Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Winner of the 1978 Hawthorden Prize, In Patagonia continues to attract readers, although critics have yet to treat the book in depth. Many reviews and brief mentions of the volume refer to it as a classic worthy to be set beside Hudson’s evocation of a wilder Patagonia. Alastair Reid notes many of the oddest aspects of In Patagonia, pointing out the removal of personal judgment from the book. Stressing the alien nature of the Patagonian landscape, he connects a sense of separation and strangeness to the narrator’s own role as wanderer and notes that Chatwin’s journey is a mock quest into which the past continually intrudes as a series of memories and anecdotes. In an intriguing addition to the concept of Patagonia, Malcolm Deas finds that any person is, in a metaphysical sense, Patagonian.

Commentators on Bruce Chatwin’s fictions, which emerged after In Patagonia, tend to indicate a correlation between the harshness and violence which punctuates the travel book and the events developed in his later fiction. Examples of other ties abound. The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) shows a mocking humor, tales of suffering and injustice, the exotic, and back corners of South America. Interestingly, this tale of the young Brazilian Dom Francisco was originally meant as an accurate treatment of the Dahomey slave trade; as with In Patagonia, then, its construction teetered on the edge joining nonfiction and fiction. Another especially notable link between In Patagonia and Chatwin’s later work is the return of a focus on Welsh rural and domestic life in the novel On the Black Hill (1982). Rural Radnorshire is as full of farms, oddities, and sheep as are the oddly situated Welsh villages Chatwin visits in his earlier nonfiction. In Patagonia may serve as a launching point for readers interested in the subjects and techniques of Chatwin’s fictions, as well as a handbook for the nomadic reader who seeks the marvelous.