Bruce Chatwin: The Travel Writer and the Problem of Credibility

Abigail Metcalf (English 137, 1990)

A man travels to a foreign land and experiences a culture entirely different from his own, one in which he encounters innumerable oddities and strange personalities. During his trip, he comes to recognize some truth which he believes important enough to tell other people, but when he tries to communicate this discovery to them, they reject his vision. Dismissing it as subjective trash, they claim either that he saw merely what he wanted to see, or that his vision does not apply to everyone, or at least not to his own country. Worse yet, he hears allegations that his so-called discovery reveals itself on every street corner. Thus, the plight of the travel writer presents itself: how can he convince the reader of (1) the importance of his vision, (2) his objectivity and trustworthiness, and (3) the necessity of the trip for revelation?

Bruce Chatwin¹s In Patagonia solves these problems and thereby shows us that sometimes one can understand more in reading about an experience than in actual experience itself. Personal details establish his connections to Patagonia, yet he persuades us that he remains an outsider, and these factors combine to assure of his ability and qualifications to perceive the landscape with significant insight. The outlandish people and objects that characterize Chatwin's text convince of the clarity of vision made possible by the unique nature of Patagonia and her inhabitants. Using history, fiction, and repetition, Chatwin creates narrative strings that link together these found objects in his non-linear narrative and establish the meaning of his truth to our world.

Despite his constant hobnobbing with the locals and his personal ties, Chatwin never allows himself to become so connected to Patagonia that we begin to doubt his objectivity. His foreignness becomes obvious when Chatwin encounters a Scotsman who does not speak English. He tells the locals their friend is Scottish rather than English, but the difference between England and Scotland means nothing to the Scot-turned-Patagonian. Embarrassed in front of a stranger, Robbie only becomes upset when his drinking buddies call him a drunk in front of Chatwin. Constant images of death and details of his travels such as the journal entry conveying his mood of utter hopelessness as he walks down a rural road destroy contentions that Chatwin fails to see the real Patagonia because he continues to idealize it as he did in childhood.

United Kingdom In Patagonia