In Patagonia is Bruce Chatwin’s first book and still his most popular. Perhaps because it’s most clearly a travel book. Where The Songlines is already getting pretty philosophical, In Patagonia is still rooted in the conventions of the travel genre. A young Western man sets off to an exotic, unknown land where people are strange (to him) and the scenery is beautiful. The classic example is Robert Byron’s The road to Oxiana (1937), about the author’s journey from the Middle East to India.
Bruce Chatwin decided to travel through Patagonia (some parts Argentina, some parts Chile) towards the southernmost tip of South America. His initial goal is to locate the place where the remains of a giant sloth were dug up. Chatwin’s great uncle once sent home a piece of its skin, saying it belonged to a brontosaurus. As a young boy Chatwin was always intrigued by the strange piece of leathery skin in his grandmother’s house and decided he would one day travel to its land of origin, Patagonia. My version of In Patagonia was published in Germany so, while the text is in English (with interesting German footnotes), the afterword is completely in German. I’m not sure I understood this afterword completely, but I did manage to follow some of the editor’s points. Interestingly, he compares Chatwin’s search for that ancient brontosaurus (that turns out to have been a giant sloth) to Jason and the Argonauts’ quest to retrieve the Golden Fleece.
So much for the mythical context of In Patagonia. In reality, Chatwin seems much more concerned with the current state of affairs in Patagonia. During the Seventies both Argentina and Chile were struggling with various dictatorships, so politics are never far away. Mixed with this modern background, though, is a constant sense of nostalgia for the period around the turn of the century, the days when a lot of farmers settled in these foreign lands and desperados from the United States roamed around. Chatwin likes to refer to his great uncle and his contemporaries, but the people he talks to also like to bring up memories of their grandparents’ time.
In Patagonia is written within the context of other books. To illustrate the clash between European and other cultures Chatwin refers to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Gulliver’s travels. To give a sense of the strangeness surrounding this place that has often been described as the end of the world he refers to Coleridge’s The rime of the ancient mariner and The narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe. Another famous precursor is of course Charles Darwin, who in The voyage of the Beagle described many of the things Chatwin saw again a century later.
I’m not sure if I’ll pick up another Bruce Chatwin book anytime soon since they are quite ‘full’, but I do feel like checking out some of the references from In Patagonia. Luckily Chatwin wrote only a small oeuvre, so reading all of his works is still a realistic option.

27 December 2012

Phillipp Reclam, 2003
Originally published 1977

Comments (2)

(Originally read 31 January 2012)
Today I spent reading Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. As a prelude to that book’s report though I’d like to write something about my first Bruce Chatwin book, The songlines. I read The songlines in the beginning of this year and it made quite an impression. Originally a tip from one of L.’s professors, we’d run into a second-hand copy in Leiden and decided to take a chance. Bruce Chatwin is one of those huge names in travel literature, often referred to and quoted (on new Moleskine notebooks they even say something like ‘as used by Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and Bruce Chatwin’). As such things go, you develop a kind of awe for such writers that can easily prevent you from ever picking up one of their books. Fortunately, this writer’s reputation is well deserved.
I won’t say The songlines is an easy read. It’s loosely about Chatwin travelling into the interior of Australia to learn more about the mystical songlines. He learns that songlines are ancient markers that provide a sort of family connection for Aboriginal tribes. Each tribe has its own song, transmitted through generations. One Aboriginal living now can start to sing his tribe’s song and he will know which way to walk; the words are connected to specific landmarks, so you can sing and find your way across the continent. Often enough people will suddenly disappear for weeks on end, tracing their songline: going ‘walkabout’.
Enterprising modern Australians threaten some of these ancient songlines by building highways and such. If the original landmarks are not in the same place anymore, or not there at all, the songline ceases to work. This is where Chatwin gets in. In the first part of the book he gets to know the people that try to help the Aboriginals. The Aboriginals themselves are often helpless against threats because of widespread alcoholism and passivity, so they are assisted by a mixed bunch of idealists.
Chatwin, however, seems more interested in the ancient idea of the songlines. In the second part of the book he suddenly switches to some of his older travel notes, but also starts quoting a number of writers and thinkers who said things about wandering in general. This is Chatwin’s real interest; why people have started to wander throughout the ages. He sees himself as a wanderer - always restless, never happy to settle down - and feels a connection with all of these other restless spirits. The Aboriginals are just an example of this ancient human urge. For me, this is where The songlines really took off. Reading that second part gave me a thrill. I suppose there is in everyone still something left of the wanderer. Maybe this is nonsense, but it did speak to me. I haven’t burned my ships and taken to travelling the world since then, but the idea that you always could is comforting.

10 December 2012

Picador, 1988
Originally published 1987


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