Chatwin's Tall Tales in "In Patagonia"

Blake Cooper '03, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

Bruce Chatwin tells a good story, no doubt about it. In fact, Bruce Chatwin tells the type of stories that my grandfather -- a sea-hardened sailer of the sort found in books containing yellowing and cracked pages -- used to tell: tall tales. I used to sit an listen to these stories, sometimes true, sometimes based on truth and oftentimes wholly fabricated, knowing I should take them with a grain of salt -- or a swig of rum, as he did. Chatwin gives us no such warnings when he simply makes up facts, as we shall see bellow. Let's take a look at Chatwin's outrageous claims concerning the plesiosaurus.

Sheffield offered his services, as a fellow drinker and guide, to any explorer who appeared in this part of the Andes. On one expedition he helped unearth the fossilized skeleton of a plesiosaurus, a small dinosaur related to the modern turtle, which had indeed a neck like a swan. Now he was proposing a live specimen. [39]

Where to even start? How about the middle sentence, which is the only important one here in any case. First, plesiosaurus was not a dinosaur (it was of a family known as Sauropterygia) and any book written within twenty-five years of 1977, Chatwin's publishing date, could have informed him of this fact. Second, fossilized plesiosaurs have NEVER been found in Central or South America. Chatwin never mentions this (it'd mess up his story I suppose), although any book that has the word "plesiosaurus" in it would mention this fact. Furthermore, plesiosaurs ranged from ten to sixty feet, hardly "small," as Chatwin writes. And the last point on this subject: plesiosaurus was not related to a turtle and as far as I know, no academic book on the subject of prehistoric fauna has ever suggested otherwise. The plesiosaur had four flippers, and I have no doubt that knowing this, Chatwin just made up the rest. In conclusion: this sentence contains zero factual information, and as such is hardly unique in the pages of In Patagonia -- Chatwin does this sort of thing right and left.

My question here is simple: Does Chatwin, by dropping wholly erroneous facts into his tales, detract from their truthfulness? Are these stories "true" only in the sense that--and I think this idea was was nicely expressed by Faulkner but I can't find the damn quotation -- that fiction is more "true" than evenhanded or even FACTUAL reporting? Why not just write this book as a strait-up novel?

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Last modified 27 July 2002