Patagonia.
In 1995, lured there by a fly-fishing contact, Reding lived for four months in a fishing lodge in Aisen, where the population density is lower than in the Saharan desert. There he met a married couple: Duck, the inebriate son of a Mapuche Indian woman from Chiloe and an Argentine gaucho father; and Edith, a devout chain smoker who believed herself the daughter of the devil. On his return to New York, where Reding had a fiction-writing fellowship at NYU, he labored to transmute his experiences into a novel. Wisely or not, he jettisoned this and returned in February 1998 for a further two visits, working on cattle drives with Duck and living with his family and three young children.
In Patagonia, the devil is a stranger on horseback. You can be pretty sure it’s him, Edith tells Reding, because when you look into the black space where his features ought to be you see beamed back your own face. That‘s more or less what Reding becomes for Duck and Edith over the next six months: the unemotional stranger in their midst who shows them their reflection.
Reding, who claims never to have ridden in his life, goes back to Patagonia with his head well-stocked on equine literature. In this featureless landscape, it’s hard to conceal yourself, still less your sources. At times, his prose has the suspect shine and suppleness of a library seat rather than of a leather saddle — as if stragglers from Cormac McCarthy‘s Border Trilogy have hit the Pan-American Highway and kept on riding. Hemingway and Chatwin can be heard too, in the short authorial interjection (“Is that true?”), the long paragraph ending in a laconic quotation; the arresting images (an emerald — rather than Chatwin’s hat — “rakishly tilted” in a man‘s ring; a forest — rather than a beach of dead penguins — “littered with the corpses of long-dead trees”; the “brilliant pianist” who cannot read a note; and so on). At times, there is a sense of two or three temperaments not merely jostling but colliding. A floor is “bathed in an oblong swathe of light,” while a description of a newly slaughtered ewe’s blood compares the taste to brownies, Jell-O and spinach — all within three lines. And at times, it has to be said, the bones of the old fictional carcass shine through.
When Reding sets out to lasso his subject rather than let it nuzzle up to him, he is unseated by some deadish meat. His repeated “obsession” to document the effects of the 20th century on what he perceives as a dying breed has the brand of the feature writer. (The gaucho, like the Tasmanian aborigine, was pronounced extinct in the last third of the 19th century.) Unconvincing too is his central motif: the road that in 1976 General Pinochet started to lay across this wilderness. Reding has a notion to skewer Pinochet‘s Pan-American Highway through his narrative rather in the manner of Duck’s asador, the metal stake on which he roasts his ewe. But the road is a reddish herring: It‘s empty and leads nowhere very interesting. Reding’s material is anyway so rich, so authentic, so heart-rending that it doesn‘t require a motif. Once he finds his own stride and the courage to cast off his shadows, he loses sight of it, and what comes into view is fresh and tremendous.
The proper core of the book is the drunkard Duck, a violent, tormented, tender man who promises to teach Reding everything — and does. He regards the author quite properly as an emissary of the world that is castrating him and yet which, at the same time, he wishes desperately to enter. Once or twice he comes near to cutting Reding’s throat. (As Edith explains, “It drove him nuts that you never gave any indication of what you were thinking.”) Duck is fired from his position as a cowhand halfway into Reding‘s second visit, and his painful pilgrimage from the grazing grounds of the Rio Cisnes to the town of Coihaique is the real journey. In town, Duck gives up drink, exchanges his saddle for a pair of foreman’s trousers and goes to work on a building site. Edith gives up smoking and goes to church to exorcise the devil. Kicking and screaming, their children go to school. Reding quotes a line from the gaucho novel Don Segundo Sombra: “A gaucho on foot is fit for nothing but the manure pile.” Brutally, dispassionately, he records the death rattle of the cowhand‘s way of life and the transition from peon a caballo to urban cowboy in the manner of Peeled, a drug dealer flanked by street kids who look north to California, not south to Tierra del Fuego; who rustle Toyota four-wheel-drives, not Herefords; who watch movies, not sunsets, “and take orders from Robert De Niro.”
Just as foreigners cannot write about Californian culture without descending into caricature and hyperbole, so is the world of the gaucho predetermined and romantic to the West. To catalog its contents is already to yield to its lurid swagger. Like Reding, I answered to Flaco or Nico or Nicolas. As he did, I wore bombachas and a wool cummerbund and sat by flames sucking mate through hot silver. And like him, I succumbed — fatally — to the superstitions and traditions of illiterate men who work with horses. I can vouch for his knife fights, his dances, his moments of deranging boredom. But I was 17 years old and had not learned, as this writer has, to compress experience into something enduring. He swallowed, he got drunk, but he hung around long enough to convert his 10 months into an elegy that deserves its place on the narrow shelf occupied by W.H. Hudson, R.B. Cunninghame Graham and R. Guiraldes. Someone should have read it to Borges.
Nicholas Shakespeare is the author of the biography Bruce Chatwin and the novel The Dancer at the Top of the Stairs, both available from Anchor Books.