Chatwin's Delay

Michael Laws, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

The title and first chapter of Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia have, for the reader, an almost contractual effect: Read on, the author promises, and you will get an anthropological and geographical exploration of this exotic and seldom-discussed part of the earth. So it is somewhat disconcerting to find that Chatwin delays in offering just that -- that he will first present an intricate mixture of personal anecdote, historical background information, et cetera, before getting to the real point. The majority of this digression is understandable in light of the "contract"; the Cold War discussion of the first chapter, for example, clues us in as to the reason Chatwin ever became interested in Patagonia to begin with. Still, the writer does dwell-- at great length, in some instances-- on scenes and characters that would appear to have only a tangential relationship to the Patagonian region. In Chapter Five, for example, Chatwin discusses a side-trip he and Bill Philips made to the farm of a Scotsman in Bahia Blanca:

Sonny Urquhart was a hard stringy man with blond hair swept back and parted in the centre. He had moles on his face and a big Adam's apple. The back of his neck was criss-crossed with lines from working hatless in the sun. His eyes were watery-blue, and rather bloodshot. . . . Sonny had a sister who was a nurse in Buenos Aires. When their mother died she came back home but she quarrelled with Sonny's peon. . . . One night they were both drunk, and the peon insulted her. She panicked and locked herself in her room. She felt something bad was going to happen and went back to her old job. Sonny and the peon fought after she'd gone.

The entirety of chapter five, in fact, concerns itself over Sonny Urquhart, his sister, and the peon-- characters whom we wouldn't expect to encounter again in the text. It should also be noted that these people are inhabitants not of the Patagonia region, but of the area just north of there-- "the last big place before the Patagonian desert," as Chatwin himself puts-- and, with the exception of the peon, are not even indigenous to that area; they are transplants.

Similar examples abound, and one cannot help but feel that these sketches are no more than that-- sketches of characters that Chatwin had probably made in whatever notebook or journal he kept during the time of his travels. And their insertion into the text can be, as I've stated earlier, quite frustrating; we -- or at least I -- found myself wondering just when Chatwin would get on with it, to Patagonia.

My question, then, must be the following: Why would Chatwin do this -- insert sketches of characters he met only briefly, in passing, effectively delaying his real project, which concerns the Patagonian area? Are these people necessary to his anthropological aims, even if they do not live in the region he wants to examine, even if they are not native South Americans? Equally importantly, what effect does this have on the reader -- other than the frustration I've noted?

United Kingdom In Patagonia Reading and Discussion Questions

Last modified 12 November 2003