Friday, 29 April 2016

Book Review: Tierra del Fuego by Sylvia Iparraguirre review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

It’s a sad fact that for centuries most Europeans looked down on indigenous peoples living in the countries that their explorers not only discovered but also conquered. How often do we find that they were treated like wild beast and some of them brought to Europe to entertain kings and queens or to show in curiosity shops. Missionaries and colonists were hardly any more understanding and open-minded towards seemingly primitive cultures. In the epistolary novel Tierra del Fuego by Sylvia Iparraguirre a fictional Anglo-Argentine seaman recounts true events from the early nineteenth century surrounding a native Patagonian who is known as Jemmy Button. As a young man he was brought from Tierra del Fuego to London to learn the basics of English civilisation and years later he was put on trial, then sentenced and executed for having played a leading role in the massacre of English missionaries in the islands.

Sylvia Iparraguirre was born in Junín, Buenos Aires, Argentina, in July 1947. She studied literature at the University of Buenos Aires and wrote her doctoral thesis in sociolinguistics supported by a research scholarship, while already collaborating in literary journals. As from 1986 she worked as a professor at the Faculty of Letters of the University of Buenos Aires. Only in 1988 she made her literary debut with an award-winning collection of short stories titled En el invierno de las ciudades (In the Winter of the Cities). Other short story collections, several novels and essays followed, but to date the only work available in English translation is her novel Tierra del Fuego (La Tierra del Fuego: 1998). Sylvia Iparraguirre lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In 1865 a messenger delivers a letter from the British admiralty to the – fictional – Anglo-Argentine seaman Mallory who now leads a secluded life in Patagonia where he was born and raised. After the suicide of Captain Robert FitzRoy, he is asked to give testimony of the British expedition on the Beagle to Tierra del Fuego in which he participated in 1829 and of everything he knows about a certain Jemmy Button. Mallory immediately sets out to write a long answering letter in which he not just recounts the story of the expedition and its tragic consequences, but he also takes stock of his own life and mixed cultural heritage. As it turns out, Jemmy Button is one of four native Fuegans whom Captain FitzRoy took hostage in exchange for mother-of-pearl buttons (hence the name!). His idea is to have them educated, thus civilised, in London and he assigns young Mallory to take care of them until then. Before long the seaman gets to know the Indians better than anybody else and he sort of makes friends with Jemmy Button. After some months in a convent school in the country and an audience at Court, Captain FitzRoy takes them back to their hostile country expecting that they will spread European civilisation among their people. Of course, they quickly abandon what they learnt in England and resume their traditional way of life that is adapted to their environment, but living conditions grow harder every day. European hunters kill too much game and missionaries abduct their children to make them work for them. In 1859 the Fuegans can no longer bear the situation and kill a group of missionaries on the islands. Jemmy Button is put on trial for his leading role in the massacre and Mallory is in the audience to see his friend one last time…

As an epistolary novel, Tierra del Fuego naturally is a first-person narrative, but it’s also the history of two men with very different backgrounds. It skilfully interweaves the invented life story of the narrating former seaman, who was the illegitimate son of a Spanish-Creole mother and an English father, with the fate of the real Jemmy Button, a Yámana Indian, that is based on the little information with regard to him contained in Voyage of the Beagle (1839) and The Descent of Man (1871) by Charles Darwin. At the same time, the novel takes a critical look at the European attitude towards other cultures, notably such that seem primitive by comparison, making the narrator ask early on in the novel “which was the apt version required in the case of the ‘ill-starred native,’ the man called Jemmy Button by the English but whose real name, his Yámana name, almost no one ever knew?“, whether he was supposed to write about the man in top hat that Button was among Europeans in London or about the naked savage that he was among his people at Cape Horn. Although the letter gives a complex and lively picture of Jemmy Button as well as of his social context, it’s inevitable that his character remains elusive just like Mallory himself. I read the Spanish original of this historical novel from Argentina and enjoyed its particularly sympathetic atmosphere as well as its colourful language.

It goes without saying that reading Tierra del Fuego by Sylvia Iparraguirre has been a very pleasurable experience, especially because the book shows the fate of Jemmy Button (and his people) from a different angle than usual. The author neither idealises the savage man as “noble“, nor demonises him as “ignoble“, but puts him as a human being into the authentic context of a world that is changing – or globalising if you like – after the arrival of European discoverers and conquerers. This only succeeds because the narrator himself is a man between cultures, a man who knows or at least is perceptive enough to see both sides. Therefore, it’s definitely a novel worth reading.

* * * * * 

This review is a contribution to:


  1. This sounds like another book that interests me and I am sure I will like it a lot. Thank you for your review.

    Marianne from
    Let's Read

    1. Yes, Sylvia Iparraguirre tells a great story in her novel. It was a lot more interesting that I had hoped... and she skilfully interlocked the life stories of the narrator and Jemmy Button.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Came here from the FB page. I am fond of literature from Latin America and your review tells me the book will be interesting. I will put this on my To Read list.

    1. Thanks for your comment! It's good to find that my reviews actually inspire people like you to read the books I'm writing about. Enjoy it!

      This one definitely is a very good read and worth the time. Luckily an English edition of it is available - to my great regret I learnt that this is all but granted. Many wonderful books in Spanish (or other languages) are never translated into English.


Dear anonymous spammers: Don't waste your time here! Your comments will be deleted at once without being read.