Mapping the Unmappable

Jsse Bull ’05 writes that in In Patagonia, “Chatwin weaves his own wanderings with literary and historical threads that all somehow relate and establish a sense of rich, but ultimately, impenetrable Patagonia.” For Bull, Chatwin does this through “mythology, history, and personal experience.” The “inter-textual” dialogue that Bull describes is deepened through Chatwin’s inclusion of geographic elements — even one of the passages that Bull chooses illustrates how Chatwin imagines the modern reality of geography to be tied to history’s chimeras.

The Straight of Magellan is another case of Nature imitating Art. A Nuremberg cartographer, Martin Beheim, drew the South-West Passage for Magellan to discover. His premise was entirely reasonable. South America, however peculiar, was normal compared to the Unknown Antarctic Continent, the Antichthon of the Pythagoreans, marked FOGS on mediaeval maps. In this Upside-down-land, snow fell upwards, trees grew downwards, the sun shone black, and sixteen-fingered Antipodeans danced themselves into ecstasy. WE CANNOT GO TO THEM, it was said, THEY CANNOT COME TO US. Obviously a strip of water had to divide this chimerical country from the rest of Creation [111].

Chatwin goes beyond simply connecting geography to old myths; he creates a cartography of Patagonia’s seemingly unmappable land by infusing the region’s superstition with solid facts. He repeatedly orients the reader physically--many of the book’s sections begin with a sentence describing his physical action of traveling and the name of his destination.

In the evening Bill drove me down to Baha Blanca [12].

I took the night bus on the Chubut Valley [22].

I crossed over into Fireland [110].

Two oil drivers drove me to Ro Grande, the one town on the east side of the island [114].

I went on to the Southernmost town in the world [121].

These place names, however, mean very little to a reader not already very familiar with Patagonia’s geography — one is left only with the image of wandering and constant movement. Despite the material details that Chatwin gives the reader, ultimately the landscape is still made up only of what he invests in it for us — the overlapping myths and histories of its inhabitants.


1. Does this lack of effective placement detract from In Patagonia’s status as a travel narrative? Or does it reflect the wandering nature of Chatwin’s travels, thereby making it a more accurate representation of his experience in the region? To what extent do we expect a travel narrative to be factual or more experience-based?

2. Many of the people that Chatwin finds in Patagonia are displaced or are exiles or outsiders, which means that they lack any real cultural connection to each other outside of the fact that they have all somehow ended up in the same region. Does the book’s fragmented, seemingly undirected structure reflect this? Is the structure effective in this sense?

3. At the beginning of her essay “In the Islands” Joan Didion writes: “1969: I had better tell you where I am, and why. I am sitting in a high-ceilinged room in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu watching the long translucent curtains billow in the trade wind and trying to put my life back together.” Is Didion’s form of orientation more effective at actually orienting? How do Didion’s and Chatwin’s respective styles of placement fit into the style of their works overall?

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17 March 2011