The Rest Is Predictable, Chatwin Says

Nathan Deuel, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

Bruce Chatwin abruptly quit a comfortable job writing for the Times Sunday magazine. Allegedly, he left a simple telegram, "Gone to Patagonia," and disappeared with no warning.

There, the British author encounters and later writes about a strange brew of exiles and natives. He finds Welsh sheep farmers, French maidens, Chilean peons, and wandering men from the island Chiloe. In Patagonia, Chatwin apparently sustains a certain travelling authority, and clues in the book document his cultural sophistication. People he meet conduct themselves "in a Baltic way," or "in the Russian fashion," or act with "Germanic civility" or might have "the syrupy eyes of an Ottoman Pasha." Imbedded between these sites of personal exploration are histories, tales, and myths.

Chatwin considers his later books works of fiction, and during In Patagonia writes that the huckster Henri Grien "told his life story to a journalist, who said it would make a bestseller as fiction" (168). At the end of the book Chatwin lists "Some Sources." Compare the following passages -- the first describes a thin, nervous pianist adopted by a Welsh choir and the second recalls a British mariner's son.

Anselmo had a passion for the culture of Europe, the authentic, blinkered passion of the exile. When his father stopped him playing he would lock himself in his room and read sheet music or the lives of great composers from a national musical encyclopædia. He was learning to play Liszt and asked complicated questions about Villa d'Este and the friendship with Wagner. I couldn't help him. [25]

In 1913 he brought his son out, fresh from school in England as part of his scheme for toughening him up. Harry Milward stuck out one long snowbound winter at Valle Huemeules, loathed the farm, the farm-manager, and at this point his father. Not surprising with letters that ended: 'Now goodbye, my lad, and don't forget that God, although you are so very far from any means of grace, still he is just as near you there as here. Your ever loving father...' The rest of Harry's career was predictable. He went to the war, joined a fast set, married three times and ended up in England, the secretary of a golf club. [171]

How important is nationality to Chatwin's travels? To his writing? To our reading? Do you find the "rest of Harry's career" predictable? Do the impressions from these two passages and Chatwin's former employment as Times writer underscore the more transparent moments of storytelling In Patagonia? When Chatwin ends a chapter with a sentence "The leader of the revolt was called Antonio Soto" (99) and begins the next with a discussion of him or ends a chapter with a colon, does credibility increase? Does Chatwin search in his travel or in his writing for the perfect myth?


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Last modified 9 April 2002