Bruce Chatwin World Literature Analysis - Essay

Bruce Chatwin World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The key to understanding the complex world of Chatwin is that he combined a number of identities that manifest themselves in his writings. He was a respected and highly accomplished novelist, a writer of critically acclaimed travel books, and a superb essayist. What distinguished him from others who write novels, travel literature, or essays was that he interwove genres in exceptionally imaginative ways. By amalgamating these genres, he was able to keep the content of his books open and multifaceted. In Patagonia is primarily a journalistic assignment that he recorded in ninety-seven journal entries. It documents a trip to the southern tip of South America but tells much more than the mere literal events of that trip. He consciously does not call it a diary, since that word suggests a simple recording of daily events. Since he is highly conscious of the etymologies of crucial words, he calls it a journal and stresses the connection between the words “journey” and “journal”; he thus establishes a two-part structure consisting of the physical journey and, as importantly, the spiritual journey he is taking into his own psyche as well as the spiritual history of the place itself.

The ostensible reason for the trip is to find the origin of a primitive relic that had been in his family for many years. What he serendipitously discovers is a deeper understanding of himself, his family, and the heart of Patagonia itself. By varying his methods of inquiry, he was able to bring into his book enormous amounts of information that include religious, historical, mythical, archaeological, and personal data. What emerges, then, are cultural investigations that reveal radical differences in his Eurocentric value system and the so-called primitive societies that had flourished until the arrival of Western exploiters. His physical explorations become metaphysical ones, since he is always interested in the earliest signs of some kind of common human nature. Chatwin, like writers such as the poet Ezra Pound and the fiction writer Guy Davenport, was keenly interested in how the archaic imagination reasserts itself in modern society, and how it can be used to salvage humankind from its self-destructive practices.

Since Chatwin possessed a highly attuned romantic imagination that trusted impulse and embraced risk, he believed that avenues other than fact and data contribute to a comprehensive understanding of humanity’s problematical plight. His novel The Viceroy of Ouidah combines the facts about the life of a Brazilian slave trader with Chatwin’s own starkly dramatic re-creations of the sadistic conditions under which the slaves suffered. Some critics called it a mock-heroic fantasy full of exotic, even surrealistic scenes. He uses fictional techniques to shape and organize the bare facts into cinematic images that demand attention and make their points with shattering impact.

After receiving worldwide acclaim for a travel book (In Patagonia) and a nonfiction novel (The Viceroy of Ouidah) that became a film, Chatwin produced a conventional novel, fully fictional as far as anyone knew, about identical twin brothers who spend their lives on a remote Welsh farm. On the Black Hill is as explicitly detailed in miniature as his earlier works were grandly exotic.

The Songlines, perhaps his most brilliant and respected book, revisits the genre of the travel book as it details his explorations of one of the oldest cultures of the world, the Aboriginals in the dry heart of central Australia. Chatwin loved extremes and was especially enamored with where extremes converged. What interested him most were those locations, geographical and cultural, where the aggressively linear West meets the cyclical ever-renewing “primitive” imaginations of the Aboriginals.

In his last major work, he returned to the nonfiction novel. Utz combines techniques from detective fiction with James Bond-like adventures in its depiction of lost treasures of rare miniature figurines in central Europe. Chatwin was able to use his encyclopedic knowledge of antiquities that he had collected during and after his career with Sotheby’s.

In Patagonia

First published: 1977

Type of work: Travel literature

The narrator journeys to the southern tip of South America to authenticate a lost family relic but discovers, instead, the disturbing riches of Patagonia.

One of the difficulties that critics had when In Patagonia first appeared in print was what to call it. It was certainly a travel book that treated that remote area with the same serious attention that classic travel writers such as D. H. Lawrence and Evelyn Waugh treated the locations that they wrote about. Indeed, Chatwin’s style is every bit as literary and novelistic as the best of either Lawrence or Waugh, both of whom were known primarily as novelists.

Though the structure of the book is quite obviously the journal of a trip, Chatwin varies his methods throughout the work. He uses anecdotes about people he met and adventures he had and interweaves them, sometimes seamlessly, with anecdotes, adventures, and stories he had earlier read about in books and articles about Patagonia. Though the book opens with the narrator’s call to adventure as he vows to find and authenticate the origin of a family relic from Patagonia (a piece of giant animal skin from prehistoric times), the narrator quietly removes himself as an active participant in the action of the venture. He prefers to record what he sees and hears and also to connect that data with the many sources he studied before embarking on his trip.

The book becomes, then, a mélange of diverse methods of presentation that include biography, autobiography, anthropology, myth, geography, religion, portrait, strange encounters, family history, and philosophical speculation. He uses all of these methods not only to describe a sense of the place but also, more importantly, to...

(The entire section is 2472 words.)