Patagonian Paleontology


Chatwin's story and Patagonia itself take the form of a compilation of characters: Welsh, English, Italian, and Arab all cling to separate ethnic identities while coexisting in Patagonia. As Irene Chen '09 points out, "Chatwin tenuously strings together his stories through a central, but frequently invisible narrator who describes the land, its history and people. Patagonia has no clear national identity, defined instead by its disparate collection of people; Chatwin's Patagonia is in each of the people he meets" ("The Invisible Traveler"). Patagonia has no clear national identity, defined instead by its disparate collection of people; Chatwin's Patagonia is in each of the people he meets." Chatwin's story and Patagonia itself are indeed a compilation of characters: Welsh, English, Italian, and Arab all cling to separate ethnic identities while coexisting in the "hard mistress" that is Patagonia. Yet how "tenuous" are the connections between these individuals, and to what degree is the narrator imperceptible? Chatwin weaves common threads throughout his stories, including that of archaeology, a paleontology of digging into the past. Chatwin's journey begins with a piece of brontosaurus skin from his childhood, a relic of his Grandmother's from Patagonia. Years later, he learns that the brontosaurus that so captivated his imagination is in fact a mylodon, a part of scraps salvaged and sent to the British museum. Chatwin writes of his disenchantment, "This version was less romantic but had the merit of being true" (3). Later on in the novel, Chatwin references another paleontological search, the brain child of adventurer Martin Sheffield. Chatwin describes the explorer:

Around 1900 he appeared in Patagonia looking rather like Ernest Hemingway, roaming the mountains 'poorer than Job' with a white mare and an Alsatian for company. He persisted in the illusion that Patagonia was an extension of the Old West. He panned the streams for gold. Some winters he stayed with John Evans at Trevelin and swapped dirty nuggets for flour. He was a crack shot. He shot trout from the rivers; a cigarette packet from the police commissioner's mouth; and had the habit of picking off ladies' high-heels.

Sheffield has all the makings of the hero of a tall tale, from his mythic sharpshooting to his grand delusions: he claims the existence of a live plesiosaurus and even organizes an expedition to capture the beast. But Sheffield's plans dissolve in public scorn, and, like Chatwin's brontosaurus, Sheffield's creature turns out to be equally fictional.

There is difference of opinion as to whether the expedition, equipped with an enormous hypodermic, actually reached the lake. But the animal's non-existence must have been evident to whoever stood on its bank. And with the plesiosaurus died the hope of finding, in Patagonia, live dinosaurs like those described by Conan Doyle, stranded on their plateau in The Lost World.

Sheffield's character, a defeated Don Quixote, echoes Chatwin's own deflation at the shattered Brontosaurus myth. Though Chatwin himself pokes fun at Sheffield and his "enormous hypodermic," there exists a sad disappointment in the absence of dinosaurs in Patagonia, in itself a sort of "lost world." Perhaps it is the myth of Patagonia that Chatwin yearns to believe and that all its disparate citizens cling to, favoring a romantic fiction over fact.

Questions

1. How is the almost legendary character of Martin Sheffield comparable to Chatwin? Does Chatwin, with his similar nomadic journey, identify with this sense of epic myth and fruitless pursuit? Is Sheffield even a character meant to be believed, another blur between fact and fiction?

2. Ruskin asserts in The Quarry, as well as other writings, that architecture can reveal the values of a people. The architecture of Patagonia, however, seems as varied as its population, ranging from Bryn-Crwn Chapel, with a red brick wall, to Sepœlveda's North American log cabin. In addition, both Chatwin and Sheffield have no permanent residences, as if renouncing architecture. As per Ruskin, what might this lack of cohesive structure reflect on the values of Patagonians?

3. Sheffield's search for the plesiosaurus originally inspires enthusiasm. The newspaper La Prensa writes, "The existence of this unusual animal, which has roused the attention of foreigners, is a scientific event , which will bring to Patagonia the definitive prestige of possessing so unsuspected a creature." When Sheffield's expedition fails to come to fruition, Chatwin writes pointedly that the disappointment lies not in failure to find a live dinosaur, but that the hope of finding dinosaurs no longer exists for Patagonia. Does this disillusionment echo in any other of Chatwin's stories? Is Chatwin searching for his own myth, his own "plesiosaurus," in Patagonia? Does he ever find it?


Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

17 March 2011