Unicorns & Dream Voyages: Chatwin’s Mythical Patagonia

Chapter 36 of In Patagonia tells the story of Bruce Chatwin’s search for and encounter with Father Palacios, “the comprehensive genius of the south”, providing a poignant metaphor for the mythical nature of Patagonia. The scene opens with Chatwin at the Salesian College, “a hulk of concrete, lurking between the cliff and the sea”, asking a priest where he can find Father Palacios. “Clouds of dust” and “lurid orange” “flares from the oil rigs” set the scene as the priest leads the seeking traveller to the elusive Father. Chatwin’s admiration and respect for Father Palacios is clear:

He outlined the accomplishments of the Patagonian polymath. Father Polacios was Doctor of Theology, of Anthropological Theory and Archaeology. He was a marine biologist, zoologist, engineer, physicist, geologist, agronomist, mathematician, geneticist, and taxidermist. He spoke four European languages and six Indian ones. He was writing a general history of the Salesian Order and a treatise on biblical prophesies of the New World.

In listing the accomplishments of Father Palacios, Chatwin seems to set the “Patagonian polymath” in a place of incredible myth. The priest only affirms Chatwin’s mythical notions of Father Palacios by referring to the Father a national treasure: ”What responsibility placed on our shoulders! How to protect this treasure?” When the priest finally brings his visitor to Father Palacios, Chatwin observes the Father through the lens of myth:

Undeterred by the dust-storm, the polymath sat in a grove of tamarisks, immersed in a North American manual of applied engineering. He wore a blue beret and a baggy grey suit. The tortoise folds of his neck craned from a celluloid collar.”

The Father, with his godlike presence, imparts his knowledge onto Chatwin and “[floods him] with information.” Eventually however Chatwin notices that the Father is longer talking to him, but “instead, gazing to heaven” and addressing “his monologue to the lowering clouds.” While the religious imagery surrounding Father Palacios heightens his mystical persona, the reader must remain aware that it is in fact Chatwin’s incredible depiction of this figure that renders Father Palacios a Patagonian myth. Furthermore, as Hans Gao ’14 suggests, Chatwin “creates a setting where the extraordinary is commonplace, a technique reminiscent of Latin America’s magical realism.” Indeed, upon mention of “the Patagonian unicorn” and its “yet unearthed” bones, Chatwin treats the remainder of Father Palacios’ lecture with an almost surrealist sensibility:

The lecture melted into a dream voyage. Marquesans beached their canoes in the fjords of Southern Chile, scaled the Andes, settled by Lake Musters and merged with the indigenous population. Father Palacios described his own discovery, in Tierra del Fuego, the sculpture of a headless woman, life size and smothered in red ochre.

For the author, Father Palacios represents the larger myth that pervades Chatwin’s Patagonia — that is, a magical land filled with unearthed bones and hidden ruins, and built upon mythical fables and mystical persons. As Chatwin notes of his exchange with Father Palacios, “I left, gasping with wonder at the inspiration of the autodidact.”


1. John Ruskin asserts in “The Lamp of Memory” that

There should not be a single ornament put upon great civic buildings, without some intellectual intention. Actual representation of history has in modern times been checked by a difficulty, mean indeed, but steadfast; that of unmanageable costume: nevertheless, by a sufficiently bold imaginative treatment, and frank use of symbols, all such obstacles may be vanquished.

Throughout In Patagonia, Chatwin presents his memories of and experiences through his own lens. But are Chatwin’s “bold imaginative treatment” of his subjects and his “frank use of symbols” intentional, and if so, what effect do they lend to Chatwin’s prose?

2. In Oscar Wilde’s The Decay of Lying, Cyril functions to counter and propel forward the subject of Vivian and his essay. Is Chatwin the subject in In Patagonia, or is he merely the Cyril of his own work?

3. Chatwin describes Father Palacios as many things: genius, doctor, biologist, zoologist, polymath, engineer, physicist, autodidact, and so on. How does Chatwin’s rendering of Father Palacios as this porous figure relate to the wider theme of identity that runs across In Patagonia? Is Chatwin at all satirical in treating Father Palacios as this somewhat mythical man?

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17 March 2011