In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin

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Ed. Penguin, 2003. Size 19,5 x 13 cm. Sate: Used, very good. 200 pages

By Nicholas Shakespeare

In December 1974, the 34-year-old Bruce Chatwin departed Buenos Aires on the night bus south, beginning a journey that would transform a truant journalist to one of the most stylish and original writers of the late twentieth century. That same year, almost to the day, I left school to work as a cowhand in the Buenos Aires province. To the south, the plains spread on and on into Patagonia.

I was seventeen and, of course, ít scored me. With my head full of all that empty space, I returned ten months later to tiny, congested England. I instantly forgot the flies, the saddle sores, the boredom. I was desperate to go back.

Six years later, I created an opportunity and traveled through Rio Negro and Chubut to Tierra del Fuego. The military junta had erected signs beside the roads —“To know Patagonia ís a duty”— but no one was taking notice. Patagonia, in the estimation of one Buenos Aires writer, was “just emptiness —a back alley where different cultures swirled about and rather a boring place”.

One morning, in a gesture soon to be repeated by a genera-tion of backpackers, I was waiting for a bus in the dusty scrubland west of Trelew when I dug out a book I’d brought with me, a paperback edition that today bears the creases and marginalia of three visits to Patagonia.

I’d never heard of the author, but his was the only contemporary book I could find about my destination. I opened the first page and 1 read the first paragraph and that, really, was that.

Patagonia is not a precise region on the map. It is a vast, vague territory that encompasses 900,000 square kilometers of Argentina and Chile. The area is most effectively defined by its soil. You know you are in Patagonia when you see rodados patagónicos, the basalt pebbles left behind by glaciers, and jarilla, the low bush that is its dominant flora. Patagonia may also be described by its climate. The wind that blows with terrific force from October to March —in Chatwin’s expression, “stripping men to the raw” —made Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s plane fly backward instead of forward.

Travelers from Darwin onward have noted how this bleakness seizes the imagination. Patagonia’s nothingness forces the mind in on itself. In the museum of Trelew I’d found the diary of a stern Welsh pioneer. John Murray Thomas, trekking inland in July 1877, wrote in his fading pencil: “Last night dreamt of Harriett that we were in the bedroom. Had a nice kiss. Hardly a night passes but that I see her in my dreams”.

In Patagonia, the isolation makes it easy to exaggerate the person you are: the drinker drinks; the devout prays; the lonely grows lonelier, sometimes fatally. Tom Jones worked as British Consul in Punta Arenas. In his 1961 memoir A Patagonian Panorama, he wrote: “Whether it is the dreary and crude climate of Patagonia or the lonely life in the camp after the day’s work or remorse after a bout of hard drinking, I cannot say, but I have known, some very intimately, well over 20 people who have committed suicide”.

The first sheep farmers arrived from the Falkland Islands in the late 1860s. The temptation among their descendants to cling to the culture their forebears left behind remains fierce. Patagonia spans two nations; a good many of its inhabitants pass a life likewise divided, one often spent replicating the environment they have escaped. The remoter the valley, the more faithful the re-creation of an original homeland. In Gaiman, the Welsh preserve their language and their hymns. In Rio Pico, the Germans plant lupins and cherry trees. In Sarmiento, the Boers continue to dry biltong (of guanaco). As Chatwin wrote in his journal, “The further one gets from the great centres of civilisation, the more prevalent become the fanciful reconstructions of the world of Madame du Barry”.

Barren for the most part, Patagonia is a land of extreme fertility in one respect. To travel through it, as Chatwin soon discovered, is “the most jaw-dropping experience because everywhere you’d turn up, there, sure enough, was this somewhat eccentric personality who had this fantastic story. At every place I came to it wasn’t a question of hunting for the story, it was a question of the story coming at you…I also think the wind had something possibly to do with it”.

Like the Galapagos, Patagonia has scarcely advanced from its early maps showing blue unicorns, red centaurs, elephant-bearing condors, and giants. It still likes to think of itself as a land of giants. “Not those giants referred to by Hernando de Magallanes”, wrote Tom Jones, “but those men and women, many of them British, who made this vast, bleak and windswept land, prosperous and habitable for civilised people”. Even today, it remains scattered both with dinosaur bones and living relics who dwell sixty kilometers from the nearest pavement and talk of “leagues” and “chappies” and “t’other side”. Everyone seems seven foot high, an oddball. Dreams proliferate. (This may explain why Ted Turner and Sylvester Stallone have bought properties there.) “Patagonia is different from anywhere else,” says Teresita Braun-Menéndez, of the family that did most to open up the territory in the nineteenth century. “That loneliness, that grandiosity. Anything can happen”.

Like many people, I experienced its effect in heightened colors when reading In Patagonia. I’d read Hudson and Darwin and Lucas Bridges, but none had validated my Patagonia as Chatwin had.

In crowded London, I sought the author out. My pretext was to get the telephone number of the Frenchman who would be King of Patagonia. Really, I wanted to meet Chatwin.

In those days I kept a diary. On January 19, 1982, I wrote: “The morning with Bruce Chatwin, after eventually locating his Eaton Place bedsit: a bicycle against the wall and Flaubert on the floor. He was younger than I imagined, rather like a Polish refugee: baggy trousered, emaciated, grey blonde and blue-eyed, sharp-featured and razor-worded. He has just delivered a manuscript —a novel about a square mile near Clyro where 2 families fight, without exposure to the modern world, through 2 world wars. He talks like a bird, very funny, very boyish and very well read. ‘Isn’t it extraordinary how the most fraudulent people often have a very good eye for the genuine article?’”

His book had conjured a loose-limbed ascetic at one with the desert around Trelew, a silent man whose longest sentence was “I see”. In fact, he told me later, “I’m at my happiest having a good old yakking conversation”. Only afterward did I meet the lady in Puerto Natales who confessed, “Don Bruce, he talked a lot, bastante”. Or, in Alice Springs, an anthropologist who complained: “He murdered people with talk”. He didn’t stop yakking from the moment I entered his tiny attic flat. Within minutes, he’d provided a telephone number for the King of Patagonia and Araucania, a pipe smoker with glaucoma who ran the Free Faculty of Law in the Faubourg Poissonière. He also gave me numbers for the King of Crete, the heir to the Aztec throne—and a guitarist in Boston who believed he was god.

Bruce Chatwin was always attracted to border countries: to places on the rim of the world, sandwiched ambiguously between cultures, neither one thing nor another. In South Africa, I met a poet who said that Chatwin wrote as if he was in exile from a country that didn’t exist. “He was in exile from everywhere”, says his wife, Elizabeth. And he was on the run again when he boarded the bus in Buenos Aires.

In advance of its American publication, Chatwin drafted a letter to his agent, requesting that In Patagonia be taken out of the travel category. He wanted the blurb on the American edition to convey four points, in his opinión the key to understanding the book:

1- “Patagonia is the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origins. It is therefore a Symbol of his restlessness. From its discovery it had the effect on the imagination something like the Moon, but in my opinión more powerful”

2- The form described in the Daily Telegraph as “wildly unorthodox” was in fact as old as literature itself: “the hunt for a strange animal in a remote land”

3- He preferred to leave the reader with the choice of two journeys: one to Patagonia in 1975, the other “a symbolic voyage which is a meditation on the restlessness and exile”

4- “All the stories were chosen with the purpose of illustrating some particular aspect of wandering and/or of exile: i.e., what happens when you get stuck. The whole should be an illustration of the Myth of Cain and Abel”

His letter makes clear that Chatwin had come to Argentina with a fixed idea: to retrieve from his abandoned nomad manuscript (“that wretched book,” Elizabeth called it) the idea of the Journey as Metaphor, in particular Lord Raglan’s paradigm of the young hero who sets off on a voyage and does battle with a monster. Such journeys are the meat and drink of our earliest stories, he told the Argentinian journalist Uki Goñi— an “absolute constant, a universal in literature”. He wanted to write a spoof of this form. Where Jason had sought the Golden Fleece, he would seek the animal in his grandmother’s cabinet. And if possible find a replacement scrap.

The spoof was a protective device. It concealed a desire to continue his serious exploration into wandering and exile. Only this time, he intended to grapple with his theme not in the abstract terms that had suffocated The Nomadic Alternative, but in concrete stories.