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Book review: Ambassador of Nowhere by Richard Gwyn

14 Apr 2024 6 minute read
Ambassador of Nowhere by Richard Gwyn is published by Seren Books

Dylan Moore

Richard Gwyn begins his new book reminiscing about a map hanging on a bedroom wall in a student house in east London some time in the 1970s.

Where thousands of others down the generations have placed Bob Marley, 2Pac, Renton from Trainspotting or Taylor Swift, Gwyn’s pin-up at age nineteen was an entire continent, with which he believed he enjoyed ‘a special connection or allegiance’.

A hundred pages later, the author recounts a parallel spur to journey: ‘the scrap of reddish fur, belonging to a giant sloth or mylodon’ that formed the ‘alleged motive’ for Bruce Chatwin’s (in)famous journey to Patagonia which has since entered the realm of legend in literary history.

But where Chatwin’s book has – at least in Gwyn’s opinion – ‘not stood the test of time’, measured either by literary merit or from an ethical point of view, the volume in hand is an altogether different prospect.


Where Chatwin exploits his hosts in pursuit of material, and often simply makes stuff up, Gwyn has a self-effacing style and a commitment to truth-telling that makes for often makes for reading that is painfully honest.

Ambassador of Nowhere delicately holds in tension that sometimes awkward phrase: ‘creative nonfiction’ is, for once, a really good genre description for a work that has ‘factual’ and ‘lyrical’ as contrapuntal lodestars.

Ostensibly a travelogue about translation, anchored around a quest narrative in which our hero ambles through various Latin American literary festivals in search of poems for an anthology (The Other Tiger, also published by Seren in 2016), the sturdy volume is in fact a compendium of notes ‘gathered over several years of intermittent travel’ that also concerns the writer’s struggles with addiction and relationship with his father.

It is a ‘making of’ documentary for the anthology, with no requirement for the reader to have prior knowledge of the poetry, and plenty of ‘extras’.

Seedy clubs

Unlike many writers who might choose to marshal such disparate material into seamlessness by smoothing out the rough edges of when things went wrong or what actually happened, Gwyn is never afraid to show the reader the joins.

And so we follow the writer through bars and brothels, lonely hotel rooms and seedy clubs as well as at literary readings and university lectures.

Such misadventures – on which Gwyn is often shadowed by an alter-ego from previous incarnations of himself, a man he calls Gaston – culminate in a night at a Bogota punk club called Infierno (Hell), where he tries to shake a dim and distant memory of reading at a London gig by The Cure.

It is in the incidental details that travel writing finds what Gwyn calls ‘glimmers from the other side of the mirror’, and it is among such inopportune and in-between moments within the text – ‘an unexpected attack of loneliness… an inability to choose between places to eat in Coyoacan’ – that Gwyn’s book really finds its subject.

In fact, as the author succinctly puts it himself: ‘In the ever-shifting cartography of the writer, the vehicle for discovery is the work itself’.


Until very recently, Gwyn was Professor of Creative and Critical Writing at Cardiff University, and it shows; in many respects this is a book of interest to authors, its protagonist a writer’s writer writing about writers.

The author’s journeys – to Nicaragua, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Colombia and Chile – become a kind of shaking out of that old remembered map from his student days, a chance to layer experience onto the knowledge of place through the reading of histories and poetries.

But the writer constantly doubts himself – ‘What on earth was I up to?’ he asks himself more than once, sharing misgivings and doubts not only about the creative project and putative ambassadorial role, but about the transitory, translatory – often also illusory – nature of capturing experience, and by extension life itself.

There are, perhaps inevitably, commonplaces here. Gwyn falls into the familiar travel writing trope of retreading the footsteps of others.

In Patagonia, Gwyn recycles Jon Gower’s observations as well as engaging with Chatwin; in Medellin, he writes about Pablo Escobar even when avoiding the trail of dark tourism that has evolved in the wake of narco-violence; in Rosario, he recounts well-known facts about Che Guevara.

In Mexico, he writes about Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other writers of ‘El Boom’ send Gwyn on his way.


But these icons, stories and semi-mythical figures that illustrate the map of Latin America in the imagination of the rest of the world are set alongside a deep engagement with the poetry of the continent, and many less told stories, including the vital ingredient in all great work of this kind: anecdotes born of personal experience – the stuff you couldn’t possibly make up.

These include the story that gives the book its title: a provincial policeman’s refusal to believe the author is any kind of ambassador.

Richard Gwyn soon regrets explaining that he is the ‘embajador’ of Creative Wales, a role bestowed on the writer by the Arts Council in 2014.

He has his own words describing the fact that Wales is not a sovereign state repeated back to him with increasing mirth, and is finally anointed ‘Ambassador of Nowhere’.


It is a light-hearted insult that in becoming the book’s title nevertheless sets these thoughtful travel essays in the canon of such uncategorisable works alongside Jan Morris’ classic Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.

It will be no small praise from me to set Gwyn’s book on my shelves alongside that legendary little volume.

There is also Gwyn’s vignette about the gargantuan branch of Wal-Mart visible from the Aztec pyramid of Teotihuacan, catnip for a reader such as myself whose own writing feeds on such observations: the way the past invades the present, and vice versa, as well as the equivalent relationship between elsewhere and home.


Sitting outside a Mexico City bar, Gwyn ruminates on the nature of being a foreigner. ‘I was more myself in other places than I ever was in the place where I grew up,’ he writes, and I underline the sentence immediately.

If it wasn’t already obvious, it confirms why I was asked to review this particular book. There are twenty-five years but just ten miles between the south Powys upbringings of myself and Richard Gwyn.

I too had the proverbial map of South America on my wall. And as Jan Morris almost wrote, the embassies of Nowhere are everywhere.

Ambassador of Nowhere: A Latin American Pilgrimage by Richard Gwyn is published by Seren. It is available from all good bookshops.

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