Within Patagonia: A Story about the Stories of Stories

Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia charts his journey through the South American region of Patagonia and his attempt to satisfy a childhood fascination with his great-uncle Charley and a piece of, what he believes to be, brontosaurus skin. The book depicts Chatwin’s movement from place to place as not dictated by any map or set course, but rather through where the narratives he encounters takes or leaves him. The stories that Chatwin includes span from historical accounts of far off lands to local anecdotes, from scientific writings to myth and superstition, from Shakespeare to the tales his grandmother wove for him as a child, etc. There are no limits or consistent characteristics that can describe all the stories in the book other than they are simply that, stories. On this topic, Jeffery Fronza in 2002 wrote that “More than anything else, Bruce Chatwin’s love of stories comes across in his book In Patagonia.” While “love” may be harder to prove, clearly Chatwin deeply engaged with the stories of the Patagonia’s inhabitants and the land itself. Not only does Chatwin deal with stories through content and plot, but also through composition. Throughout, Chatwin layers stories upon stories only to have these embedded in another story. For example, at the conclusion of chapter 29, Chatwin has injured his hand. He then tells the back-story of the doctor he then goes to see about his hand. In his description of the doctor he writes, “She spent every spare peso ordering books from the Y.M.C.A. Press in Paris. Mandelstam, Tsvetayeva, Pasternak, Gumilev, Akhmatova, Solzhenitsyn — the names rolled off her tongue with the reverberation of a litany.” Here he includes the authors of the stories that the doctor reads. Chatwin goes on to relate the story of the doctor’s egress from Russia, ending with, “A mile outside the settlement there was another exile:” showing that there is more to be told with the un concluded sentence. In addition to others not mentioned here, Chatwin has interwoven no less than fourteen narratives on [about] just this one character.

In comparison to the work of previous Victorian sages, Chatwin’s project similarly engages the concept of self-reflection. However, in their writing, Victorian sages like Carlyle and Ruskin ask the reader to consider society more generally. Arguably, Chatwin asks his audience to first consider the individual narrative and then see the way the story intertwines with others. In the following passage Chatwin relates his perception of the land. He then shows what that same lands meant for others and how those others relate to each other, all of which find themselves within the “record of human experience.”

The cliff rose sheer above a ferry-landing. I climbed a path and from the top looked up-stream, towards Chile. I could see the river, glinting and sliding through the bone-white cliffs with strips of emerald cultivation either side. Away from the cliffs was the desert. There was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass, and no other sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones.

The Patagonian desert is not a desert of sand or gravel, but a low thicket of grey-leaved thorns which give off a bitter smell when crushed. Unlike the deserts of Arabia it has not produced any dramatic excess of the spirit, but it does have a place in the record of human experience. Charles Darwin found its negative qualities irresistible. In summing up The Voyage of the Beagle, he tried, unsuccessfully, to explain why, more than any of the wonders he had seen, these ďarid wastes’ had taken such firm possession of his mind.

In the 1860s W.H. Hudson came to the Rio Negro looking for the migrant birds that wintered around his home in La Plata. Years later he remembered the trip through the filter of his Notting Hill boarding-house and wrote a book so quiet and sane it makes Thoreau seem a ranter. Hudson devotes a whole chapter of Idle Days in Patagonia to answering Mr Darwin’s question, and he concludes that desert wanderers discover in themselves a primaeval calmness (known also to the simplest savage), which is perhaps the same as the Peace of God.

In Patagonia also parallels Victorian sage writing in that it employs many traditional characteristics such as ethos — statements starting with “you would” or “you could tell” — and discovered grotesque — Chatwin’s inclusion of Patagonia unicorns and dinosaurs. What Chatwin omits to use are the Victorian sage writing structures of the prophetic pattern and sermon traditions. Instead of these, Chatwin uses travel writing as the structure in which he performs a sage type project.


1. In Patagonia devotes long passages to setting the physical scene or describing a person’s demeanor or dress.

Outside the village there were irrigated plantations of maize and squash, and orchards of cherries and apricots. Along the line of the river, the willows were all blown about and showing their silvery undersides. The Indians had been cutting withies and there were fresh white cuts and the smell of sap. The river was swollen with snowmelt from the Andes, fast-running and rustling the reeds. Purple swallows were chasing bugs. When they flew above the cliff, the wind caught them and keeled them over in a fluttering reversal, and they dropped again low over the river.

How does Chatwin’s descriptive writing compare or contrast to Wolfe’s descriptive writing in "The Pump House Gang"?

2. Chatwin remains appears very discreet. Does this suggest anything about Chatwin considering himself in or out of the story he is writing? Is he trying to create distance? If so, why?

3. What does Chatwin say about the interaction between environment and person? By relating the story of Hudson’s “quiet and sane” book, what kinds of impact can readers interpret Patagonia has on its visitors and inhabitants?

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14 March 2011