Patagonia's People


In Patagonia is a travel narrative of Bruce Chatwin’s adventures in Patagonia, a remote and isolated region of South America. One might expect to read about the countryside, the towns, and the lifestyle of the place, but Chatwin rarely obliges his reader with such information. Rather he uses a series of mostly disjointed chapters to tell accounts of his encounters with the people of Patagonia. In fact his desire to explore Patagonia was supposedly inspired by a person, his grandmother’s cousin Charley Milward, who was shipwrecked in Patagonia and brought back what he claimed was brontosaurus skin.

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 agle 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. . . .

Fortunately cousin Charley had posted a scrap to my grandmother. [p. 1-2]

The narratives of the people Chatwin found in Patagonia weave together to produce an often pathetic and desolate image of the region — a place where misfits, outcasts and exiles come to get away. He describes Welsh and Scots who have strong national pride but little real knowledge of what that means, American outlaws who have come to the region for escape in the final frontier, Nazis who fled after World War II to hide in plain sight in a remote location, a Russian nurse who would face death if she returned home, and a strange poet character, dubbed “The Maestro,” who provides color and interest in the rather bleak region.

The poet lived along a lonely stretch of river, in overgrown orchards of apricots, alone in a two-roomed hut. He had been a teacher of literature in Buenos Aires. He came down to Patagonia forty years back and stayed.

I knocked on the door and he woke. It was drizzling and while he dressed I sheltered under the porch and watched his colony of pet toads.

His fingers gripped my arm. He fixed me with an intense and luminous stare.

“Patagonia!” he cried. “She is a hard mistress. She casts her spell. An enchantress! She folds you in her arms and never lets go.”

The rain drummed on the tin roof. For the next two hours he was my Patagonia. [p. 29]

The last line of this passage really illustrates Chatwin’s approach to this book. His description of time and place are perfunctory in comparison with the color he gives his descriptions of people and the quotations they (supposedly) provided.

Questions

1. Considering the passages above, how do Chatwin’s descriptions of people differ from his descriptions of setting? How does his style and diction show his true interest and focus?

2. What is the value in having this collage of characters in a travel book, while more typical travel knowledge, like scenery, is omitted or glossed over?

3. How can Chatwin claim accuracy in his quotations? Because his whole message hinges on the accounts of Patagonians, it would seem that accurate reporting would be essential to his credibility. How does this problematize our trust as readers in Chatwin as a narrator?

4. For a book about people, Chatwin says little about himself. Our main account of him and his background is that of the brontosaurus. What do the few personal details he provides tell us about him as a narrator and a traveler? What about the many details he leaves out?


Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

14 March 2011