A Safe Place: Chatwin’s Search for Privacy and Peace

Bruce Chatwin embarks on a global journey inIn Patagonia, partially based on the influence of his childhood attachment to a piece of supposed “brontosaurus skin” that resided in his grandmother’s cabinet. The reverence Chatwin feels for this item that others generally ignore and discard ultimately leads him to begin a trek through the land of these ancient beasts upon reaching adulthood. Chatwin has a deep-set appreciation for these monstrous beings, and the natural world of South America, which they once thrived in, holds a special meaning for him. It seems this special way in which Chatwin relates to Patagonia stems from the constant uncertainty of his childhood. This brontosaurus skin transfixed Chatwin. “Never in my life have I wanted anything as much as I wanted that piece of skin,” he says. However, others aren’t nearly as passionate about the item.

At school, they laughed at the story of the brontosaurus. The science master said I’d mixed it up with the Siberian mammoth. He told the class how Russian scientists had dined off deep-frozen mammoth and told me not to tell lies.

Russia was also a prominent influence on Chatwin’s childhood. Chatwin grew up in England during a time when the Cold War was spreading, and the power of artillery struck fear into the hearts of children across the globe. After researching geography, he singles out Patagonia as the “safest place on earth” during wartime, and uses it to create a type of private, safe-haven within his own mind. Chatwin’s Patagonia allows him to escape from all of the threats of his childhood: those who doubted the reality and importance of his beloved brontosaurus piece, the villains across the globe creating weapons of mass destruction, and the deaths of close family members, like his grandmother. He uses relevant statements about his own childhood, relating them to Patagonia, to turn his own fears inward, and form a warm, familial image within his own mind. Chatwin’s Patagonia is a place where brontosaurus skin is real, and where he is safe.

Next, we read about the cobalt bomb, which was worse than the hydrogen bomb and could smother the planet in an endless chain reaction.

I knew the color cobalt from my great-aunt’s paintbox. She had lived on Capri at the time of Maxim Gorky and painted Capriot boys naked. Later her art became almost entirely religious. She did lots of St. Sebastiens, always against a cobalt-blue background, always the same beautiful young man stuck through and through with arrows and still on his feet.

So I pictured the cobalt bomb as a dense blue cloudbank, spitting tongues of flame at the edges. And I saw myself, out alone on a green headland, scanning the horizon for the advance of the cloud.

As a child, Bruce Chatwin creates this “green headland” as a protective space where everything is safe, and everything he believes is real truly exists. This is what Patagonia is to him; the dinosaurs he dreams of once roamed there, and the power of the cobalt bomb might be unable to penetrate this world. Later in life, Patagonia still holds the inherent significance of safety and wonder to Chatwin, and he must explore the place he still reveres for its holistic effects. Patagonia helps relate the cobalt bomb to the cobalt in his great-aunt’s paintings, and he must see the land for himself.


1. Chatwin’s tumultuous childhood seems to include no authority figures who share the same opinions he does; his mother throws away his beloved brontosaurus skin, and his teachers scoff at his stories. He spends valuable time with his grandmother, and yet does not “remember much about her”. How does this isolated childhood contribute to Chatwin’s future travels?

The fears of the Cold War era, Chatwin claims, bring about his interest in geography. What can be said of geography as a coping mechanism, according to Chatwin?

2. The fears of the Cold War era, Chatwin claims, bring about his interest in geography. What can be said of geography as a coping mechanism, according to Chatwin?

3. Chatwin seems to find a kindred spirit “The Maestro” of Patagonia. This poet shares Chatwin’s opinion that Patagonia is a protector, claiming “she folds you in her arms and never lets go”. Chatwin then calls this poet “his Patagonia”, and thus instills him with protective power. What is the significance of the fact that, when given the opportunity, Chatwin uses an individual character as a protector, rather than protecting himself in his own Patagonia?

4. In 2002, Sarah Petrides wrote of the Nazi connections that pervade Chatwin’s work. At the end of Chatwin’s work, he describes Walter Rauss, a man in Punto Arenas who created a holocaust murder apparatus. Chatwin encounters Nazis who have fled to South America during this passage at the end of his novel, and possibly throughout. This makes it seem as if, in Chatwin’s efforts to escape global conflict by fleeing to Patagonia, he has been unable to preserve his idyllic vision of peace. How does the inclusion of these Nazis affect the way we read Chatwin’s relationship with Patagonia?

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses Joan Didion

14 March 2011