Bruce Chatwin recounts his travels through Patagonia, a foreign land full of extraordinary mysteries, in his book In Patagonia. His account of the journey abounds with vivid descriptions that not only set the scenery for the readers but also captivate their attention and draw them immediately to the place itself. With each movement that Chatwin makes and with each change in the visual field, the readers become gradually involved in the mystery of Patagonia.
Outside the village there were irrigated plantations of maize and squash, and orchards of cherries and apricots. Along the line of the river, the willows were all blown about and showing their silvery undersides. The Indians had been cutting withies and there were fresh white cuts and the smell of sap. The river was swollen with snowmelt from the Andes, fast-running and rustling the reeds. Purple swallows were chasing bugs. When they flew above the cliff, the wind caught them and keeled them over in a fluttering reversal, and they dropped again low over the river.
The cliff rose sheer above a ferry-landing. I climbed a path and from the top looked up-stream towards Chile. I could see the river, glinting and sliding through the bone-white cliffs with strips of emerald cultivation either side. Away from the cliffs was the desert. There was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass, and no other sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones. [pp. 14-15]
Chatwin's detailed descriptions in the passage above appeal not only to the visual sense but also to that of smell and sound, evoking a more personal experience on the part of the traveler.
1. Chatwin uses the past tense in his writing but the image he paints with his words creates a feeling of the present. What factors do you think play a role in this displacement of time?
2. Word choice is important in producing evocative descriptions. The passage has examples such as "silvery undersides," "swollen with snowmelt," "bone-white cliffs," and "emerald cultivation." What are other examples and how would the passage be different if these words were absent from the writing?
3. What effects does Chatwin produce to you as the reader by appealing to the sense of smell and sound in addition to that of sight?
4. How would you compare Chatwin's abundance of descriptions to the descriptions found in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff?
Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
Last modified 19 April 2005