Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia journeys through the exotic land of Patagonia, in the far-off southern tip of South America. Chatwin tenuously strings together his stories through a central, but frequently invisible narrator who describes the land, its history and people. Patagonia has no clear national identity, defined instead by its disparate collection of people; Chatwin's Patagonia is in each of the people he meets.
The poet lived along a lonely stretch of river, in overgrown orchards of apricots, alone in a two-roomed hut. He had been a teacher of literature in Buenos Aires. He came down to Patagonia forty years back and stayed.
I knocked on the door and he woke. It was drizzling and while he dressed I sheltered under the porch and watched his colony of pet toads.
His fingers gripped my arm. He fixed me with an intense and luminous stare.
'Patagonia!' he cried. 'She is a hard mistress. She casts her spell. An enchantress! She folds you in her arms and never lets go.'
The rain drummed on the tin roof. For the next two hours he was my Patagonia.
...His desk was littered with broken almond shells and his favorite books; Ovid's Tristia, The Georgics, Walden, Pigafetta's Voyage of Magellan, Leaves of Grass, The Poem of Martin Fierro, The Purple Land and Blake's Songs of Innocence, of which he was especially fond.
Smacking it free of dust, he gave me a copy of his Canto on the Last Flooding of the Chubut River, privately printed in Trelew, which combined, in Alexandrines, his vision of the Deluge and a paean of praise for the engineers of the new dam. He had published two volumes of poetry in his life, Voices of the Earth and Rolling Stones, the last named after the layer of glacier-rolled pebbles that cover the Patagonian pampas. The scope of his verse was cosmic; technically it was astonishing. He managed to squeeze the extinction of the dinosaurs into rhymed couples using Spanish and Linnaean Latin.
...It stopped raining and I came to leave. Bees hummed around the poet's hives. His apricots were ripening the colour of a pale sun. Clouds of thistledown drifted across the view and in a field there were some fleecy white sheep. [pp. 29-30]
The descriptions of Chatwin's surroundings often read as a list rattled off as an afterthought. The short terse sentences are seemingly meant only for utilitarian purposes-for readers to retain a connection with Chatwin's journey. In Patagonia struggles to remain a cohesive work while honoring the essentially disparate elements of the land. Chatwin weaves stories of Patagonia into a patchwork, fabricated by the individual people, and manages to do so by placing each disparate story with concise statements of location and time. Chatwin has written his physical presence into the book as the invisible linchpin holding together the narrative's gossamer strands. Chatwin creates a timeline in this passage-two hours, the span of a rain storm-but also locates readers in his physical surroundings by cataloguing the details of his surroundings. By doing so, Chatwin is able to do with In Patagonia what he says this poet has accomplished with his poetry: "The scope of his verse was cosmic; technically it was astonishing". What is astonishing about Chatwin's work, are his attempts to capture on paper the truest wonder of Patagonia.
1. Why does Chatwin mention the apricot trees twice in the passage? What does the additional detail-"colour of the pale sun" add to his validity as a narrator?
2. Chatwin's sentences often feel choppy and sporadic. What is the effect of the jump from the second paragraph: "...watched his colony of pet toads" to "His fingers gripped my arm"?
3. Does this poet exist? What is it about Chatwin's description which supports his existence or non-existence?
Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.
Last modified 31 October 2007