“Cities are invisible,” Italo Calvino has written, meaning that they exist within the mind. Each traveler will encounter a new place according to their own ideas, will find different aspects salient, will remember different things after returning home. So for Bruce Chatwin; his Patagonia isn’t so much a place as a tapestry of common inhabitants and daring mythmakers who have lived in this southernmost region of South America. In Chatwin’s hands Patagonia comes to possess a rich, deep, deep cultural history consisting largely of madmen, dreamers, and everyday eccentrics.
In Patagonia is Chatwin’s slender, firm record of the months he spent traveling up and down the land. It’s written in numerous, short chapters (some barely a page) that Chatwin himself likened to photographs that capture a decisive moment. True to his equation of author and photographer, Chatwin rarely appears in these travel stories (probably for the best, as most accounts find him a horrid egotist and an incessant talker). Rather, Chatwin focuses on the people he meets and the mythologized figures who have passed through the land: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who came to live in Patagonia after robbing banks in the U.S. became too difficult; the Sect of the Brujeria, which makes waistcoats from dead Christians; Thomas Bridges, who made it his life’s work to construct a dictionary of the Yaghan Indian language; and the unsuccessful anarchist Simon Radowitzky, among others. These stories are usually tied to a place Chatwin visits–he has either heard an account from a Patagonian, or is visiting a village in search of more information, or has his interest sparked by an obscure monument or local ceremony.
Once told, stories are often come back to. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for instance, are revisited a number of times as Chatwin receives differing accounts–first they die in a shootout in Bolivia, then they live quietly in the U.S. after propagandizing that they were killed, then they’re a couple of outlaws in the Chilean Andes. The stories often mix together as well with the cumulative effect that it would take some work to sort out the network of associations and references that spans this rather short book.
These stories give In Patagonia a surprising range, allowing Chatwin to quickly change keys from mythic to realistic to allegorical to comic to tragic. While discussing the Sect of the Brujeria, for instance, Chatwin’s prose takes a Borgesian turn:
No one can recall the memory of a time when the central Committee did not exist. Some have suggested that the Sect was in embryo even before the emergence of Man. It is equally plausible that Man himself became Man through fierce opposition to the Sect. We know for a fact that the Challanco is the Evil Eye. Perhaps the term “Central Committee” is a synonym for Beast.
At other points, as when Chatwin is recounting the story of a failed anarchist or other type of political idealist, the stories feel something like the flyover biographies found in John Dos Passos’s USA Trilogy. They summarize a life in the span of a few pages, and short as they are, one can’t help but feel melancholy over the inevitably sad fate doled out to these activists who seemingly couldn’t help but follow their beliefs into oblivion.
Whether discussing historical characters or people he happens to meet while traveling, Chatwin sparsely and skillfully draws his fellow humans. A group of laborers “talk about their mate [tea] as other men talk about their women.” A Welsh woman’s dialog encapsulates her character: “‘I can’t move, my dear,’ she called through. ‘You’ll have to come and talk to me in the kitchen. . . . I can’t move an inch, my darling. I’m crippled. I’ve had arthritis since the flood and have to be carried everywhere.’” Her taciturn son is snapped up in a couple descriptive sentences: “He ate too much cake for his own good. He called his grandmother ‘Granny’ but otherwise he did not speak English or Welsh.”
As with the people so with Chatwin’s penetrating descriptions of the land, which are given to us in sharp phrases or via short paragraphs of a few explosive sentences. Chatwin finds Patagonia a place of “vicious” sunsets in “red and purple,” in which “damp whiskey had bitten rings into the french polish.” It has towns of “shabby concrete buildings, tin bungalows, tin warehouses and a wind-flattened garden” and train stations with a “photo of a soft middle-class boy with slicked-down hair, wanted for murdering the Fiat executive.”
Although Chatwin is quick to describe the surfaces of the Patagonian land and people, very rarely does the author drop beneath them. This, however, is not the same as saying that the book is lacking for Chatwin’s opinion; rather, by carefully picking details and fine-tuning his prose, Chatwin is able to covey quite a bit. Take, for instance, this paragraph about a Frenchman named Orelie-Antoine de Tounens who went to Patagonia, got himself named king of the Araucanian Indians, and then went back to France advertising “La Nouvelle France”:
Nine months later, penniless and stung by indifference, he returned to Araucania with a horse, a mule and a servant called Rosales. (When hiring this individual he made the common tourist’s mistake of confusing fifteen for fifty pesos.) At the first village his subjects were drunk, but they revived and passed word for the tribes to muster. The king spoke of Natural and International Law; the Indians replied with vivas. He stood within a circle of naked horsemen, in a brown poncho, with a white fillet round his head, saluting with stiff Napoleonic gestures. He unfurled the Tricolour, crying, “Long live the Unity of the Tribes! Under a single chief! Under a single flag!”
Between the indignity of making a “common tourist’s mistake,” the mocking use of “the king” to refer to Orelie-Antoine, intimating that the ponchoed Orelie-Antoine views himself as Napoleon, and, finally, suggesting his egoism and/or hypocrisy by reminding us that he is joining the tribes under a French king with a French flag it’s not hard to read between the lines. Still, Chatwin never comes off as heavy-handed, and, as with this paragraph, Chatwin always retains the plausible excuse that he is simply describing what he found.
Although it’s clear enough that Chatwin’s intelligence is silently guiding the framing and presentation of all the photographic descriptions he gives to us, it’s nonetheless disquieting when at the end of chapter 44 Chatwin suddenly informs us that “albatrosses and penguins are the last birds I’d want to murder.” This strange personal declaration is noteworthy because it’s almost the first time in the entire book that Chatwin had allowed himself to intrude directly into his restrained prose.
Stranger still are two meager journal paragraphs that Chatwin happens to include at one point for no apparent reason. By far the single longest string of interior monologue in the entire book, they feel like a flaw purposely built into this labyrinth of surface details, something to remind us that behind it exists a frail human who actually saw it all. In them, Chatwin details the days in which he walks along a highway hoping to hitch a ride with a trucker, and as he drifts he speaks to himself in the second-person, as if writing was a means for communicating with something while on the road and combating his loneliness:
Walked all day and the next day. The road straight, grey, dusty, and trafficless. The wind restless, heading you off. Sometimes you heard a truck, you knew for certain it was a truck, but it was the wind. Or the noise of gears changing down, but that also was the wind. Sometimes the wind sounded like an unloaded truck banging over a bridge. Even if a truck had come up behind you wouldn’t have heard it.
In these two paragraphs Chatwin describes wandering from within the mind of a wanderer; the rest of In Patagonia is essentially the same thing described from without. Commenting on why he chose Patagonia for his travels, Chatwin has written that “Patagonia is the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origins. It is therefore a symbol of his restlessness.” And then, commenting on each of the stories he tells: “All the stories were chosen with the purpose of illustrating some particular aspect of wandering and/or of exile: i.e., what happens when you get stuck.” This is an outgrowth of Chatwin’s personal philosophy on humanity–as recounted by Sybille Bedford in The New York Review of Books, he told The Guardian that “he has a horror of houses, possessions, fixed abodes, counting himself naturaliser one of the nomads. He appears to believe that settlement is unnatural and degenerative for humankind.”
In Patagonia is the kind of book one would expect to get from someone so committed (at least nominally) to nomadism. In its essential plotlessness, its jumble of stories, travels, and people and places, In Patagonia embodies the feelings of restlessness and wandering. Necessarily lacking much of a central narrative, the book nonetheless propels a reader forward with its episodic, short chapters and Chatwin’s sharp prose that rarely lingers on any detail for more than a few sentences. It is rightly viewed as a groundbreaking work in literature–travel or otherwise.
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by The Quarterly Conversation