Tuesday, October 18, 2011

In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin

My first journey around the world started in a second-hand bookshop in my hometown in Australia. Whenever I shop in a bookstore, I let my gut guide me, and that particular day I was drawn to the travel section where I picked up a copy of In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin. I had a feeling I was in for a unique journey to a fascinating land. I was right.

First published in 1977, In Patagonia was Chatwin’s first foray into book-length travel writing, and since then, this book has been hailed as the tome that changed travel writing forever. Chatwin’s easy writing style and colourful descriptions of people and places draw the reader into a world that is easily imagined, but also unfamiliar.

The story starts with a young Chatwin sitting in his grandmother’s dining room in England. He comes across some cardboard and attached to it is a piece of thick and leathery skin sprouting strands of coarse, reddish hair. The specimen had been sent from his grandmother’s cousin, Captain Charley Milward after his ship had come to grief in the Strait of Magellan, in South America. Chatwin learns that Milward had settled in Punta Arenas, Chile, and later had discovered a brontosaurus sticking out of the ice. Milward jointed, salted, and packed the dinosaur in barrels and sent it to the Natural History Museum of South Kensington, England. By the time it arrived it was a putrefied disaster, but Milward had saved a piece prior to shipping and sent it to Chatwin’s grandmother.

As a child, Chatwin coveted the piece of skin, even after his schoolmates and science teacher laughed and told him it couldn’t be a brontosaurus as they didn’t have hair. After his grandmother passed away, Chatwin asked for the skin she’d promised him, only to find out from his mother that it had been thrown away. It wasn’t until years later that Chatwin discovered the real story behind the skin – Milward had indeed found an animal, but it was a mylodon (Giant Sloth). His discovery wasn’t a complete specimen, let alone a whole skeleton, but only some skin that had been preserved in the cold caves in Chilean Patagonia. Undeterred by facts intruding upon his childhood dreams, Chatwin’s love of geography grew and his desire to travel to remote corners of the world ensued.

With an array of failed university courses and jobs behind him, Chatwin eventually took a job at The Times. During an interview with aging designer Eileen Gray, he commented on a map of Patagonia she had on the wall. He mentioned he’d always wanted to visit, so when Gray said “Go there for me” he sent a telegram to his editor with the words, “Gone to Patagonia for six months.” And he went.

The book was written in the 1970s when the world focussed on bombs and the Cold War, and at the time, it occurred to Chatwin the remoteness of Patagonia could be an excellent place to flee from the fallout. 

Torres del Paine, Patagonia
“We fixed on Patagonia as the safest place on earth.  I pictured a low timber house with a shingled roof, caulked against storms, with blazing log fires inside and the walls lined with the best books, somewhere to live when the rest of the world blew up.” 

What Chatwin discovers on his journey is Patagonia is the place where people from all over the world have sought refuge from their homelands. The Welsh and Italians, for example, present countless opportunities for Chatwin to discover the difficulties of reinventing one’s self far from friends and family. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid play a large role in this book as Chatwin covers their history, both supposed and factual, as well as discovering Captain Milward’s own memoirs of his seafaring days. 

Chatwin lets people’s actions speak for themselves, like when he meets Grandpa Felipe, the last member of the Yaghan people on Navarino Island. The old gentleman talks about how their people have lost their language to compulsory English education and how many of their people have died through epidemics. At times, the book is heartbreaking, yet a few pages later, the reader is smiling over Chatwin’s description of a heart-warming experience.

Exile and wandering are the prominent themes in this book and Chatwin’s investigations into Pascal’s Theorem of whether man is essentially nomadic and a settled civilization is unnatural brings up some very interesting topics for discussion.

Photo by The Guardian
In Patagonia received the Hawthornden Prize and the E.M. Forster awards which launched Chatwin’s career as a travel writer. Bruce Chatwin went on to write eight other books, but most were published posthumously after his death in 1989. The world lost a fascinating writer back then, but his legacy appears to have lived on in the works of other travel writers.

I could start my own public library based on the travel books I own. I love delving into the minds of people as they travel to exotic lands and undertake adventures that would give most people heart failure. Unfortunately, not all travel books are the same, and I’ve read a few that have disappointed me greatly with their lack of compassion or inability to truly understand the cultures and lands the writers have travelled through. This is not the case with Chatwin’s writing. 

Even after living in other countries and immersing myself in unfamiliar cultures, I still don’t think one can fully understand what it’s like to be born and bred in a particular country, other than the one we grew up in. That’s why some travel books miss the mark, causing the reader to walk away without a better understanding of the place they just travelled to between the covers of the book. But there are some writers who seamlessly peel back the layers of a culture and manage to give the reader a snippet into what someone else’s life is like, and for me, Bruce Chatwin is a master.


  1. My daughter is one who loves to travel--sounds like I need to get Chatwin's book for her! Thanks for the recommendation :-)

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Kenda! I'm sure your daughter will enjoy it, and if she's looking out for other authors, Paul Thereaux is also a great read.