Thursday, December 17, 2009

Journey to the World's End - Hakon Mielche (translated by M.A. Michael)

buy - (I can't even find a wiki on this guy)

The Deal: At this point in time, due to an RSI, I can only type for 10 minutes at a time. What you see below is what is hammered out before the timer goes off- and nothing more.

I went scrummaging around the travel section of several second hand bookshops in the city looking for anything on Patagonia. This book was the only book I found. It has no dust jacket, and it was the phrase 'world's end' that caught my eye and flip the book open to discover that yes, it was specifically about Patagonia. Just look at those lining pages! Aren't they gorgeous?

I bought it for $4.

There's only one copy available second hand on Amazon for 48 pounds. Think I did well?

At first, I wasn't sure what I'd bought. There were marginal illustrations throughout which gave it a faint Disney aroma - multiple on every page. An example below, Mielche's sketch of the loading of cattle onto a ship.

A skim through the pages didn't read like travel writing. It looked a bit like boy's own adventure.

It is Mielche's account of his voyage to Patagonia (given the book was first published in 1939, I'm guessing shortly before then), specifically Punta Arenas (Magallanes), Tierra del Fuego and jaunts into the surrounding channels, including (AND I AM INSANELY JEALOUS) going around Cape Horn in a sail boat. He writes with a wonderful warm voice, a kind and I would say cultured voice, which I admit lead me to assume he would be therefore carrying around all the things that one carries around when one is from a polite and civilised society - a mind assuming the right of colonisation and differentiation between the races and that our way is best, jolly what ho!

I was incredibly wrong, which may be because he is Danish and not British (ooh, further assumptions there), or may be because he really is just a decent, intelligent, and compassionate man. Either way, this made the book less a book of travel writing, and more a sort of long comfortable recounting of an adventure by an old friend.

Chapter 4 is titled "which may be skipped, as it has to do with dry history". He's tongue in cheek, cheeky, and has a keen eye for the absurd. Part of this 'dry history' I was already familiar with, good ol' Magellan, and even so, there was nothing dry about it.

Magallanes made a short stop at Teneriffe in the classic tradition, for it was here Columbus lay for some months while they repaired the caravel Pinta's rudder, and since then it had become the custom to take a breather there and shoot one or two of the aborigines, the Gaunches.

I distinctly remember snorting my drink through my nose on reading that. I say again: cheeky.

He thoroughly covers the history of the region, a somewhat heart-breaking history that he does not attempt to paint as anything but. The growth of sheep farms had, at the time of writing, felled many of the old woods to make way for further pampas for the sheep, aka, white gold, and in turn driving the native tribes out of their lands. The wildlife has suffered. Missionaries with good intentions brought God and civilisation to the natives, and when Mielche visited, some seventy years ago, one of the tribes was dead, the other two in their final handfuls of people. Disease killed them. Civilisation killed them. The sadness and regret is palpable when he visits these people and the missions, and though he does not overtly cast judgment upon any there is no small amount of anger at the injustice there too.

He tells the stories of the towns he stays in, the stories of the estancias he visits and the families that take him in, he tells the stories of the lakes and mountains he sees, the mines he tours, the islands he passes. He tells the stories of the people he meets, the boats he sails on, the rattly old cars he sits in. He tells the story of a mongrel dog, half sheep dog, half otter hunter. He tells his own stories - he had a bit of an Old Tokaido Highway moment himself. He takes an immense interest in the world around him, and how it got to be the way it is, whether that be by the efforts of man or by the careless happenings of nature.

Reading this book was just...wonderful. Mielche is excited by the world he explores, and this love saturates the words he writes. Even when he's half killed himself on a remote island in the Straits, or sick as hell sailing in a storm, or stranded in the prison town Ushuaia waiting for his idle ship back - he loves it. He adores it. He's having the time of his life.

I think I fell a little bit in love with him, to be honest. Oh, the years that separate us...

Verdict: Best surprise book I've dove into. I love this book. I touch it and look at the maps and sniff the pages. Shall definitely keep an eye out for more of his books, purely out of appreciation for intelligent, insightful, humourous writing of course (and not because I have a crush on him, not at all).

(Oh good heavens! I've been googling around trying to find out anything him, and I just stumbled upon this. Isn't it gorgeous? He drew it! I recognise his style from all the doodles in my book.)


(He's dead, isn't he?)



  1. Hi Tessa, So glad you enjoyed my Dad's book . So happy he is enjoyed after all theese years (he died 1979,He was an amazing person So in love with life . Inger Mielche Fay

  2. Thank you so much for stopping by, Inger. I've been keeping an eye out for more of your father's books, but they're elusive quarry as yet.

  3. Anonymous3/9/10 19:18

    Reminds me of my own first experience with Hakon Mielche books. It was some 15 years ago. Cost me 5 DKR at a used book sale. Didn't know what it was about, but it just caught my eye with its colors and drawings. I had never noticed his name before, but later I found out that in my parents generation here in Denmark he was well known. So there are plenty of used Hakon Mielche books for sale here. I have around 40 now :-). Most of them in danish though, so not much use for you I guess. Most of the information about Hakon Mielche that I find on internet is also in danish (example)

  4. Stian, Norway29/12/10 00:19

    Hello, Tessa.

    Good to see there's admirers of Mielche all over the world. You've probably scrolled through pages and pages, but have you tried the Amazon (both com and Quite a few great ones by him there, for a cheap price.

    Also check out Jørn Riel, much in the same vein, dane born in Greenland... juicy, lovely tales from that area.

    To me, Mielche is up there with Steinbeck and Heinrich Böll, full of compassion and love for life and the beings stuck in it. Check them out.

    Best wishes from Norway!

  5. Thank you, Stian! I shall definitely keep an eye out for Riel as well. There's something about old books...I want the physical book itself to also be old. I've been scrummaging around used book stores without any luck so far.

  6. Stian, Norway30/12/10 09:09

    I agree completely. I stumbled upon Mielche during a nightwatch at the nursing home... Came across some old, smelly books in the attic, and there it was, his book from Japan. Shirting bound, from the 60's. And a new world opened itself. My most memorable nightwatch.

    Good luck with finding more books from Mielche. And as said, there's a bunch of old, used, cheap books on / com. (His fellow dane and mentor dr. Aage Krarup Nielsen also wrote several wonderful books from around the world. Keep an eye out for them)

    Wish you a better new year!

    Best wishes, Stian

  7. Hi Tessa. I also got very impress with the book of H Mielche, being a chilean, having live in Punta Arenas for four years and doing the same trips he did many times because work. However, I have to say that I read with disappointment Chapter XI "The white man again proves his superiority". It is one of the most racists writings I have read in a while. I was almost ready to cut those pages because I found them very offensive to the Selkn'am, Kaweskar and Yamanas. Now here is something a bit strange. He writes in a very warm way in other chapters about the locals. So, I am confused now why/how he wrote that Chapter XI. Maybe Inger or someone else have some insight about this. cheers, Carlos

  8. Hi Carlos,

    Chapter XI was not written to be taken at face value. Mielche is being ironic, almost to the point of satire. It is a tonal flavour that changes the entire content of the chapter; he's laying out the decisions and actions of the Europeans as being arrogant, narrow-minded, bigoted and lacking foresight. He doesn't agree with the events of history at all when it comes to the colonising Europeans, and is mocking them.

    Beneath the tongue-in-cheek tone of the chapter, I detected anger at all that had come to pass, as well as a great sadness that things could not have happened in a better way.

    He is not being racist. In this way, his views are very different from his contemporaries. He truly does love your area, and grieves its history.