Review: Gwalia Patagonia by Jon Gower

Reviewed by Dylan Moore

Gwalia Patagonia

Half a decade in the writing, Gwalia Patagonia has been a labour of love for self-confessed ‘professional Welshman’ Jon Gower. For such a small colony (just 162 people originally set out on the old tea clipper Mimosa), in such an obscure end of the world – ‘grey – tough and stunted – wiry, desert shrubs on parched dry scrubland’ – Y Wladfa has attracted an inordinate amount of attention, especially this year, from both academic historians and the popular media. Who better then, than Gower, whose most successful book, The Story of Wales, spans both realms, to pen a volume on the colony to mark its 150th indefatigable year?

It can feel like home,’ he argues in the prologue, emphasising how, extraordinarily, this very un-Wales-like place continues to exert its almost mystical hold on the national imagination. Quite reasonably, the author questions at the outset, ‘the need for another book about the place.’ But ‘I was somehow doomed to write one,’ he goes on to protest, ‘writers don’t have much choice. The books come to seek us out.’ Of course, this is true. Gower and Patagonia were made for each other. The author is the kind of researcher who will make it his mission to read all the previous books, watch all of the documentaries and films then visit every Welsh tearoom in South America. Gower’s passion for Wales and Welshness in all its forms and his inimitable prose style – evocative, effervescent, exuberant – meets its perfect match in the challenge of describing the wildernesses of Chubut.

The writer clearly delights in employing the full breadth of his Brobdingnagian vocabulary. South Atlantic wave patterns are in ‘aquamarine flux’; Puerto Madryn is ‘[h]arsh and dessicated in the arc-lamp heat of summer’; fruit farms are ‘kaleidoscopic’. Pick a page and luxuriate in imagery. But there is more – much more – to Gwalia than descriptive indulgence. There are explorations of the origins of the colonial project and the relationship between the Welsh settlers and the indigenous Tehuelche, chapters focusing on Y Wladfa’s principal towns and others giving voice to the people whose tenacity keeps the Welsh language and Welsh customs alive today, thousands of miles from their forebears’ home.

Gower’s back catalogue contains histories, psychogeographies and travel writing in addition to accomplished fiction, and in Gwalia there is balance and blend of all these styles. As well as giving voice to the inhabitants of the land, the book is haunted by the ghosts of the author’s prodigious reading. If Borges and Marquez are obvious touchstones for any writing about the southern portion of the American continent, it is fascinating to be introduced to lesser-known figures who nevertheless loom large in the writing of Welsh Patagonia. Gower is clearly enchanted by Y Wladfa’s unofficial writer-in-residence Eluned Morgan, daughter of Lewis Jones (for whom Trelew is named), while being less than impressed by the occasional chicanery of Bruce Chatwin, not to mention slightly miffed that his most famous literary predecessor in the region beat him to a description of some ‘Neapolitan ice-cream’ cliffs.

The volume’s structure, with chapters of history followed by chapters of travel and chapters of more personal writing, suits Gower’s propensity for indulging esoteric passions as well as his capacity to encapsulate big-picture visions. He is a Philomath, a bibliophile and a helpless addict of ‘ornithology porn’. But however enjoyable the indulgences that are the hallmark of the writer’s work, only one question really needs to be asked, soberly, of Gwalia Patagonia. Was it worth it? Five years of writing, a six-foot writing desk’s span of reading and a Creative Wales Award to fund the fieldwork, to produce a book about a place already over-trampled by hopeless dreamers and literary giants. The answer, of course, is a resounding ‘yes’; Gwalia Patagonia won’t be the last word on Y Wladfa, but it may be the last for some time.

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