Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia is a text filled with set pieces that sometimes seem so vague as to be incomprehensible. In some cases, readers have to have outside knowledge to understand the point that Chatwin is making. The following paragraph is an example:
There is a man in Punto Arenas, dreams pine forests, hums Lieder, wakes each morning and sees the black strait. He drives to a factory that smells of the sea. All about him are scarlet crabs, crawling, then steaming. He hears the shells crack and the claws breaking, sees the sweet white flesh packed firm in metal cans. He is an efficient man, with some previous experience of the production line. Does he remember that other smell, of burning? And that other sound, of low voices singing? And the pile of hair cast away as the claws of crabs?
Walter Rauff is credited with the invention and administration of the Mobile Gas Truck. (198)
The Mobile Gas Truck to which Chatwin refers is an apparatus used to murder Jews during the Holocaust. Walter Rauff is a Nazi, and one of the many that we now know fled to South America. In Argentina's case, the Peron government, eager for scientists of whatever stripe, was instrumental in smuggling Nazis into the country. (We recall Eichmann's 1960 arrest in Buenos Aires.) Chile, too, to which Rauff fled, knowingly and eagerly accepted Nazis trying to escape justice. Readers who are not aware of this history may miss Chatwin's insinuations. Others may overlook them because of their subtlety. This passage is so restrained that I did not take in its meaning until the second time I read the book—and then the shock was intense.
Let's discuss how this passage fits into the rest of In Patagonia. Have we been walking among Nazis and not realizing it? Why is Chatwin so subtle, and why does this passage come only at the book's end? When I read this passage, I immediately recalled Chatwin's chapter on the Brujeria (Chapter 52). He writes, "The sect of the Brujeria exists for the purpose of hurting ordinary people. No one knows the exact whereabouts of its headquarters" (106); and later,
No one can recall the memory of a time when a Central Committee did not exist. Some have suggested that the Sect was in embryo even before the emergence of Man. It is equally plausible that Man himself became Man through fierce opposition to the Sect. We know for a fact that the Challanco is the Evil Eye. Perhaps the term ‘Central Committee' is a synonym for Beast. (110)
No one can miss the fascist sound of the phrase "Central Committee"; the implications of eschatological evil in the capitalization of "Beast". How can we connect this passage with Chatwin's later passage about Walter Rauff? Why does Chatwin include these two passages? What point is he trying to make? He's obviously not just on a slothful pleasure trip, he wants us to come to a conclusion about something. What? And why doesn't he just say so? Does his technique change the impact of what he is saying, and if so, how?
Last modified 6 April 2002