A Revelation in a Notebook

Allison Zimmer, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

At once a deeply personal journey and a refined compilation of historical tales, myths, and legends, Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia is an impulsive tale, evoking the tone of the writer and subject himself as he bravely explores a land rich with nationalism, violence, secrets, and beauty. Chatwin's writing is abrupt and dramatic, enhancing the fragmentation of the scenes he describes—each section acting as a unique, independent glimpse into his journey. The choppy and theatrical nature of Chatwin's writing, which quickly switches topic and tone with little explanation, lends a rough and diary-like quality to the piece. Yet, in chapter 37, during one of the only periods of idleness and pause in the book (as Chatwin waits for a truck to give him a lift to Cordillera) he introduces a new and very omniscient character to the tale—his notebook. The introduction of this invisible character acts as a breaking point in the text; the previous writing, which felt like an action piece written on the spot at the moment it was experienced is now by contrast more polished and affected than the sparse and stark writing of the notebook.

Walked all day and the next day. The road straight, grey, dusty, and trafficless. The wind relentless, heading you off. Sometimes you heard a truck, you knew for certain it was a truck, but it was the wind. Or the noise of gears changing down, but that also was the wind. Sometimes the wind sounded like an unloaded truck banging over a bridge. Even if a truck had come up behind you wouldn't have heard it. And even if you'd been downwind, the wind would have drowned the engine. The one noise you did hear was a guanaco. A noise like a baby trying to cry and sneeze at once. You saw him a hundred yards off, a single male, bigger and more graceful than a llama, with his orange coat and white upstanding tail. Guanacos are shy animals, you were told, but this one was mad for you. And when you could walk no more and laid out your sleeping bag, he was there gurgling and sniveling and keeping the same distance. In the morning he was right up close, but the shock of you getting out of your skin was too much for him. That was the end of a friendship and you watched him bounding away over a thorn bush like a galleon in a following sea.

In revealing this information, Chatwin also seems to subtly disclose a guise. While the writing seemed to be fully connected with the moment before, we now don't know how long after the visit Chatwin wrote his account. Nostalgia and a desire to make himself appear more brave than he actually is could have influenced his final account, and even though the notebook accounts may have helped him remember, they are written with a drama that feels exaggerated and acted. To what extent can Chatwin's characterization of himself be trusted?


1. What is the effect of Chatwin's use of choppy fragments in his notebook? Does this dramatize the account more? Does it lend it a sparse, lonely tone?

2. Who is "you?"

3. Why might Chatwin have introduced the notebook at this point and not before? How does this particular passage help him achieve the "purpose" of the book, if there is one?

4. "Even if a truck had come up behind you wouldn't have heard it. And even if you'd been downwind, the wind would have drowned the engine." How can Chatwin be so sure? Why does he give these examples he hadn't experienced? How does this characterization of the situation add to his perceived authority?

United Kingdom In Patagonia Reading and Discussion Questions

Last modified 31 October 2007