Keeping His Distance


Bruce Chatwin always keeps his distance in his book In Patagonia. Chatwin fills the book with descriptions of scenes, stories, and people written in observant, masterful detail (as just one small example, think of all the imagery and story contained in the single sentence “The restaurant was owned by an Arab, who served lentils and radishes and kept a sprig of mint on the bar to remind him of a home he had not seen.”). And yet Chatwin himself remains a minimal presence in the book. Though he clearly writes from his own perspective, Chatwin rarely goes on at much length about his own actions or opinions. Instead, his primary interest seems to be in describing the nature of Patagonia itself, and the effect it has not only on him, but on all those who travel, live, and take refuge there. At one point in the book Chatwin includes an excerpt from the notebook he kept as he traveled. In this excerpt, as unedited and immediate to his experience as it presumably is, Chatwin remains almost as distant as in the rest of his book.

My notebook conveys something of the mood:

Walked all day and the next day. The road straight, grey, dusty, trafficless. The wind relentless, heading you off. Sometimes you heard a truck, you knew for certain it was a truck, but it was the wind. Or the noise of gears changing down, but that also was the wind. Sometimes the wind sounded like an unloaded truck banging over a bridge. Even if a truck had come up behind you wouldn’t have heard it. And even if you’d been downwind, the wind would have drowned the engine. The one noise you did hear was a guanaco. A noise like a baby trying to cry and sneeze at once. You saw him a hundred yards off, a single male, bigger and more graceful than a llama, with his orange coat and white upstanding tail. Guanacos are shy animals, you were told, but this one was mad for you. And when you could walk no more and laid out your sleeping bag, he was there gurgling and sniveling and keeping the same distance. In the morning he was right up close, but the shock of you getting out of your skin was too much for him. That was the end of a friendship and you watched him bounding away over a thorn bush like a galleon in a following sea.

Next day hotter and windier than before. The hot blasts knocked you back, sucked at your legs, pressed on your shoulders. The road beginning and ending in a grey mirage. You’d see a dust-devil behind and, though you knew now never to hope for a truck, you thought it was a truck. Or there’d be black specks coming closer, and you stopped, sat down and waited, but the specks walked off sideways and you realized they were sheep.

Note that the pronoun “I” is entirely absent from this passage, though Chatwin originally wrote it only for himself, as a journal entry of sorts, in which one would not expect such an absence. Instead, Chatwin write either in subject-less fragments such as “Walked all day and the next day,” or in the second person. That he takes this tone in his note taking can help inform our understanding of Chatwin’s interests: he seems most concerned with the effects of Patagonia on any person — on you even — rather than with his experience as an individual.

Questions

1. Chatwin presumably wrote all of In Patagonia on the basis of notes such as the ones he excerpts in the above passage. Why, then, would he choose to quote directly from his notes here, rather than construct the scene and narrative as he does for the rest of the book?

2. Do you believe that Chatwin took these notes directly from his notebook? What about this excerpt seems different than Chatwin’s finished writing? Are there any elements that might either lend or take away the credibility of this passage as notes?

3. What effect does Chatwin’s use of the second person have in this passage? Given that these are notes, who do you think Chatwin is addressing, himself or someone else?

4. Joan Didion also often writes with a certain distance from the scene she describes (think, for example, of her description in “The White Album” of The Doors’ recording session, in which she remains present without ever directly imposing her own opinions or analysis). Compare Didion’s technique to Chatwin’s. Do they keep their distance for similar reasons? Does the distance have the same effect?


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17 March 2011