The idea of the book / travel chronicle has been implanted in our DNA since the beginning of time: Herodotus and Moses and Homer and Marco Polo and Dante continue to flow there. Later and among many others, writers such as Melville, James, Dickens, Twain, London, Dinesen, the Lawrence (D. H. and E. T.), Hemingway, Capote and Naipaul did not hesitate to trace their nomadic lives as an important part of their sedentary work. Traveling you know people but, also, you know yourself. Thus, for a time now, one can think of a model of restless writer as the generator of a whole literary species that could well be called an “author’s movement.” The Durrel, Fermor, Sebald, Chatwin, Theroux, Matthiessen, López, Laing, Dyer, Solnit (in our language Caparrós, Del Molino and Gabi Martínez) come here, and here Macfarlane arrives and descends.
Macfarlane (UK, 1976) first stamped his passport in 2003 in style with the highly celebrated / award-winning (and now rescued)
The mountains of the mind
dedicating himself to the fascination with heights. Several books later, he proposes in Bajotierra (2019) a complementary opposite, insisting on his already registered brand understood by critics as “perhaps a genre that perhaps demands a new category”. Somewhat extreme statement; because the Macfarlane thing is not a new step. Chatwin was and still is.
What does stand out and distinguishes it is a fiery and epiphanic prose and, at times, bordering on a well-understood mysticism that never falls into excess. You may be blamed for a certain lack of humor / wit. But what is strange to him in this sense he compensates with his cunning to choose destinations from above and below until he achieves a very finished panorama. In this sense, it offers what every travel writer has the responsibility to offer: an itinerary that suddenly seems as natural as it is inevitable but that until now was not featured in any travel agency tour.
Always well accompanied (Borges, rilke, Bowie …), with an environmentalism that does not fall into the obvious
Thus, in the Lowlands – to which he devoted a decade – Macfarlane sets out from legendary descents to hells (Gilgamesh and Orpheus as well as their North European or pre-Columbian and Indian counterparts) and then move himself to vast cave complexes in the Mendip hills, to Parisian catacombs , to the Italian underground river Timavo, to a nuclear waste deposit in the depths of Olkiluoto Island or to prehistoric burial chambers. He ends up mapping that territory “alien but deeply human” and outside and within our world that “causes us fear while being the one we choose to preserve our most beloved things and thus free them from the tyranny of time.”
Always in good company (Rilke, Borges, Wells, Calvino, David Bowie …) and for a militant environmental concern that never seems obvious. Protest, yes. But he does it with the most elegant and, finally, didactic and convincing of passions. Hence, it is very appropriate that the descent to the top of Macfarlane’s journey concludes back, at home and lifting his son in his arms: thus raising someone who, once – if all goes well – will be in charge of dismissing him in due time. last and final to go back down there.
“Underground”. Robert Macfarlane
Test. Translation: Conde Cardeñoso. Lit. Random House, 2020. 512 pages. 22.70 euros.