The Mirage of Patagonia

Paul Merrylees, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia progresses according to a logic that is almost dreamlike, as the author presents a montage of people and places and ideas, without any necessary link to one another and not necessarily preceding along a sequence that follows the rules of narrative tension and release. One picture replaces the next, one history replaces the next, and all the images overlap and fade into one another as Chatwin moves deeper into the terra incognita that is Patagonia. His chapters are short and pointed and filled with detail. Near the beginning of the book, he writes

I walked along the esplanade and looked out at the even line of cliffs spreading round the bay. . . . Halfway along was a concrete monument in memory of the Welsh. It looked like the entrance to a bunker. Let into its sides were bronze reliefs representing Barbarism and Civilization. Barbarism showed a group of Tehuelche Indians, naked, with slabby back muscles in the Soviet style . . .

At dinner the waiter wore white gloves and served a lump of burnt lamb that bounced on the plate. Spread over the restaurant wall was an immense canvas of gauchos herding cattle into an orange sunset. An old-fashioned blonde gave up on the lamb and sat painting her nails. An Indian came in drunk and drank through three jugs of wine. His eyes were glittering slits in the red leather shield of his face. The jugs were of green plastic in the shape of penguins. [22]

In The Crofter and the Laird, also a travel narrative, John McPhee creates a central narrative of the land and people of Colonsay that is woven tightly together and forms one coherent whole. In his travel account, Chatwin does almost the opposite: he meanders, he moves rapidly from one place and one thought to the next, he leaves things behind, and he takes long diversions that become pathos of their own. How does this macroscopic effect come through, if at all, in the particular narrative and rhetorical techniques with which he paints his scenes?

Chatwin's tone is that of one who has seen-it-all, almost, and is at times conspicuously learned. In this brief passage he makes reference to the soviet style of relief sculpting, old fashioned blonds, and uses terms like gauchos, Barbarism and Civilization in a way that assumes the reader is with him, naturally. He makes little attempt to elaborate or explain about many of the exotic terms that he introduces. What attitudes does this convey about traveling? About travel-writing?

Chatwin frequently ends the episodes in his book with sentences like "the jugs were of green plastic in the shape of penguins" -- he has moved from a general description of Port Madryn to a description of his dinner at a restaurant, and now he suddenly focuses on a drunken Indian with eyes like "slits in the red leather shield of his face", and then moves to the wine jugs before the Indian, which are green plastic and in the shape of penguins. His ending seems to have little relevance or cohesion with the bulk of the preceding passage; in fact, it seems to lead off in a different direction before dead-ending in the white space before the next chapter. Why does Chatwin do this? What effect does this kind of ending have on his travel-writing?

United Kingdom In Patagonia Reading and Discussion Questions

Last modified 17 November 2003