In Bill Bryson's charming, hilarious A Sunburned Country, both Bryson and Australia are as much characters as anyone he meets in Australia. In Ian Frazier's Great Plains, historical research and first-hand experience equally balance, making evident his curiosity in the land and its culture. When I read a travel narrative, I expect to get to know a particular place through a particular person. I wanted Chatwin to show me Patagonia, but short, choppy chapters and an overabundance of characters kept me from being invested in the narrative. In Patagonia is best when Chatwin skillfully interweaves history, environmental information, and personal opinion:

I stayed at the Estacion de Biologia Marina with a party of scientists who dug enthusiastically for sandworms and squabbled about the Latin names of seaweed. The resident ornithologist, a severe young man, was studying the migration of the Jackass Penguin. We talked late into the night, arguing whether or not we, too, have journeys mapped out in our central nervous systems; it seemed the only way to account for our insane restlessness.

Next morning we rowed to the penguin colony on an island in mid-river. This, roughly, is what the ornithologist said:

The Magellanic or Jackass Penguin winters in the South Atlantic off the coast of Brazil. On November 10th sharp, fishermen at Puerto Deseado see the advance guard swimming up-river. The birds station themselves on the islands and wait for the rest. The masses arrive on the 24th and start refurnishing their burrows. They have a taste for bright pebbles and collect a few to decorate the entrances.

Penguins are monogamous, faithful unto death. Each pair occupies a minute stretch of territory and expels outsiders. The female lays from one to three eggs. There is no division of labour between the sexes: both go fishing and take turns to nurse the young. The colony breaks up with the cold weather in the first week of April.

The young had hatched and swelled to a size larger than their parents. We watched them waddle awkwardly to the shore and wallop into the water. In the seventeenth century, the explorer Sir John Narborough stood on the same spot and described them 'standing upright like little children in white aprons in company together'.

Albatrosses and penguins are the last birds I'd want to murder.

Discussion Questions

1. Chatwin describes the resident ornithologist as a 'severe young man'. As there is no subsequent description of him or directly quoted dialogue by him, did this sparse, sharp characterization alienate you as a reader? Or does the surrounding text sufficiently justify his description? How?

2. How does the specificity of 'on November 10th sharp' and 'the female lays from one to three eggs' contrast with the last sentence of the passage? Why is this ending an effective one?

3. How does this passage set up for the following chapter of history?


Victorian Web Overview discusson questions

Last modified 6 November 2007