Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 176
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin is a relatively short book. It begins with Chatwin's recollection of a curious item from his grandmother's collection: an old piece of hide that was thought to have come from a brontosaurus. It is not until a little later in the book that we find out that the hide was actually from an ancient giant sloth. From this point on, Chatwin's interest in Patagonia becomes insatiable. Chatwin sets off for his trip in 1974 and reaches Lima first. He reaches Patagonia a month later and ends up staying in the area for about six months. Chatwin also visits Argentina and then takes an expedition to the Last Hope Sound, where the hide of the giant sloth was originally found. Along the way, Chatwin writes about the curious scenery and the eccentric people he meets. Many of the Patagonians that Chatwin meets speak rhapsodically about the allure of the itinerant lifestyle. Although the book was critically adored, some Patagonians later complained that some of the anecdotes and persons in the book were fabricated.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907
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 evoke the spirit of the actual geography and its relationship to the original natives, the Araucanian Indians. While the book celebrates the diversity of that part of the world, it also, just as vividly, laments what has been lost as a result of the invasions of other cultures into its precincts. The narrator spends considerable time meditating on the ruins of Patagonia and on what it had once been as a culture unsullied by Western materialistic values.
Chatwin is also involved in the ultimate journey South; that is, a Dantean journey into hell. Indeed, at the tip of Patagonia is Tierra del Fuego, or the Land of Fire. He meets a variety of wise and not-so-wise guides as he pursues both his actual and his mythological journeys to the underworld. What keeps the reader involved is the sense that he or she is witnessing and recording a fall from the Edenic timeless innocence of the native Patagonians into the time-bound, linear world of divided consciousness—that Western imperative that separates the world into categories of sacred and profane.
Chatwin uses dramatic juxtapositions to show how a variety of European immigrants, such as the Welsh, Germans, Scots, Boers, and others, had left the stultifying atmospheres of their native countries while yet ironically and unconsciously re-creating the same cultural restrictions they thought they were fleeing. What fascinates Chatwin about this urge to find satisfaction in radically new landscapes is the suspicion that the source of this desire has a genetic basis. In chapter 44, he encounters some scientists who have been studying the migration patterns of jackass penguins: “We talked late into the night, arguing whether or not we, too, have journeys mapped out in our central nervous systems; it seemed the only way to account for our insane restlessness.” In short, the quest—the basic plot of most Western literature—can be explained as physiological law. Indeed, such questions tortured Chatwin in many of his other examinations of nomadic cultures. He suspected that humankind’s fall consisted in abandoning his natural, biologically determined impulse to move throughout the world continuously; settling into a permanent place was therefore unnatural.
Chatwin’s most convincing form of historical and anthropological inquiry always comes, however, in the form of his etymological research. Linguistically, the name “Patagonia” refers to a tribe of Tehuelche Indians who were hunters of great size, speed, and endurance. He extrapolates from these characteristics that Caliban, of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611; pb. 1623), was probably a Patagonian, an idea that he pursues into Gnostic and Hermetic interpretations of Patagonia that had found their way into a number of Renaissance texts. Throughout the work, Chatwin identifies himself with the mythic Abel, the wanderer, as opposed to Cain, the hoarder of property. He also uncovers historical accounts of American heroes, such as Butch Cassidy, and British scientist Charles Darwin, whose early associations with Patagonia were disturbing and repulsive.
One of Chatwin’s most convincing arguments for looking upon Patagonia as a place of Edenic innocence is the language of one of its indigenous tribes, the Yaghans. He notes that there are no abstractions in that language for moral ideas such as “good” or “beautiful” unless they are rooted to actual things. The tribe’s territory is always a paradise that could never be improved upon, and hell was the outside world.
The last stop on this odyssey through the visionary south is the cave in which his grandmother’s cousin, Captain Charley Milward, had probably found the piece of prehistoric animal skin that became the central relic of his family. Nearing the end of his visit, he states that he has accomplished “the object of this ridiculous journey.” Chatwin leaves Patagonia convinced that humankind lost its innocence when it ceased its nomadic existence and settled into one place, and that Cain derived his reputation for villainy principally because he founded the first city.