The longest journey

Between Extremes: A Journey Beyond Imagination

Brian Keenan and John McCarthy <em>Bantam, 345pp, £

Since Magellan stumbled on them while in search of the East Indies, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego have long attracted other travellers with ulterior motives. Most never planned to stay; Brian Keenan and John McCarthy are among the few who truly wanted to be there. As hostages imprisoned in Beirut for four years, they fantasised about raising yaks on the distant plains of Patagonia, at the end of the Earth, to create hope in near hopeless captivity.

Five years after their release they went to Chilean Patagonia to discover what they had only dreamed about. This book unites two splendid accounts of the weeks they spent travelling from north to farthest south, through the longest country in the world. It was also the end of a much longer personal odyssey.

The most unusual episode in their journey, under the leadership of a notoriously intrepid guide, was a week's trek on horses across high Andean passes into Argentina. Heading south again across the frontier between Chile and the land of the Araucanian Indians, never conquered by Spain, the travellers eventually reached the Beagle Channel, in the extreme south of the continent, and finally the windswept (but potentially yak-friendly) shores of the Magellan Straits.

Their progress follows the natural pattern of all travel books about Chile, but much of the appeal of their account is that it comprises the views of two people who understand each other so extraordinarily well. So we have images of Chile from different angles and in different dimensions, revealing the kinds of truths about the self that often stay submerged.

The same applies to the authors' views of recent Chilean history. Strong political strands inevitably run through the book, although it was written before the arrest of General Pinochet put the issue of human rights in Chile back into the headlines. So two perceptive and humane western Europeans - one a radical and nationalist Irishman, the other a liberal-minded Englishman - arrive in Chile with predictable ideas about a faraway country of which they know so little. They expect to find Chileans demanding retribution for the misdeeds of the Pinochet regime; and when they hear little of the sort are inclined to believe that people must still be afraid to speak out.

Brian Keenan's personal baggage included the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Chile's 20th-century romantic icon, and some intensely personal ideas about the country's (partly Irish) founding father, Bernardo O'Higgins. His writing is strongly affected by imagined links with these dominant Chilean heroes, and Neruda's politics in particular. John McCarthy assumes more of the reporter's detachment but remains convinced that all Chileans must long for some sort of final reckoning with the military dictatorship, beyond that achieved since the restoration of democracy in 1990. Both were surprised to find that most Chileans have no desire to reopen old wounds.

But, in the end, this is not a book about Chilean politics; it is, first and last, the story of two men of uncommon courage who survived a captivity that would have destroyed most of us and are triumphantly celebrating themselves in a new country. Both Keenan and McCarthy have already written remarkable and moving books about their ordeal in Beirut. They have now given us something more of themselves: not merely a reworking of that experience but the story in depth of a friendship developing from a life-saving response to extreme necessity into a life-enhancing relationship.

John Hickman, a former British ambassador in Chile, is the author of "News from the End of the Earth: a portrait of Chile"