Jackass Penguins: The South American Idyll

Rachel Labine, RISD '10 English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

Employing first-person narratives, historical anecdotes, and matter-of-fact descriptions of terrain and wildlife, Bruce Chatwin chronicles his travels around southern South America in In Patagonia. He begins with a childhood fascination that later leads him to explore the region of Patagonia, with which he is so intrigued. The resulting travel-writing is factual and, for the most part, objectively presented. Despite the impartial nature of the writing, however, Chatwin manages to subtly comment on the history of South America, mainly through his choice of subject matter.

The town of Puerto Deseado is distinguished for a Salesian College that incorporates every architectural style from the Monastery of St. Gall to a multi-storey car-par; a Gruta de Lourdres; and a railway station in the form and proportion of a big Scottish country house.

I stayed at the Estacion de Biologia Marina with a party of scientists who dug enthusiastically for sandworms and squabbled about the Latin names of seaweed. The resident ornithologist, a severe young man, was studying the migration of the Jackass Penguin. We talked late into the night, arguing whether or not we, too, have journeys mapped out in our central nervous systems; it seemed the only way to account for our insane restlessness.

Next morning we rowed to the penguin colony on an island in mid-river. This, roughly, is what the ornithologist said:

The Magellanic or Jackass Penguin winters in the South Atlantic off the coast of Brazil. On November 10th sharp, fishermen at Puerto Deseado see the advance guard swimming up-river. The birds station themselves on the islands and wait for the rest. The masses arrive on the 24th and start refurnishing their burrows. They have a taste for bright pebbles and collect a few to decorate the entrances.

Penguins are monogamous, faithful unto death. Each pair occupies a minute stretch of territory and expels outsiders. The female lays from one to three eggs. There is no division of labour between the sexes: both go fishing and take turns to nurse the young. The colony breaks up with the cold weather in the first week of April.

The young had hatched and swelled to a size larger than their parents. We watched them waddle awkwardly to the shore and wallop into the water. In the seventeenth century, the explorer Sir John Narborough stood on the same spot and described them "standing upright like little children in white aprons in company together."

Albatrosses and penguins are the last birds I'd want to murder. [86-87]

In the passage above, Chatwin subtly switches voices several times, moving between an involved first-person account of observing the penguins to a detached, factual description of their behaviors.

1. Why, at the end of the passage, does Chatwin include the line "Albatrosses and penguins are the last birds I'd want to murder"? From where did the idea of murdering them come? Is this another allusion to the violence prevalent in South American history?

2. Why does Chatwin mention that he "talked late into the night" with these academics who had been arguing over the Latin names of seaweed? Is this detail included simply because it happened, or is he trying to assure the reader that he is intelligent and therefore credible?

3. Because most of the details given about the penguins emphasize the domesticity of their behaviors, this passage contrasts with other, more violent descriptions and narratives common throughout the book. How does this passage relate to the rest of the book, and is Chatwin trying to say something by including it?

4. Throughout In Patagonia, Chatwin presents a romanticized version of himself - brave and independent, traveling alone through South America. This passage does not give that impression. Is he lonely? If so, why does he let the reader know this?


Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

United Kingdom In Patagonia Reading and Discussion Questions

Last modified 31 October 2007