The Color Yellow in Chatwin’s "In Patagonia"


On my count, Chatwin mentions the color yellow on twenty-one separate occasions in In Patagonia (pages 2, 7, 31, 32, 37, 42, 51, 58, 69, 62, 78, 81, 82, 84, 98, 104, 137, 140, 147, 182 and 189). : Often, it is associated with artifice and the negative, much like the works of Victorian decadents, although Chatwin's use of the term holds more metaphoric significance than does La Galliene's satiric evocation of the color. Nevertheless, Chatwin's preoccupation with artifice — and certainly a color embodying it — echoes the "dreamlike" logic structuring ChatwinŐs narrative. In his account of an elderly soprano’s house, he methodically blurs the line between reality and the imagined until the reader can scarcely identify the difference between a fragment of a painting and reality:

Her two rooms led one into the other. A pair of plastic curtains divided the space. She had painted them in trompe l’oeil to resemble the crimson velvet of theatre draperies, tied back with tassels of gold.

“I can still paint a little,” she said.

She had covered every inch of wall with murals, some in paint, some in coloured crayons. A yellow sun rolled over the pampa and into the room. It played over the sails of yachts drifting on a summer’s day; on cafes hung with Japanese lanterns; on the Chateau de Chillon, mountain chalets and the Ile des Peupliers.

She had carved little wooden faces of angels, painted them with rosy cheeks and set the round the cornice. On one wall was a small picture in oils, a sunny landscape cleft by a black gulch. At the bottom were skulls and bones and, above, hung a rickety bridge. Halfway across stood a little girl with a white frightened face and red hair streaming in the wind. She was tottering to fall but a golden angel hovered above and offered her his hand” [62].

It is difficult to separate the portrait of the “yellow sun” and the “sails of yachts” (62) it lights up from that of the real Patagonian landscape. This passage, then, exemplifies the notion of artifice that Chatwin calls upon again and again throughout In Patagonia. The “two rooms [leading] one into the other” (62) act as an architectural deception, the trick emphasized further still by the “plastic curtains” painted “to resemble the crimson velvet of theatre draperies” (62).

Questions

1. Why does Chatwin mention the painting of the “little girl with a white frightened face and red hair streaming in the wind” (62)? In what way does this image relate to his larger narrative — does she embody him, the lost traveler, or is does she act as a contrast to his agency?

2. In “The Boom in Yellow,” La Galliene writes, “A few yellow chrysanthemums will make a small room look twice its size, and when the sun comes out upon a yellow wall-paper the whole room seems suddenly to expand, to open like a flower. When it falls upon the pot of yellow chrysanthemums, and sets them ablaze, it seems as though one had an angel in the room.” Chatwin similarly describes a “yellow sun” (62) coloring a room’s walls with the effect of creating an image very near reality. What does this sun symbolize in Chatwin’s narrative?

3. Given the emphasis on artifice and the dreamlike structure of the novel, how can one argue that Chatwin’s entire journey is a mirage?


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5 April 2011