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Last Reviewed 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.

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Summary

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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,...

(The entire section contains 1083 words.)

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