Details and Distance in In Patagonia


Bruce Chatwin spent months exploring Patagonia, and his book In Patagonia is the record of anecdotes of his travels. Chatwin offers descriptive detailed literary “snapshots” of his voyage in the form of brief detailed chapters. He depicts the people he meets and the things he sees, but he also explores history and myth. Throughout the different stories, both real and fictional, Chatwin reveals very little about himself. It seems he exists only in dialogue and in descriptions of his means of travel. Instead, he devotes the majority of his prose to describing his surroundings. This is certainly true in his description of his visit to one Patagonian house:

The owner of the cabin was a Chilean Indian woman called Sepulveda.

‘In winter it’s terrible,’ she said. ‘I covered the wall with materia plastica but it blew away. The house is rotten, Senor, old and rotten. I would sell it tomorrow. I would have a concrete house which the wind cannot enter.’

Senora Sepulveda had boarded up the living-room windows when the glass fell out. She had pasted newspapers over the cracks, but you could still see scraps of the old flowered wallpaper. She was a hard-working, covetous woman. She was short and stout and had a bad time with her husband and the rotten cabin. [41]

Chatwin hereby characterizes vividly Senora Sepulveda. The reader can picture her clearly. As a narrator, Chatwin seems to be photographing her with words. This short narrative concludes with another description:

As well as show me around, she was trying to get her eldest daughter off with a young road engineer. He drove a new pick-up and might be good for some cash. He and the girl were in the yard holding hands and laughing at the old nag tied to a willow. Next day, I passed her walking home to Cholila, alone across the pampas, crying. [41-42]

That is where that chapter ends. Chatwin’s next chapter mentions neither Senora Sepulveda nor her daughter, but instead provides a copy of a letter written by Butch Cassidy. The letter describes Cassidy’s own travels in South America:

It will probably surprise you to hear from me away down in this country but U.S. was too small for me the last two years I was there. I was restless. I wanted to see more of the worldÉanother of my Uncles died and left $30,000 to our little family of 3 so I took my $10,000 and started to see a little more of the world [42-43]

Questions

1. The first story is based in Chatwin’s experiences and reality; the other is a record of someone else’s journey and based in legend. Why would Chatwin juxtapose these narratives this way?

2. A common feature of all the stories Chatwin tells, whether real or myth, is that he observes them from afar. Both Senora Sepulveda and Cassidy are described with very little mention of Chatwin but instead a sort of omniscience. What effect does Chatwin achieve in this type of narration?

3. Chatwin ends the story about Senora Sepulveda’s daughter very bluntly and moves immediately into Cassidy’s letter. The latter chapter ends with a thorough explanation of Cassidy’s references and acquaintances and adventures. Why is there this discrepancy in provision of details?

4. How is Joan Didion’s The White Album comparable to these chapters in narrative style, voice or tone?


Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

16 March 2011