Jorge Luis Borges's iconic Patagonia story "The South" opens in Buenos Aires, in Argentina's north. The protagonist, Juan Dahlmann, is a librarian who's spent his whole life in the city, dreaming of moving to the Patagonian ranch he inherited from his grandfather.
To Dahlmann, Patagonia represents an alternate world, a macho Wild West filled with tough guys and gauchos, men in control of their fates.
The Argentine writer María Sonia Cristoff might laugh at Juan Dahlmann. She grew up in Patagonia but left in the 1980s, in search of more activity and more books. In her travelogue False Calm: A Journey through the Ghost Towns of Patagonia, translated flawlessly by Katherine Silver, she returns to Patagonia, writing with empathy but no illusions. There are no gauchos in False Calm -- and no one's in control.
At first, Cristoff wanted to write about isolation. "Isolation is present in everything I have found written about Patagonia," she explains. In order to explore it herself, she went in search of towns that "for one reason or another...could be called ghost towns," although "ghostly does not imply empty." Her true interest is the people who live in and around those towns, either because they have chosen solitude or because they have no way to leave.
As a result, False Calm bears little relation to most travelogues. It has no nature, not much history, and no adventure at all. Cristoff writes briefly about Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia and Antoine de Saint-Exúpery's Night Flights, both classics of travel literature, but False Calm is far more closely related to Dorothea Lange's photographs from the Dust Bowl. It's not exploration; it's portraiture.
In False Calm, Cristoff shows readers oil workers without refineries, Mapuche women without resources, and an amateur pilot whose son died in a plane crash. She visits a town plagued by teen suicides, a group of mental-health advocates, an unhinged psychic, some devotees of a vengeful child ghost-god named Maruchito, and a lonely, doubtful set of trainee priests. No matter who she's talking to, she gives that person the full benefit of the doubt. Her compassion for their beliefs, choices, and circumstances is total.
Cristoff won't judge her subjects, or contextualize them outside their own towns and lives. She never interprets or compares. She presents herself as less a writer than a medium; in the introduction, she writes, "I turned into a kind of lightning rod, a receiving antenna...[who] was constantly trying to maintain control, but I must acknowledge that there were moments when the atmosphere spoke through me."
False Calm's lightning-rod nature is both the book's great strength and great weakness. It makes the narrative feel mobile, episodic, loose. Each town only gets one chapter, and Cristoff never returns to a place or a theme. Because she stays in each town until it "feels compelled to expel [the] intruder...which tends to happen to every writer in pursuit of a story," there's sometimes not enough story to satisfy.
Ideologically, this makes perfect sense. Cristoff wants to be honest, and to reject Juan Dahlmann's fantasy Patagonia. She won't shape her subjects' narratives. She won't control another person's story. But lightning rod or no, she could have taken more steps toward controlling her own.
An example: False Calm has a clear feminist undertone. One of Cristoff's subjects runs a consciousness-raising group for indigenous women, teaching them to "think for themselves, acknowledge their Mapuche origins, speak up if there's something they don't like." Another escaped her abusive husband by talking her way into a high-paying job on a previously all-male construction site. Nearly all the women in False Calm are heroic, strong in a way the men clearly aren't. The book could be a true refutation of machismo, except that Cristoff never acknowledges it. As a result, her choice to let the stories tell themselves loses some of its power.
The same is true of the book's structure. The poet and critic Diane Freedman has written that feminist nonfiction should be "associative, nonhierarchical, personal, and open-ended," and False Calm is, without question, all four. If Cristoff grounded her book's looseness in a feminist perspective, or any critical perspective, its jumps in place, time, and perspective would feel intentional. Because she never does, the gaps can seem frustrating, unearned.
But False Calm remains beautiful. It's worth reading as a collection of impressions, an act of witness, and a tribute to the lives Cristoff encounters. Where it falters as a book, it still succeeds as a record. Its message is that of graffiti, or gravestones, or monuments. I was here, it says. We are here. These towns are still here. After a writer admits her lack of control, there's not much else for her to say.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C.