Bruce Chatwin's Personas in Songlines and In Patagonia
Frederica Miller '91 (English 137, 1990)
Songlines and In Patagonia place different emphases on the self. In Songlines , as in Chatwin's primarily autobiographical writing, his central concerns are personal development and nomadic life. Thinking of the book as a story of Chatwin╣s life (and therefore as involving a somewhat chronological organization), the reader is not upset if the plot merely follows real events as long as they are interesting and meaningful. Chatwin can develop, slowly, the ideas that come to him as he becomes involved with the Aborigines. He relies most upon convincing self-characterization and upon his emotional tone to maintain interest in Songlines , and he assumes that we will like and respect his heroes. In Patagonia , on the other hand, requires tight structuring of each incident so that it has symbolic relevance to his final thesis. Superfluous information would suggest that the travel writer does not know what is important or has trouble with organization. We learn less about him in this book, because he focuses on his themes: we read travel writing because we want to learn, not about the author, but about a place. An effective persona, however, is still necessary before a travel writer can convince us that he brings us then truth about the our society, foreign countries, or ourselves. The author╣s choice of genre often determines which persona he will use. Lawrence, for example, emphasized supposedly essential qualities inherent in the couintries he visits, and as a writer he therefore presented himself as a master of interpretation or as someone who saw past sensual impressions and surface physical materials to deeper meaning. McPhee preferred to present himself as a trustworthy and affable writer who researched well and reported faithfully. In In Patagonia , Chatwin suggests that the country is a complex, dangerous place full of different kinds of people with different perspectives and interpretiions of their world. In such a world in which no one interpretation is valid presenting onself as a master of interpretation in the manner of Ruskin and Lawrence would be useless, so Chatwin chooses instead to appear more like McPhee as a reporter. For In Patagonia , he privileges his resourcefulness over his affability, since his primary problem does not involve convincing people to confide in him but just dealing with them and the country. When he insists on walking the dangerous track from Harberton to Viamonte as Lucas Bridges had done, he proves that he goes to all lengths for information. Even after hearing that the track is dangerous and impassable, Chatwin resolves to go. Since his success makes the difference whether we consider him foolish or trustworthy, when he completes the trek we find ourselves convinced of his competence and determination. He is not limited to this persona, however, and uses a different one in Songlines . In that work he expects us to agree with his judgment of the aborigines, and he concentrates upon explicating his own beliefs and thought processes. In addition, the extreme privacy of the aborigines requires care rather than savvy manipulativeness or feats of strength. His problems are more like those of McPhee╣s need to elicit information or the autobiographical writer's need to elicit our interest. He presents himself as affable in relation to the natives. He is constantly cooking for them, offering and buying them drinks, and enduring their sometimes callous behavior. When one of the aborigines has no shoes, he lies and tells her that he has an extra pair for her. His willingness to give up his thongs, which allow her to come with him, is proof of his eagerness to do whatever it takes to learn from the native inhabitants. Putting himself in this egalitarian or reverential position signals that they deserve more respect that white Australians give them, and it also gives an example for us to follow. Chatwin, however, does not simply care about seeming nice. The fact that he tells us that it was his last pair forces us to either view him as a whiner or as a man interested in managing others. Elsewhere, after cooking for natives, he expresses surprise at receiving no thanks, and when he compares the aborigines to bankers, there is a hint of resentment that his work did not result in extra trust. We of course, see later that it has done so, and we appreciate his ability to make friends with such a private people.