Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia uses the non-fiction subgenre of travel writing to create an inter-textual dialogue between mythology, history, and personal experience — "history aspires to the symmetry of myth" (p. 95); scientists try to confirm the existence of unicorns. Whether tracking down the obscure origins of "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" or exploring the cult of the Brujeria, Chatwin weaves his own wanderings with literary and historical threads that all somehow relate and establish a sense of a rich, but ultimately, impenetrable Patagonia.
The Straight of Magellan is another case of Nature imitating Art. A Nuremberg cartographer, Martin Beheim, drew the South-West Passage for Magellan to discover. His premise was entirely reasonable. South America, however peculiar, was normal compared to the Unknown Antarctic Continent, the Antichthon of the Pythagoreans, marked FOGS on mediaeval maps. In this Upside-down-land, snow fell upwards, trees grew downwards, the sun shone black, and sixteen-fingered Antipodeans danced themselves into ecstasy. WE CANNOT GO TO THEM, it was said, THEY CANNOT COME TO US. Obviously a strip of water had to divide this chimerical country from the rest of Creation.
On October 21st 1520, the Feast of St Ursula and her Eleven Thousand (shipwrecked) Virgins, the fleet rounded a headland which the Captain called Cabo Virgenes....
On the north shore a landing party found a stranded whale and a charnel-place of two hundred corpses raised on stilts. On the southern shore they did not land.
Tierra del Fuego - The Land of Fire. The fires were campfires of the Fuegian Indians. In one version Magellan saw smoke only and called it Tierra del Humo, the Land of Smoke, but Charles V said there was no smoke without fire and changed the name.
The Fuegians are dead and all the fires snuffed out. Only the flares of oil rigs cast a pall over the night sky. [p.111]
Although he pokes fun at Beheim's "entirely reasonable" premise and Charles V's insistence on titular extravagance, Chatwin manages to instill his history with a sort of horror and his present with a simple, but poignant, regret for the wonderful absurdities of the past.
1. In Wilde's "The Decay of Lying," Vivian makes a paradoxical claim about the relationship between Nature and Art: "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life, and I feel sure that if you think seriously about it you will find that it is true... Young men have committed suicide because Rolla did so, have died by their own hand because by his own hand Werther died. Think of what we owe to the imitation of Christ, of what we owe to the imitation of Caesar" (p.12). How does Chatwin use this same principle to add humor to an often disturbing piece, and how might we compare his humor with that of Wilde? How does this notion work in the novel as part of Chatwin's struggle to deal with historical memory and his own experience as mediated by the past?
2. What different techniques Chatwin does use to create satire? (think of key words like "Obviously" vs. drier statements of absurd trivial facts)
3. This selection focuses on the absurd superstitions and quaint notions of the past. However, Chatwin ends the passage with the understated but effective lament that "The Fuegians are dead and all the fires snuffed out. Only the flares of oil rigs cast a pall over the night sky" (p.111). How does Chatwin make such simple statements so powerful? How does he effectively intertwine his blunt observations with enticing and obscure history? How does he manage changes in tone while doing so?
4. Chatwin demonstrates a love for language and strange obsolete words in his relation of historical details. How does his choice of words enforce the tone of certain passages? (sixteen-fingered Antipodeans vs. two hundred dead corpses on stilts)
Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
Last modified 20 April 2005