Exiles at Home: Chatwin’s Encounters with Patagonians

The recorded speech and other characterizing details that give form to Bruce Chatwin’s brief portraits of residents he encounters in his travelogue, In Patagonia, emphasize the problems of rootlessness and identity that informs both Chatwin’s account of his the people he meets and his decision to undertake the journey itself. Throughout the book, Chatwin describes the people whom he meets; almost uniformly, these individuals, despite being native Patagonians, find no meaning in their nationality and instead passionately identify themselves with foreign countries and cultures. The couple Chatwin meets at Estancia Lochinver epitomizes the disjunction between these individuals’ context and their self-conception. Chatwin’s portrait of the husband and wife underscores the sadness inherent in associating oneself with a distant, idealized land that cannot readily offer any meaningful connection to the one’s current context. Neither the husband nor wife can accept Patagonia, or their presence in it:

[The Scotsman] wore the kilt and piped at Caledonian Balls. He had one set of pipes sent from Scotland and another he made himself in the long Patagonian winter. In the house there were views of Scotland, photographs of the British Royal Family, and Karsh’s picture of Winston Churchill. . . .

A tin of Mackintosh’s toffees was placed reverently under the Queen.

His wife had been stone deaf since her car collided with a train. . . . She liked the refinements of English life. She liked using a silver toast-rack. She liked nice linen and fresh chintzes and polished brass. She did not like Patagonia. She hated the winter and missed having flowers. [67]

Jennifer Hahn argued in 2002 that “Chatwin's descriptions of people are so detailed that he is miraculously able to divine their thoughts. Perhaps these people told him of their innermost longings, but it is equally likely that Chatwin made up their internal life” (“Walking the Line Between Fiction and Non-Fiction”). In this case, however, Chatwin does not purport to know the couple’s inner thoughts; rather, he suggests their inner loneliness and rootlessness through the minor details he notes. The “tin of Mackintosh’s toffees placed reverently under the Queen” and the picture of Churchill emphasizes the peculiarly devout exhaustiveness of the couple’s attempts to pay honor to the United Kingdom. Furthermore, these decorative touches are irrelevant on multiple levels. They are personally irrelevant in that the couple, although of British and Scottish ancestry, are natives of Patagonia, their ancestors’ adopted homeland. Further, in 1977, they are outdated, even quaint: by the time of Chatwin’s writing, the British empire had been long dissolved, the Queen did not have the symbolic importance the monarch possessed in earlier eras, and Churchill, though beloved, was a deceased hero of bygone conflicts. These tokens, the centerpiece of the couple’s home, thus signify an irrecoverable past on both a personal and national level. Nothing in Chatwin’s description suggests that the couple find any meaningful alternatives in Patagonia. Instead, at the expense of their own happiness, they idolize increasingly outdated relics and avoid engaging the time and place in which they live


1. Note the short, declarative sentences with which Chatwin describes the couple. Each item that Chatwin deems worthy of including in his narrative is, due to this terseness, important. What do the details say about the couple, and about Chatwin’s assessment of them? How are the details infused with psychological and cultural implications?

2. Compare Chatwin’s means of sketching characters with Tom Wolfe’s in “The Pump-House Gang” and Joan Didion’s in “The White Album.” Do they employ similar techniques and focus on similar elements? If not, what does Chatwin’s focus tell us about his subjects, and what does it omit that finds greater prominence in Wolfe and Didion?

3. Are there any indications in this passage, or others describing similar self-styled “exiles” that Chatwin, himself a foreigner, identifies or sympathizes with his subjects? Or is his narrative voice too detached to tell?

4. Do you think Chatwin’s technique of suggesting mental and emotional states by recording extrinsic details is more or less effective than his attempts to “divine people’s thoughts,” as Jennifer Hahn argues, in other passages, such as “A Mixed Marriage”?

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17 March 2011