Chatwin's Geographic Mastery, in Scare Quotes

Doug Fretty '05, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

Early in his travelogue, Chatwin admits a deep-set love of geography. He immediately allies character with locale in his search for the safest spot to live while the rest of the world blew up. In Patagonia is littered with geographic shorthand, used to describe topography, politics, and personality, sometimes with bewildering or amusing results. When Anselmo the pianist performs a Beethoven, Chatwin remarks, "I could not imagine a finer Pathetique further South" (p. 26). The exact intent of this statement is Chatwin's private mystery. His prose may be economic to a fault. This passage on the biography of Henri de Rougemont defies anthropological nuance:

He reached the Australian mainland at Cambridge Gulf, married a coal-black woman called Yamba, and lived thirty years among the Aboriginies, eating yams, snakes and witchety grubs (but never human flesh); sharing their treks, hunts battles and corroborees. His skill in wrestling made him a tribal hero and he rose to the rank of chief. Only when Yamba died did he strike out for White civilization. [p. 169]

The many places where Chatwin's geographic shorthand is not political or cultural also raise questions. To choose an absolutely typical segment, here is the opening of chapter 35:

Going down to Comodoro Rivadavia I passed through a desert of black stones and came to Sarimiento. It was another dusty grid of metal buildings, lying on a strip of arable land between the fizzling turquoise Lake Musters and the slime-green Lake Colhue-Huapi. [p. 69]


Why does Chatwin make sweeping generalizations about cultures, or politically suspect statements such as, "Hotel . . . was run by a Jewish family who lacked even the most elementary notions of profit" (p. 55)? As late as the 70s, few Western writers, least of all English, were plagued by questions of what we now call political correctness, but does Chatwin go too far? Does he assume a false mastery of culture? Also consider the many passages in which the people he interviews make wide generalizations about civilizations, such as the Persian who brandishes a machete and half-seriously jokes, "English is infadel!"

The passage from page 69 also reflects an illusion of mastery. Why bother citing geographic features such as the lakes if we learn nothing except that one is fizzling turquoise and the other is slime-green? Is he trying to align the reader into some kind of unearned familiarity with the landscape, or does the think he's actually being helpful? Does his shorthand take literary economy too far?

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Last modified 21 April 2005