Members of our class accuse Bruce Chatwin, a Brit, of obsessively relating all things Patagonian back to Europe. Some call this "history" or "context"; others label it "classically British" or "self-involved." Chatwin's short descriptions and sudden narrative turns make him everything from a "sharp reporter" to a "racist sonofabitch," depending on whom you ask. Either way, Chatwin's approach to his subjects merits further investigation as it may highlight important distinctions among the different travel writers we've read this semester.

Let us consider how Bruce Chatwin perceives himself within the Patagonian context. Below are two passages that stress different dimensions of this question.

Christmas Day began badly when Mr. Caradog Williams, the station master for twenty years, went to the Old Bethel and got out the cauldron to boil water for the children's tea party. He happened to look in the river and saw the corpse of a naked man, all bloated up and caught against the trunk of a fallen willow. It was not a Welshman.

'Probably a tourist,' the policeman said.

Anselmo and I went to spend the day with the Davies family on their farm, Ty-Ysaf, one of the original hundred-acre lots. [26]

Chatwin does not react at all to the corpse found floating in the river - or, at least, does not record his reaction. Instead, he takes the news in stride and, like a local, goes on his way to the farm. This is particularly surprising given the policeman's comment about the corpse likely being that of a tourist. Although it is not clear whether the policeman said this with Chatwin in mind, again one might expect Chatwin to react. He does not.

Questions

Does this suggest anything about whether Chatwin considers himself a tourist or not? How do his interactions reflect an insider/outsider relationship to the people of Patagonia?

Chatwin starts his book with a story of his grandmother's cousin, Charley Milward the Sailor, who shipwrecked and settled at Punta Arenas. Does this make Chatwin's story a search to learn more about his ancestors? Does this play into the way Chatwin reports his story or interacts with locals? How is this different from McPhee's pilgrimage?

The outlaws rode off south to their camp at Rio Pico. Following the scent of a story, I followed and cut back to the main road. The driver of a wool truck stopped and picked me up. He wore a black shirt embroidered with pink roses and played Beethoven's Fifth on his tape deck. The landscape was empty. The hills went gold and purple in the setting sun. At the foot of a telegraph pole we saw a single standing figure. [54]

As with much of his writing, Chatwin leaves events here somewhat unexplained. The situation of the wool truck is most curious.


Victorian Web Overview discusson questions

Last modified 1 May 2002