Chatwin's Love of Stories

Jeffrey Fronza, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

More than anything else, Bruce Chatwin's love of stories comes across in his book In Patagonia. In his journey through Patagonia he follows stories rather than maps, and lovingly retells them to his reader. These stories range the from local history, to sea adventures, to Westerns, to scientific explanations. The difference between fact and fiction is not only blurred during the book, but is rendered unimportant. The quality of the stories themselves is the only filtering Chatwin seems to impose on his book. Fantastic explanations are given as much weight as realistic explanations, even more when the story is a better one. This methodology is made apparent in a series of passages towards the end of the book.

There was, however, a point at which the extinct beast merged with the living beast, and the beast of the imagination. Indian legends and travellers' tales had convinced some zoologists that a big mammal had survived the catastrophes of the Ice Age and lingered on in the Southern Andes. There were five contenders. [189]

And then he goes on to list and explain these options. At the end the scientific truth of the matter is revealed, but its status as Truth does not detract from the value of the other creative interpretations. Instead, it is stated matter-of-factly as a way of moving on to a different topic: "The modern verdict, based on radio-cardon dates, is that the mylodon was alive ten thousand years ago, but not since" (192).

Does Chatwin's primary focus on the stories of the place rather than the inner lives of the people of the place lead to a more superficial understanding of Patagonia than if he had, like McPhee, settled in one village and lived with a family? In this book, is the relationship between place and time the same as in McPhee's? If not, what accounts for the difference?

United Kingdom In Patagonia Reading and Discussion Questions

Last modified 9 April 2002