Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1043
Chatwin’s formal and thematic concerns intertwine in this volume, and each is a rich subject for analysis. In Patagonia is highly episodic and deliberately fragmentary in form. This mode allows Chatwin to piece together knowledge from observation and traces of fact, as any traveler does; thus, form meshes with travel-book content. It also allows him to pick and choose from among an expanse of colorful characters and landscapes. As narrator, he remains a sort of effaced picaro. The first-person speaker is revealed primarily by his reaction, shown through selection of detail and quotation, to people; rare judgmental remarks; the reactions of others to him—as gringo, as Britisher, and as asker of strange questions; and his own curiosity and evident willingness to keep any company, in any setting. His focus on individuals and his episodic format result in a string of cameos, as he displays the eccentric inhabitants of the eccentric region that is Patagonia.
This method leads to several pleasures the reader may be more accustomed to find in fiction. The ninety-seven chapters, some quite brief, establish a network of cross connections. The repetition of motif, idea, and character gives readers a sense of discovery; they too are surprised when they stumble across traces of Milward or are intrigued by the multiplying versions of Cassidy’s final years. Almost magically, both these elements eventually intersect. Pattern provides interest and order, lending shapeliness to an episodic work. The narrator also participates in the creation of stories as he reports gossip, history, and legend; summarizes or presents the tales of Milward; and even chooses among various versions of elusive “truth” in order to present what he perceives as the most likely version of events. A good example of this control over reality is Chatwin’s dig into lore and memories surrounding the Wild Bunch; he clearly leans toward stories of Cassidy’s safe return to the United States and, briefly, to his family home in Circleville.
The language in the book is as interesting as its concerns. The author’s examination of simple things is fresh, as when he observes a schoolgirl’s “shadow crinkling beside her along the corrugated housefronts.” Often he is master of enigmas that are wrapped in simple language and lush images: “The pink man handed the uncle a disc that shimmered like the moon and the canoe spread a white wing and flew down the channel towards the source of pearl buttons.” A description such as “four peaks piled one on the other in a straight line: a purple hump, an orange column, a cluster of pink spires, and the cone of a dead volcano, ash-grey and streaked with snow” is vivid enough to materialize from the bright catalogs of a poet such as Elizabeth Bishop.
Despite these virtues of form and style, some problems arise. The episodic form leads to a random organization; this becomes a difficulty because the reader necessarily finds a lack of impetus or progress in the book. While Chatwin sets out on a quest, it is, after all, not a serious one; as a result, the ancient and elemental pattern of the journey toward a goal is diffused. Chatwin reaches the goal and salvages a few strands of mylodon hair, but he chooses to let the narrative ebb away. The final captain is not Captain Milward but a minor man with a chic and well-fed look. Deliberately choosing to evade strong closure, Chatwin adds to the random tenor of the book.
From Chatwin’s episodic vignettes emerge notable thematic concerns. Repeatedly he describes outsiders, and eventually the reader comes to understand that the collector of isolated characters is one of many outsiders adrift in Patagonia. The loneliness of outsiders become even more striking when set against a background of suffering and injustice. Yet Patagonia retains its peculiar magic, its austere beauty.
Patagonia appears rife with outsiders, with displaced people; most of those Chatwin encounters have arrived as emigrants or exiles from other countries or else have inherited the role of emigrant. Meanwhile, native peoples have suffered tribal diminution or extinction. Language is a constant reminder of the status of the Patagonians, since many people Chatwin meets are fiercely proud of their heritage but no longer speak its language. The inhospitable desert also informs man that he is a stranger to its landscape. Perhaps the most harmonious realm in Patagonia is the one portrayed through the Russian anarchist, Radowitzky, who discerns in the microcosm of the prison a world of friendship, despite his mistreatment by authorities. Chatwin implies a loss of identity in his Patagonians, who dwell in an absurd microcosm and in an inaccurate and out-of-date past.
For many frontier figures, daily life is difficult, marked by struggle and occasional cruelty. The extinction of Indian tribes by the encroaching white man, the execution of hundreds of Chilotes during Antonio Soto’s anarchist rebellion, the savage rigors of the brujeria, Patagonia’s sect of male witches, these and other examples suggest something of the harshness of Patagonian life.
W.H. Hudson asserted that wanderers in Patagonia’s relentless desert come to know a primeval peace. In this hard and barren land Chatwin stumbles upon magic, however severe. For Chatwin the child, Patagonia stood first as the home of his “dinosaur,” then as a haven from “cobalt bomb” fears. The Patagonia he rambles as a man is wonderfully eccentric, a jumble of times and places. It is even a kingdom, for the court of Araucania and Patagonia languishes in pleasant Parisian exile. In all things it is excessive, contrasting lush plantations with lean desert, wealth with poverty. As a book-minded nomad, Chatwin can arrive at Patagonia via the magic paths of William Shakespeare, John Donne, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Darwin, W.H. Hudson, and others. Spare, original, and strange, Patagonia becomes not only the destination of such roads but also the source of all paths. Father Palacios, the Patagonian polymath, argues that the oldest ancestor of man, the Yoshil, inhabited Patagonia, as did the unicorn. In its magic and beauty, its suffering and injustice, Patagonia is a smaller version of the globe. Its inhabitants migrate from all the world; on Patagonia’s concentrated stage they display the family of man.