The Blend of Past and Present in Chatwin's In Patagonia

Will Goodman '05, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

Now I'm here, walking along with Bruce Chatwin through Patagonia, feeling the sun that he feels, seeing the sky that he sees, hearing the birds that he hears. But suddenly, I am swept far away, decades, centuries, way back in time, rooting through the tales and fossils of eras long gone.

And so goes the reading of Chatwin's travel book, In Patagonia. Chatwin constantly shakes up the narrative, infusing his day-to-day experiences with historical context and explanation. The present quickly becomes the past, and the past is taken full circle to the present. The following two paragraphs show one such shift through time; the first paragraph concludes chapter 41 and the second paragraph starts chapter 42:

The river ran down to a lake, Lago Ghio, with water a bright milky turquoise. The shores were blinding white and the cliffs also were white, or striped horizontally white and terracotta. Along the north shore were clear water lagoons of sapphire blue separated from the opaline water by a band of grass. Thousands of black-necked swans studded the surface of the lake. The shallows were pink with flamingos.

Paso Roballos really did look like a site for the Golden City and perhaps it was. [p.83]

Around 1650 two Spanish sailors, both deserters and murderers, stumbled out of the forests opposite the island of Chiloé, after walking up the eastern side of the Andes from the Strait of Magellan. Perhaps to divert the Governor's attention from their crimes, they reported the existence of a city of silver-roofed palaces, whose inhabitants were white-skinned, spoke Spanish and were descendants of survivors from Pedro de Sarmiento's colony on the Strait. [p. 83]

Questions for Discussion

What is different about Chatwin's style and voice in the two paragraphs? How does he clue us in to his tonal changes?

In the "The Pump House Gang" Tom Wolfe shifts from being a ventriloquist for his subjects to a more detached cultural commentator. How would we compare Wolfe's narrative technique to Chatwin's? Are there other points (besides the two paragraphs above) where Chatwin seems more like Wolfe?

In the first paragraph, how does Chatwin use rhythm and syntax to evoke an image of his experience? Do we get a good sense of what he is seeing?


Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. New York: Summit Books, 1977.

United Kingdom In Patagonia Reading and Discussion Questions

Last modified 26 April 2005