Peripatetic in Patagonia
Jonathan Cape, 1977, Penguin Classics, 2003
Reviewed by Julie C. Graham
In Patagonia is a travelogue of Bruce Chatwin’s rich adventures in the long, southernmost expanse of South America. Chatwin begins the story in his grandmother’s dining room, where
… there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in the cabinet a piece of skin. It was a small piece only, but thick and leathery, with strands of coarse, reddish hair. It was stuck to a card with a rusty pin. On the card was some writing in faded black ink, but I was too young then to read.
“A piece of brontosaurus.”
The brontosaurus skin, it turns out, had come from Patagonia, sent to his grandmother by her cousin Charley, who had been a sailor there. After his grandmother died he learned that it wasn’t from a brontosaurus at all, but a giant sloth. He also learned that his mother had thrown the skin away. But the pseudo-dinosaur leather shaped in the young Chatwin a deep interest in Patagonia.
Chatwin starts his journey to Patagonia in Buenos Aires. There is no backstory besides the boyhood fable and the explanation of the geography he learned while planning with his brother long ago to settle in “a far corner of the earth” should the “cobalt bomb” rain down on England during the Cold War. We land in Buenos Aires along with Chatwin, as if we are starting on foot alongside him.
“The history of Buenos Aires is written in its telephone directory,” he begins.
Chatwin then travels by train, bus, car and foot through the regions of Patagonia, meeting Scots, Italians, French, Welsh and Germans along the way. He has a journalist’s eye and is intensely observant of detail.
The Scot called the dogs off and led the way down a narrow, green corridor into a tall, darker green room lit by a single bulb. Round the fire were some Victorian easy chairs with flat wooden armrests. Damp whiskey glasses had bitten rings into the French polish. Hung high on the walls were prints of willowy gentlemen and ladies in crinolines.
The Patagonian desert is not a desert of sand or gravel, but a low thicket of grey-leaved thorns which give off a bitter smell when crushed.
He makes great effort to include as much local language as possible in the book, steeping the reader instantly in the feel of the location in which he’s landed.
Chatwin has an unusual writing style. His movement through the story does not rely on information about his daily operations nor on his feelings about what he’s learning. In fact, we don’t learn anything about Chatwin at all.
Reading this travel memoir, it was interesting to see Chatwin as a character in his own story without ever really learning anything about his personal experience. We don’t learn where or what he eats or where he stays, for instance. The narrative moves forward to the next locale or situation and we jump, wanting to ride along, on to the next person, place or happening.
There’s a certain rhythm to In Patagonia that feels like arriving at stations along the route of a long train trip, heading south. Each chapter is a “where are we now?” moment for the reader, who has to just catch up. Maybe it’s a bit like hopping on a train, just heading in whatever direction Chatwin is taking us next. I enjoyed the ride.
Julie C. Graham is an MFA candidate at Antioch University. She lives near Santa Monica, California. Check out her essay “Trailblazing Women Explorers,” a discussion of the memoirs of solo women adventurers, now available in two parts at the online arts and literature magazine Storyacious.