Narrative Voice and Style in Bruce Chatwin’ s In Patagonia


For someone who has been characterized as having an irrepressible ego, Bruce Chatwin makes surprisingly little use of the authorial voice in his travelogue In Patagonia. The restrained “I” in the first-person narrative lends a more expository than reflective tone to the writing, and maintains a certain detachment from the narrator (in this case, Chatwin himself) and his subjects. The lack of second-person also contributes to a same distancing between Chatwin and the reader.

Yet in the middle of his narrative, Chatwin inserts an entry from his notebook. This is the only instance of Chatwin giving the reader an extended look into his mental processes — the text often includes letters and notes and diary entries from various individuals, but only once does Chatwin offer his own. “I walked two hours, five hours, ten hours, and no truck,” he writes. “My notebook conveys something of the mood:”

Walked all day and the next day. The road straight, grey, dusty, and 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 [Andean mammal resembling a llama] . . . .

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.

Although much of Chatwin’s narrative details his interactions with the various people he meets and learns about, his journal entry shows himself greatly preoccupied with being alone. You think you heard a truck, but it was only the wind and you are alone, he writes. The only living organisms Chatwin does encounter here are the animals, and even still the guanaco eventually runs away from him, and the sheep walk off sideways in the distance.

Stylistically, the passage differs greatly from the rest of Chatwin’s narrative. Ironically, in his notebook entry Chatwin does not once use “ I,” and writes only in the second-person, addressing the reader directly. William Bostwick ’ 07 writes that this combination of the journal mode and second-person “forges a more intimate relationship with the reader.” Although Chatwin’ s narrative uses mainly formal, declarative language, his notebook entry is written in a conversational and effectively much more emotive tone.

Questions

1. Throughout the narrative, Chatwin intentionally limits the presence of the first-person. Why then, this particular journal entry?

2. Why, also, does Chatwin choose to write in the second-person? How does this mode further set off the notebook entry from the rest of his narrative? What effect does the shift in viewpoint have on the reader’s sharing of Chatwin’ s experience?

3. Compare Chatwin’ s narrative with that of Didion in The White Album, written also in first-person. How does each engage with the reader, and how does Chatwin’s journal entry interlude move his narrative closer to or further from Didion’s?


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5 April 2011