The Structure of Chatwin╣s In Patagonia

Abigail Metcalf (English 137, 1990)

The text's episodic character make its structure initially appear so loose that it barely exists, and as one reads, a feeling of grasping at straws accompanies most attempts to make coherent the flimsy connections. This feeling dissipates by the conclusion of the text, for Chatwin strings together these episodes in a variety of ways, and these ties become clearer through repetition as the number of episodes increases. In order to prove that there is little difference between fiction, science and existence, Chatwin places the conceptions of the Indians of Darwin and FitzRoy, both scientists, adjacent to that of Edgar Allen Poe. FitzRoy proposes that the Indians were sired by the sons of Shem and Japeth and black slave girls "who had degenerated into greasy matt-haired 'satires upon mankind'" (p. 129) and in his tales, Poe characterizes the Indians as "the ultimate in bestiality and low cunning" (p.130-1). These views are little different from the 'Englishman' (Chatwin's quotations) who believes the Indians had no civilization. Gradually these connections take on meaning as we realize every incident describes a facet of Chatwin's dominant theme.

Chatwin here resembles McPhee╣s Crofter and the Laird , which connects the history of his clan to modern Colonsay to demonstrate how tales in the past are like the fictions of the present. History serves as a linking device for Chatwin as well. For instance, nearly all of the people he mentions have some tie to Charlie Milward. Even Butch Cassidy worked in the mines of Charlie's wife and the claim that Butch Cassidy would be called a revolutionary today connects him to all of those mentioned by Chatwin. Thus, meaning strings one episode to another, and even one word can link two events which initially seem to have little if anything to do with each other. As all of these people and events become linked in Chatwin's narrative, we begin to see the universality of Chatwin's theme, and the difference between history and fiction and Patagonia and our so-called real world fades.

Beacuse Chatwin places such emphasis upon revolutionaries (including Butch Cassidy), his suggestion that the explanation of their behavior might lie with the sect of male witches called the Brujeria instantly attaches great importance to the legend. The central figure of the sect appears to be the Invunche, a man distorted horribly by other men, sprouting bristly hair like that on the skin of the mylodon. Like the center of a cartwheel, the Invunche connects to the outer ring of meaning with many spokes. The outer ring represents the historical and other ties between the episodes while the spokes attach the grotesque legend to the many false tales that the people of Patagonia tell themselves in order to survive. The legend, claiming that the sect has existed for all time, supports Chatwin╣s attempt to demonstrate the tendency of man to create falsehoods throughout history.

Imagining the narrative structure of In Patagonia as a cartwheel with the Invunche and the Brujeria in the center seems a very useful way for thinking about the connections that Chatwin makes throughout the text between history, fiction and everyday existence. Everyone throughout time lives in a world distorted by the imagination and no matter how hard one tries, one cannot completely escape from reality or fiction. This message, displayed prominently in the lives of the Patagonians, becomes generalized by means of extensive historical and literary connections. However, Patagonia remains the unique place of outrageous people that enables Chatwin to see and that makes his point understandable, and by means of personal revelation, Chatwin persuades us that no one is more capable or more likely to perceive the truth than he. Although Chatwin offers no solutions or necessarily believes that man needs or is able to live without telling himself false tales, he does solve the problems facing the travel writer in his goal of communicating the significance of his journey.

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United Kingdom In Patagonia