Travel Writer Michael Jacobs Does Justice to the Andes

A volcano in Ecuador.

A volcano in Ecuador.

For those who have travelled extensively throughout South America, the astonishing majesty of the continent’s Andean mountains is surely etched in the imagination. From the lush jungles in northern Colombia and the lunar salt plains of the Bolivian heartland, to the snow-covered peaks of Argentina’s southernmost tip, the breathtaking diversity of the world’s longest, and perhaps most glorious, mountain range is as wondrous as its history is rich. The mountains have served as the backdrop for the rise and fall of great civilizations, offered scientific discoveries that changed the face of human understanding, inspired masterworks of art and literature—not to mention political revolution—and have witnessed centuries of unspeakable slaughter.

Michael Jacobs’ Andes, an account of the author’s journey across South America by way of the 4, 500 mile-mountain chain, is as expansive and enthralling as the geography it covers. Beginning in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and finishing up in the heart of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego, Andes masterfully details the history, art, geography, personalities, and politics that have defined and been given shape by life in the region.

I recently spoke with Jacobs about his book and the art of writing on the road, Latin American politics, the legacy of Bruce Chatwin in Argentina, and what lies ahead for one of the truly great stylists of the modern travel memoir.

I was hoping we could begin by discussing what compelled you to undertake the arduous task of journeying across the entire length of South America’s Andean spine.

I was first drawn to the Andes by childhood tales of my English grandfather, a railway engineer who worked in Chile and Bolivia. When following in his footsteps to those countries, and experiencing the extraordinary contrasts between, say, the Atacama Desert and the ice fields of Patagonia, I thought how wonderful it would be to follow the whole length of the world’s longest mountain range, and see such an unparalleled range of extreme and spectacular landscapes. I also conceived the idea of following the mountains as if unraveling the course of a human life, beginning in the Tropics, where the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt had located the life force, and ending south of Tierra del Fuego, where Humboldt’s great pupil Darwin believed that life barely existed at all.

Talk a bit more if you would about Humboldt who serves, in many respects, as your loadstone throughout Andes. What was his importance to you (and in general) and in what ways did his experiences in South America shaped your own?

Humboldt was certainly the guiding spirit behind the whole book. He inspired me in the same way as he inspired hundreds of other travellers in the 19th-century. Charles Darwin would probably not have taken up the offer of a job on the Beagle had it not been for a reading of Humboldt’s account of his South American travels. Nor would the great American artist Frederick Edwin Church have travelled to Ecuador to paint what are certainly some of the most ambitious landscape canvases in the history of art, notably “Heart of the Andes.”

Humboldt was a pioneer in so many ways. He was the first great scientific popularizer, able to turn a book on the cosmos into one of the great nineteenth-century bestsellers. He was a pioneering ecologist who foresaw the damage to the planet caused by the felling of trees. He was an outstanding mountaineer, who, in climbing almost to the summit of Ecuador’s Chimborazo (then considered the highest mountain in the world), climbed higher than any known human before him. He was an early supporter of indigenous rights, and was violently opposed to slavery. Above all, for a travel writer, Humboldt’s importance lies in his extraordinary ability to induce in the reader a sense of the wonder of nature. Writers like Christopher Isherwood and Paul Theroux have written funny books chronicling their grumpiness as travellers, with Theroux going even so far as to dismiss the Andes because he suffered continually from altitude sickness. But personally I prefer the relentless energy and enthusiasm of Humboldt. They kept me going throughout my hugely ambitious journey, and during the writing of the book. I began to see nature through Humboldt’s strangely innocent eyes, and to perceive as he did the “irrelevance of man in the face of the natural order.”

Despite the fact that roughly half of the Andean chain runs throughout Argentina and Chile, most of the book takes place in the north and central heartlands of the mountains with comparatively little about the Southern Cone. Does this reflect your own geographical preferences, the exhaustion of a long journey, or something else?

In terms of the actual travelling I spent probably as much time in Argentina and Chile as I did in the rest of the Andes. But when it came to the actual writing I realized I was going to be well over length before even reaching the south! I love the southern Andes as much as I do the central and northern ones, and I was by no means exhausted when I got there. In fact I had reached that point in travelling when you feel you could continue forever. Similarly, in the writing, I had built up by then an impetus that was allowing me to write for up to eighteen hours a day. The book’s last one hundred pages were written in a frenzy of inspiration, and my own favorite section is from Mount Fitzroy southwards.

I cut out an enormous part from the book’s first half, and could have cut even more in the interests of creating less of an imbalance. But ultimately the imbalance reflects my vision of the Andes as a developing human life. You begin slowly, thinking that you have all the time in the world, and then reach your middle years realizing that you still have so much to do and see but so relatively time to achieve this. The speed of the book’s last pages is intended also to convey the literal and metaphorical race to reach the continent’s southernmost tip before the winter sets in, making travel impossible.

I’m interested in picking your brain about politics, briefly. Andes, especially the first half, is very much wrapped up in the world of the Bolivarian revolution and its discontents, and yet the book is almost entirely apolitical. Is this a reflection of your own political worldview, or do you consciously remove your private political judgments and analysis form the narrative. And if so, why?

That’s an excellent question, and difficult concisely to answer. I am fascinated by South American politics, and travelled through the continent at a time of great political change, what with the recent advent of Evo Morales and Rafael Correa, and the region’s general swing to the left. I am also highly conscious of how relatively little is known (in Europe at least) about the political situation there. However, I thought that to give a proper political assessment of each of the countries I went through would detract too greatly from the book’s principal theme—the impact of the Andes on travellers. It would also have made the book become rapidly outdated, and would have been much better done by serious political commentators such as Jon Lee Anderson.

A long section on Chávez is included, as well as a chapter on Morales’ Bolivia because these touch on another of the book’s uniting threads—Bolívar’s vision of a united South America. For me Bolivar becomes an increasingly interesting figure the more he turns into a hero from a Shakespearian tragedy. Though the book is apolitical, it does in a sense reflect my disillusionment with politics. The last part of the book hopefully conveys an idea of grand ilusions and ideals coming to nothing. My interest in politics ultimately boils down to an interest in individual case histories, such as that of the tragic young Ecuadorian who is betrayed by corrupt individuals in his desperate attempt to get a visa.

Turning to the more technical side of things, I was wondering if you’d share some about your process of travel writing. One of the things that stands out to me about your experiences is that unlike, say, a Theroux, you’re constantly on the move and often on little sleep—touring by day, indulging in the nightlife after dark. How do you find time to write while on the road? Or do you not?

Though I have written books based on long stays in a place (i.e., The Factory of Light, which is about my adopted Spanish village of Frailes), I take the Stendhalian view that you either spend a day or two in a place or several years. Often, as with judgments of a person, your immediate impressions are the ones you go back to. If you get to know somewhere too well, your judgments can become too complex and confused. And someone such as Theroux seems to spend much of his time in a place reading books, or complaining how uninteresting somewhere is! I love intense short stays when travelling, even if it’s always sad to be constantly moving on, especially after making friends. To make the most of somewhere you need to be constantly active which is why I never write when travelling (other than notes), and only use hotels for sleeping in. I always carry lots of books with me, but invariably never read. I’m either sightseeing, being with people, or absorbing every moment of a journey, whether listening to my fellow passengers, or else enjoying the changing landscapes. I am never, ever bored. I always write up a trip when I get back, when you have a better over-view of your experiences, and can see more clearly what might be interesting to others and what is not…Fortunately I have a good memory, and can mentally reconstruct for a long time afterwards every day of a journey, however long the journey.

Bruce Chatwin comes off particularly bad in Andes, having left behind in Argentina an awful reputation with the locals he encountered in Patagonia. You note, somewhat tongue and cheek, that Chatwin basically did what travel writers do: “exploit confidences, publish material without permission, misrepresent, exaggerate for literary effect, use people, and promise to stay in touch and then go away, never to be heard from again.” Is this really how you see yourself as a travel writer? If so, did the anger of the Argentines that had known Chatwin in any way affect your own reflections on how you approach the craft of traveloguing? Or is Chatwin’s work fundamentally at odds with your own?

First, of all, for the record, I’m a huge fan of Chatwin as a writer, and he had an impact on travel writing greater than anyone else of his generation. I love his effortless fusion of past and present, and his ability to transform the ordinary into the mythical and the magical (which has always been my ambition!). But the fact that he was an immensely original stylist doesn’t mean that he was either a particularly attractive person, or particularly original in what he had to say about Patagonia (which in no way detracts from his greatness as a writer, just as the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca is in no way diminished as a poet by having a view of his native region heavily influenced by romantic stereotypes). I never met Chatwin, but I suspect that he was one of the many Englishmen who can be absolutely charming when it served his purpose, and not so endearing in his everyday treatment of people. What I certainly learned after Andes was published was that you can’t be in the slightest bit negative about him without incurring the wrath of fans of his, such as Chatwin’s excellent biographer Nicholas Shakespeare. This is very unfair, as I clearly stated that Chatwin’s failings were those of all travel writers, myself included. One of the great drawbacks of the genre is that you’re bound to offend someone, however hard you try not to. The anger of so many Argentines towards Chatwin did not affect me in the slightest, as I have seen exactly the same reaction to other writers in whose footsteps I have followed, for instance the Nobel-Prize Winning Spanish author of the classic Journey to the Alcarria, Camilo Jose Cela who is almost universally disliked in the region. My own books on Spain have earned me law suits and death threats, even though I write about people with a fundamental love for them. The irony of my style seems often misunderstood. However, I have to add that the villagers in my adopted Frailes took, in general, remarkably well to the recent publication in Spanish of The Factory of Light. People told me that they couldn’t complain about my portrayal of them because that was exactly what they were like. If only others were so tolerant and enlightened!

Your mention of Chatwin’s ability to turn the ordinary into the magical makes me think of Gabriel Garcia Márquez and the world of Colombia more generally. I was intrigued by your experiences in the country: you entered with a certain amount of foreboding considering the country’s (now undeserved) reputation for lawlessness and insecurity, but by the time you left, I sensed that you were especially fond of it, perhaps more than the other countries on your itinerary (with Peru a close second). Is this accurate? And if so, what was so attractive to you about the place? If not, was there a place or region where you felt particularly at home, or fell in love with?

You’re absolutely right about Colombia. I went with apprehension, and fell in love with the country from the moment of crossing the frontier! I only regretted afterwards that I did not take greater risks, and visit the then more problematical parts of the Colombian Andes such as the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, or do the overland journey from Cúcuta to Bogotá. Since that first trip I’ve been back to the country four times, and have gone almost everywhere. I spent two months in Colombia earlier this year, travelling the whole length of one of South America’s most important rivers, the Magdalena. I was researching my next book, provisionally titled The Robber of Memories, whose starting point is a chance meeting in Cartagena with García Márquez. It’s being modestly promoted as a cross between One Hundred Years of Solitude and Heart of Darkness! I certainly spent two of the best months of my travelling life doing the journey, even though I had a terrifying three day encounter with guerillas in the middle of the jungle (they were absolutely charming, and were keen that I should help them in their goal of promoting tourism to the region!).

The appeal of the country? First of all the people, the friendliest in the world. Secondly, the place instantly reminded me of the Spain of my childhood, with its old-fashioned courtesies, hugely atmospheric colonial towns, and extraordinary hospitality towards foreigners. Thirdly, it’s a place that for me sums up the essence of South America, with some of the oldest ruins in the continent, some of the best preserved colonial towns, and every possible type of scenery, from desert to Amazonian jungle, to the Andean moorland. I’m convinced that it will soon become one of South America’s most important tourist destinations. Despite what happened to me on my last visit, safety is improving all the time.

Last fall Foreign Policy magazine ran an online forum of articles debating the current state of travel writing literature, with some writers pronouncing the genre the dead, others arguing that it is alive and well, and still others staking out territory somewhere in between. What’s your own feeling on the question? Do books like Eat, Pray, Love represent the decline of travel literature, or was there never a golden age as is sometimes pretended?

From 2008 to 2010 I was chairman of the only serious travel book award in Britain, the Dolman Travel Book Award. I had to read about eighty books a year, only about five of which were really worthwhile. But that doesn’t mean that travel literature is in a bad state. If you had to read eighty novels, you would probably come to a similar conclusion. People often look back to the so-called “golden age” of travel literature inspired by Bruce Chatwin—but that was essentially an invention of a group of friends at Granta magazine.

I believe that travel writing today is as healthy/unhealthy as it has ever been. What has happened is that the good travel books tend now to cross genres. Some of the best travel writing of recent years has fallen into an indeterminate category between travel writing and reportage or memoir. There is also a current fashion in Britain for “nature writing,” headed by such interesting authors as Robert MacFarlane.

Books such as Eat, Pray, Love are not favorites of mine, nor are “good life abroad” books, with their romantic, cliché-ridden evocations of charming Provencal peasants, and Tuscan olive farms. But there has always been a market for those books, and their success allows publishers to bring out more adventurous works.

Finally, people often say that the internet will be the death of travel-writing. Access to a huge amount of information about a country obviously makes redundant that type of Victorian book full of statistics about a country’s commerce, politics etc. But good travel literature will be unaffected, because it does something a computer cannot do: give a poetic interpretation of reality.

Finally, what’s next? You mentioned in our earlier correspondence that you were working on a new book? Any chance you’d be willing to pull the curtain back a bit and let us in on your upcoming projects?

My next book is provisionally titled The Robber of Memories. It’s going to be one of those hybrid travel books I mentioned—a mixture of a travel book tracing my journey up Colombia’s Magdalena river, from Barranquilla to the source in the Paramo de las Papas (where I had my ‘encounter’ with guerillas), and a book about memory and memory loss (my father died of Alzheimer’s and my 92-year-old mother is in an advanced state of dementia). The prologue centers on my chance meeting with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose rapidly fading memories of life are concentrated on the river. The bulk of the book takes the form of a journey by tug boat up the river, the boat eventually getting stuck on a sand bank, in the middle of territory still controlled by paramilitaries. On the way I enter Oliver Sacks territory by visiting some of the villages with the highest incidence of Early Onset Alzheimer’s in the world. A doctor who went to investigate the phenomenon got kidnapped, but then helped the kidnappers when one of their parents got affected by the disease. The ‘Robber of Memories’ is what they call the disease in rural Colombia.

That sounds fascinating. We’ll look forward to it. Thanks so much for your time!

It’s been a pleasure.