Bruce Chatwin Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Bruce Chatwin is known principally for his semiautobiographical novels and for his remarkable ability to interweave fact and fiction in highly imaginative ways. In addition to his novels, Chatwin wrote a travelogue, In Patagonia (1977), his first full-length book and the one that made him famous. He also collaborated with Paul Theroux on Patagonia Revisited (1985; expanded as Nowhere Is a Place: Travels in Patagonia, 1992). After his death, two volumes of his essays appeared: What Am I Doing Here (1989) and Anatomy of Restlessness: Selected Writings, 1969-1989 (1996). In 1993, Far Journeys: Photographs and Notebooks was published, edited by David King and Francis Wyndham.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Bruce Chatwin has come to be known as one of English literature’s most renowned travel writers, novelists, and essayists. Although On the Black Hill and Utz are genuine novels that are based on real characters or character types, Chatwin’s travel writing established his early reputation as one of England’s most distinguished writers. His ability to interconnect fact and fiction within his unique perspective made his semiautobiographical novels both believable and entertaining. Some of them became popular best sellers. His stylishly rendered travelogues substantially revived the art of English and American travel writing in the latter half of the twentieth century. These books and essays have been favorably compared with the best travel writing of D. H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Robert Byron, and Paul Theroux. Like Lawrence’s travel books, Chatwin’s demonstrate the disastrous impact of Western culture on native cultures in both South America and Australia. Western civilization and its corrosive technology succeeded in separating the Indians of South America and the Aborigines of Australia from their connections with the source of their vitality—their natural surroundings.

Chatwin’s first book, In Patagonia, won several prestigious awards, notably the Hawthornden Prize and the E. M. Forster Award. Chatwin’s ability to present facts using novelistic techniques raised the level of travel writing from mere reportage to serious examination of the conflicting value systems of European emigrants and indigenous groups in some of the most remote areas of the world. He discovered repeatedly during his travels that humankind’s failing has been its abandonment of its natural, biologically determined impulse to move throughout the world following the cyclical processes of the natural seasons. Settling into one permanent location is, in essence, unnatural. It is this persistent pattern of settlement that, to Chatwin, explains the origins of human restlessness, for Chatwin the greatest mystery in human history. The history of the world, then, consists of the conflict between pastoral nomads and what Chatwin called the sins of settlement. Not only the novels but also his travel books take as their primary subject the profound effects of “the sins of settlement” on the human psyche.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

What does the range of writers who have praised Bruce Chatwin suggest about the man?

If places are not sacred, and if people are too “territorial,” how can Chatwin’s awareness of a need to travel be explained?

What evidence from your experience confirms or denies the dangers Chatwin saw in being “restricted to a particular space”?

Chatwin rose quickly, both as an art critic and writer. Which matters more: genius or determination?

Consider Chatwin’s body of work as an argument against too strict an adherence to the demands and limitations of literary genre.