Legends and Myths in Patagonia


Bruce Chatwin describes Patagonia as the last frontier, a temporal netherworld caught between legend and reality. Here is a place where civilization has not banished the mysterious, where Butch Cassidy rubs shoulders with Welsh immigrants and Nazis and rumors of dinosaurs-at-large. Patagonia is so far removed from the rest of the world, an insulated backwater country, that it takes on the tones of a lost land. And like all good legends, Chatwin recounts his travels as if he was telling an oral history, using language that is meant to be spoken out loud. Our first introduction to Patagonia is written from the perspective of young Chatwin, and it is described with an almost childlike wonder, a place drawn from fairy tales and comic books:

The Charley Milward of my imagination was a god among men - tall, silent and strong, with black mutton-chop whiskers and fierce blue eyes. He wore his sailor's cap at an angle and the tops of his sea-boots turned down. Directly he saw the brontosaurus poking out of the ice, he knew what to do. He had it jointed, salted, packed in barrels, and shipped to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington."

It is written in direct, movie-script lines, and could have be taken straight out of a Jules Verne adventure novel. And although the idea that this is a legendary brontosaurus is quickly dispelled, the sense of Patagonia as a place of mystery is sustained throughout the book. As Chatwin jumps from story to story, he weaves in the surrealism of tall tales into the landscape of daily life, so that the lines between the absurd and the plausible are blurred:

Onelli called a press conference and announced the forth-coming plesiosaurus hunt. An upper-class lady subscribed 1,500 dollars for the purchase of equipment. Two old age pensioners escaped from the Hospital de la Mercedes to fight the monster. The plesiosaurus also lent its name to a tango and a brand of cigarettes. When Onelli suggested it might have to embalmed, the Jockey Club hoped to have the privilege of exhibiting, but this brought a denunciation from Don Ignacio Albarracin, of the Society for the Protection for Animals."

Chatwin tells such absurd tales with a completely deadpan face, as if there is nothing out of the ordinary about a plesiosaurus hunt. This not only gives the reader a good laugh, but also creates a setting where where the extraordinary is commonplace, a technique reminiscent of Latin America's magical realism. As the novel progresses and these short stories build upon each other, Chatwin is able to depict Patagonia as an exotic place removed from time, where fragments of myth wash onto its shore like driftwood.

Questions

1. As with any tall tale, some of Chatwin's stories seem a little too fantastical to be true. How does the fact that some of the stories may be exaggerated affect your perception of the book, especially when it is supposed to be autobiographical?

2. Chatwin grew up during the midst of the Cold War. What is the significance of the contrast between the stark brutalities of the Cold War world and the insulated, legend-filled plains of Patagonia? Is this myth-chasing an escape or diversion from reality for Chatwin?

3. Patagonia seems to be a composite of other places and borrowed peoples, rather than a location with its own identity. While others came to Patagonia to escape their own country, Chatwin went there to find the brontosaurus skin, which represents some measure of his own identity. What do you think the people who went to Patagonia, Chatwin included, were looking for? What does the convergence of so many different people and stories do to Patagonia's identity as a whole?


Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

14 March 2011