It’s a cliché to say that you emerge from a book as though from a dream, but sometimes it’s true anyway. That’s the case with Nick Reding’s Last Cowboys at the End of the World, an account of the 10 months he spent among the gauchos of Chilean Patagonia. And it’s a good dream, mostly, with a good fugue theme and some irritating elements stirred in to keep it from being just a little too perfect. You should always distrust a dream that appears just a little too perfect.
Reding embarked on his “obsession with Patagonia” (as he admits in the book’s acknowledgements that it “...must have seemed at best misguided, and at the very worst complete folly”) in the employ of an adventure travel lodge in southern Chile in late 1994. He returned to the harshly beautiful landscape of mountains, sparse grasslands and old-growth forests in 1998 to document the lives of the few inhabitants still pursuing a centuries-old livelihood that had officially long ceased to exist in either Chile or Argentina, but had hung on nevertheless in the barely inhabited highlands along the Argentine border. By all accounts, the boleadora-tossing gaucho of the popular imagination, with his sheepskin chaps and wool bombacha pants and elegant cummerbund, had vanished from Patagonia nearly a hundred years earlier. What Reding found in the cabins and pastures of this all but forgotten country was a hardy few caught not only in the wrong century, but in the torturous process of finally relinquishing their famously independent, borderline lawless identity to the encroachment of progress in countries that don’t want them.
It begins on a melodramatic note, with the author himself (Reding writes in the first person) threatened at knifepoint by the drunk patriarch of the herding family in whose riverside pasture he’d been pitching his tent. Duck, his wife Edith, and their three children make up the family that essentially adopts “Nico” (or “Skinny,” as they usually call him), takes him in and serves as his main subject for what amounts to a selectively detailed and wonderfully written account of a lonely, hardscrabble life on the very edge of nowhere.
We get to know the occasional spasms of violence in Middle Cisnes, where Duck and his family live. We get to know, on intimate terms, the brooding human and geographical emptiness of this barren quarter, and it’s mostly rewarding. Reding doesn’t clutter the region’s few ties to the 20th century with meditations on his own loneliness or the idle musings of a writer with less restraint in a similar position. New York makes for the occasional topic of discussion and even something to envy and wonder at among the gauchos who get to see a Bruce Willis shoot-’em-up on a rare trip to the cinema, but Reding wisely plays his personal hand close to the vest—at least as far as the reader is concerned.
And the writing is, as mentioned, quite beautiful in its scope as well as its detail. The place, we get the feeling, is huge and wide open to a point that practically beggars description, but Reding does scenic justice to vertiginous descents down narrow mountain paths and the tops of mountains that seem to float on top of the clouds. In short, he gets what he has to get right just right.
Equally important is his treatment of language used by Duck and the other gauchos, not just for capturing the slang and the bites and twangs of the various accents (never an easy feat, especially from one language to another), but also for staking out the gauchos’ marginal status between Chilean and Argentine cultures. There are explanations of the slang terms che and huevón, with which all the characters in Last Cowboys lard their speech liberally. A typically informative passage:
“ ‘Che’ is to Argentina what ‘[huevón]’ is to Chile. Walking around downtown Coihaique saying ‘che’ made people smirk. Walking around Santiago saying it made them ignore you altogether, because maintaining poor relations between Chile and Argentina seems in both countries to be a matter of national pride. In Coihaique, which had been settled initially by Argentines and then, later, predominantly by Chileans, the physical lines drawn between the two words were remarkably clear: If the sidewalk beneath your feet was new, you used ‘[huevón]’; if it was in severe disrepair, you switched to ‘che.’”
The brackets in the foregoing have unfortunately to do with the way Reding prefers to translate huevón, a euphemism for testicle that, as he explains, can be familiar or aggressively skeptical, or both. Reding translates it as “eggo,” one of many annoying idiomatic conventions in the book, and one of the few irritants detracting from the pleasure of reading it. Other terms in Spanish are explained in detail and preserved in the original language. Alas, not “eggo,” making for some trying spots in longer stretches of dialogue unless—as I managed only half successfully—you can learn to tune it out. Literal translations of the nicknames Duck (a play on the diminutive Pato, we learn, short for Patricio) and many of the other characters—Fried Bread, John of the Cows, Peeled, Fart-Fart and so on, bear up somewhat better under repetition. All the same, Reding might better have explained them once and then been done with them. One of Duck’s herding dogs is called Sheep Shearings, which must certainly sound less unwieldy in the original.
Reding has a great way of putting off certain explanations—che to name but one—until the reader is familiar enough with seeing certain names and phrases to wonder if he accidentally read over something. This is certainly preferable to having his constant reassurance, akin to walking down the street in a foreign city and having an overanxious guide explain things to you faster than you can take them in for yourself.