Who Run Barter Town?

Throughout In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin reflects on the anonymity and freedom offered by the frontier. The former is the simpler concept of the two: in an area as vast and empty as Patagonia, one barely needs to try to lose themselves. Freedom seems implicit in anonymity, and in a way it is. Chatwin, however, adds greater nuance to the idea of liberty. More than freedom of action, Patagonia provides freedom from the past for those who come for a new start. Chatwin offers many stories of European immigrants living in Patagonia, but it is only a brief interaction on a train ride that raises questions about what that freedom means.

Two mountaineers from Buenos Aires sat among a heap of equipment. They were intelligent, intolerant, earned pitiful salaries and thought the absolute worst of the U.S.A. The other passengers were Araucanian Indians.


An Indian eyed the mountaineers and came over to pick a quarrel. He was very drunk. I sat back and watched the history of South America in miniature. The boy from Buenos Aires took his insults for half an hour, then he stood up, exploded and pointed the Indian back to his seat.

The Indian bowed his head and said: "Sí, Señor, Sí Señor."

The Indian settlements were strung out along the railway line on the principle that a drunk could always get home.

The conflicts between rural and urban areas, which can often, but not always, be described as conflicts between indigenous peoples and creoles, have been a major theme not just of Latin American literature but of the continent's history. Chatwin recognizes the issue's significance, though without the historical depth that he provides alongside many of his other stories. Instead, Chatwin seemingly puts aside these issues in order to to focus on those who come to Patagonia.


1. What impact does the current state of the indigenous people have on the validity of the freedom of Patagonia?

2. Given Chatwin's acknowledgment that the events on the train represented "the history of South America in miniature," why does he not devote more effort to exploring their implications or the implications of similar events?

3. Can the truth of the book be maintained in the face of this incompleteness in terms of the place and its people?

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

14 March 2011