(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 907 words.)