Desert Memories (A Travel Book Review)

Desert Memories, travel book review

Each year, Lonely Planet chooses the world’s 10 ‘Best In Travel’ destinations. And though you might not be able to visit Chile (#1 on the list) in person, there’s no reason you can’t explore the country through words…

The Book:

Desert MemoriesAriel Dorfman, 2004

The Story:

The desert decided both Ariel Dorfman’s fate and the fate of his country. “A place of death and testing, I thought: a place to avoid.” And yet, given the opportunity to visit anywhere in the world, he chooses el Notre Grande – a stretch of the world’s driest land, full of ghost towns and secrets and missing pieces.

Dorfman’s return is meant to be a study of mankind’s history and, more intimately, his own. This is the place where a university friend was killed by firing squad, his body never found. The place where Dorfman last crossed in 1962, eager to learn about the South America beyond Chilean boundaries, but not within. The place where his wife’s ancestors settled. The place where he was politically exiled from for over a decade, but still considers home.

travel quote Ariel Dorfman

For the National Geographic Directions literary series Dorfman uses physical exploration as a quest to comprehend the stories that appear out of this mystic ground.

“This is the moment… when the three week road trip that Angelica and I have just taken through el Notre Grande… will begin to recede into the past and start to become a memory, a memory of ours and perhaps also a memory of the desert down there below that stretches for numberless miles… and that seems to remember everything that ever happened to it, remembers and eventually destroys everything that happens to it.”

The Destinations:

El Notre Grande, from La Serena to Arica, “where both country and desert end.” The author’s journey is halting and intentional, a slow progress from south to north. First Puerto Montt, for a glimpse of a 12,500-year-old footprint; then pursuing early humanity up to San Pedro de Atacama’s buried ruins.

He lingers in nitrate and copper mining towns (some empty, some working, some in-between), where natives and immigrants once drew up the earth for economic gain: Oficina Alemania, Santa Laura, Antafagasta, Chuquicamata.

In Iquique, he and his wife look for clues along her paternal bloodline. And finally, they reach Pisaqua, a coastal prison for political offenders after the 1973 coup, where Dorfman’s friend Freddy spent his final hours.

The Review:

Some folks dislike Desert Memories because it has too much history, “too much baggage” and feels weighted down by back-story. But me? I don’t mind a bit of baggage – it gives Dorfman’s quest authenticity and creates layer after layer of information. This is no carefree travel jaunt, it’s an inquisitive reflection.

travel quote Ariel Dorfman, Desert Memories

The journalist and poet writes like a dancer, so confident of his own steps that he doesn’t need your attention to keep up the art form. If you lose the tempo of the story, don’t worry – Dorfman eventually breaks his meandering musings to invite you back in.

I most appreciate that the book uses people not just for a quick anecdote, but to hold the narrative together. It’s made obvious in the epilogue, where Dorfman updates us on each of the characters who enhanced his journey. And right then, before the reader can drop the dust cover, those names and faces foster a surprising personal link to this vast, mysterious space.

Have you read this book? What’s on your Chilean reading list?

Want an armchair escape through Lonely Planet’s 2017 Top 10 List? Start reading your way through Myanmar…

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