Death in Patagonia

Brian Baskin, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

Bruce Chatwin seems to have an obsession with death and dead things. From the "brontosaurus skin" of the first chapter to his investigation into the final resting place of Wilson and Evans to the terminally ill locals he meets, he seems as much on a quest to explore the death of Patagonians as to understand their lives.

Despite providing a certain thematic unity, death and dying never really overshadow any particular chapter. Sometimes, images of death seem to be everywhere:

I followed some horse-tracks that combed through stubbly yellow grass. At one place, the ground was strewn with white flakes, the carapace of a dead armadillo. The track zig-zagged up the mesa and went down into a brown basin littered with dead trees . . . . Four peaks piled one on the other in a straight line: a purple hump, an orange column, a cluster of pink spires, and the cone of a dead volcano, ash grey and streaked with snow. [82-83]

Ye tell 'em anything's wrong and they'll cut the beasts to ribbons. Aye, it's a butchery, not a shearing that they do. [67]

Albatrosses and penguins are the last birds I'd want to murder. [87]

The latter two quotes have little to do with their fairly humorous chapters, but hint at more gruesome tales to come. While foreshadowing is a common literary technique, in these two cases the quotes are so different from their context as to be distracting.


How does Chatwin manage to write so much about death without creating a gloomy tone?

Are his many references to death and dying all intended to fulfill the same purpose, or is each instance defined by its context?

Does inserting death into otherwise more benign passages add weight, or just disrupt their flow?

United Kingdom In Patagonia Reading and Discussion Questions

Last modified 9 April 2002