Walking the Line Between Fiction and Non-Fiction: Chatwin's Use of Memory and Embellishment in "In Patagonia"

Jennifer Hahn, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

What I find striking about In Patagonia is the extent to which Bruce Chatwin relies upon details, so much so that it seems impossible that all of these details are authentic. For example, on page 14, in a very descriptive passage, Chatwin writes:

A single man was walking up the street, his brown felt hat pulled low over his face. He was carrying a sack and walking into the white dustclouds, out into the country. Some children sheltered in a doorway and tormented a lamb. From one hut came the noise of the radio and sizzling fat. A lumpy arm appeared and threw a dog a bone.

Did Chatwin write all of this from memory? Did he carry a notebook around with him and jot down all of these observations? Or, did he invent specific details based on vague impressions and memories?

In a related observation, the numerous people Bruce Chatwin meets seem as important, if not more important than the places he visits. I find it odd that one would go to Patagonia in order to visit with Germans, Englishmen, Welsh, and Italians, but that's probably beside the point. Anyway, it seems unlikely that his representations of all the people he meets are strictly accurate. Either Chatwin has an extraordinary memory, or he's embellishing a bit to come up with all of his vivid details and character descriptions. Chatwin's descriptions of people are so detailed that he is miraculously able to divine their thoughts. Perhaps these people told him of their innermost longings, but it is equally likely that Chatwin made up their internal life. In "A Mixed Marriage," Chatwin writes that "Ivor Davies could not believe the world was as bad as everyone said." Did Ivor Davies tell Chatwin this, or is Chatwin merely guessing, based on his observations, what Davies thinks about the world? Later in "A Mixed Marriage," Chatwin describes the longings of Ivor Davies' wife:

For Mrs Ivor Davies was dreaming of Italy, and of Venice in particular. She had once seen Venice and the Bridge of Sighs. And when she said the word sospiri, she said it so loudly and insistently that you knew she was pining for Italy. Chubut was so very far from Venice and Venice was far more beautiful than anything else she knew.

This is an interesting passage, because Chatwin does give us a hint of how he sees into people's souls. Because Mrs. Davies says "sospiri" loudly and insistently he knows that she misses Italy. But at the end of the paragraph, Chatwin seems to slip into free indirect discourse when he says, as if imitating Mrs. Davies voice, "Chubut was so very far away from Venice." Is Chatwin faithfully representing the desires of Mr. And Mrs. Davies? Do you believe that his details, his intimate knowledge of his subjects, are authentic? Or do you think Chatwin is using his imagination to embellish? If so, what effect does this have on his ethos? Why do you think he does this? Does Chatwin's use of his imagination threaten the work's status as non-fiction? Why does Chatwin spend so much time focusing on the personalities of people who he only stays with for a night or even a few hours?

United Kingdom In Patagonia Reading and Discussion Questions

Last modified 9 April 2002