Bruce Chatwin depicts Patagonia as one of the last outposts on earth where the encroachment of civilization is still routinely trumped by fantasy and possibility and unpredictability. No one in Patagonia can ever be sure of reality, and this is reflected in the structure of his story, "In Patagonia." Chatwin uses a number of wide-ranging stories about his interactions with the people of Patagonia and also describes seemingly random stories that the reader eventually realizes has some connection to Patagonia and the idea of this land as the new last frontier. Only in Patagonia can one still search for dinosaurs or meet a native Italian or Welshman hundreds of miles from the nearest significant South American city, and thousands of miles from Europe. The theme of Patagonia as the last frontier also manifests itself in Chatwin's style of storytelling. When Chatwin introduces Butch Cassidy's story to the reader, he takes a widely recognized but not very well-known American classic, and he makes it relevant to Patagonia through its structure.
The classic account of their death, at San Vicente, Bolivia, in December 1909, following their theft of a mine payroll, was first set down in Elk's Magazine for 1930 by the Western poet, Arthur Chapman. It was an ideal scenario for the movie-makers; the brave cavalry captain shot while trying to arrest the gringos; the mud-walled courtyard full of dead mules; the impossible odds; the Kid first wounded, then shot through the head by Butch, who, having now killed a man, reserves the last bullet for himself. The episode ends with the Bolivian soldiers finding Etta's Tiffany watch on one of the bodies.
No one knows where Chapman got the story: Butch Cassidy could have invented it himself. His aim, after all, was to 'die' in South America and re-emerge under a new name. The shooting at San Vicente was investigated by the late President Rene Barrientos, Che Guevara's killer, himself an ardent Western history buff. He put a team on to solving the mystery, grilled the villagers personally, exhumed the corpses in the cemetery, checked the army and police files, and concluded that the whole thing was a fabrication. Nor did the Pinkertons believe it. They have their own version, based on the skimpiest of evidence, that the 'family of 3' died together in a shoot-out with the Uruguyan police in 1911. Three years later they assumed Butch Cassidy dead - which, if he were alive, was exactly what he wanted.
Chatwin's long, halting sentences read almost like a movie, with the action stopping and starting again with the changing of the scene. But this strange sequence of events, many of which the reader would be unfamiliar with during the initial reading, embodies the idea of Patagonia that Chatwin wants to convey. He wants the reader to question what is happening in the narrative, did Butch really die in Patagonia? Or did he survive with the others? Can Chapman be correct about the story? These are the questions that once existed in the stories of the Wild West, but that now can only be found in Patagonia.
1. Can we know for sure the outcome of Butch Cassidy's story? Do you think Chatwin knows the true story? Would he even care about the true outcome of the Cassidy's tale?
2. Why does Chatwin reference the public figures such as Chapman, Barrientos and especially Guevara? What would the effect have been if he had simply told us the story of Cassidy's fate and then questioned it at the end?
3. How does this story fit in with the rest of Chatwin's stories? Does it seem random at first? Are you surprised that Chatwin eventually brings the story of the Wild West to Patagonia?
4. Why does Chatwin end the second paragraph with the conclusion, that everyone thinking Cassidy was dead "if he were alive, was exactly what he wanted?"
Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.
Last modified 1 November 2007