Thursday, June 13, 2013

Christopher Empson - The Far Horizons: Thirty Years Among the Gauchos of Uruguay

In many ways Christopher Empson led a fairy-tale life. As a young boy, he had listened to his father's tales of his adventures in far off Uruguay, and dreamed of going there. Leaving the British Navy at the end of the First World War his payout was enough to get him a trip on a steamer to South America. Carrying a pile of letters of introduction, but not knowing a single word of Spanish, he arrived in the country and began to work in the cattle farms and on the open plains of the country.

Being hardworking and English he rose to be quite a trusted man. Eventually he was able to purchase his own farm and run a farm. Thirty years later he eventually retired to England and these memoirs seem to have mostly been written for friends and family, though he dreamed of having them published. They weren't in his lifetime and we owe this edition to the editorship of Renée Scott who has translated and annotated them.

Empson's life was lucky. Most farm-workers in Uruguay, working on the herding and export of cows and sheep for European meat and wool markets didn't have it anywhere near so good. His working days are punctuated by time off from work for shooting and picnics.

Sadly Empson's writing really isn't good enough to make this a must read memoir of times past. He fails to bring the country or the people to life, and it the book hangs together as a collection of anecdotes. Sometimes these are fascinating - such as the description of the perils of locusts and how Empson spent one day collecting sack after sack of them, with help from the local army, in an effort to reduce crop damage. But sometimes the memories are little more than family history for his children and grandchildren - the list of pets for example, tells us of the skunk that disappeared and several dogs that played a lot. English readers might be interested to learn that the local meat factory was in the port city of Fray Bentos, explaining the origin of the British food brand name.

I suspect for someone interested in the detailed history of Uruguay's agriculture or particular individuals in the cattle industry, this book might have its uses. Unfortunately it is not a particularly well written story and Empson's life, while worthy, doesn't seem to illuminate the people, place or time much.

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