Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 277

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Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia is, according to the author, both a journey to Patagonia in 1975 and a "symbolic voyage which is a meditation on restlessness and exile." Chatwin was a journalist who wrote for The Sunday Times Magazine. The book In Patagonia was inspired by an interview that Chatwin had with a 93-year-old architect, on whose wall he saw a map of Patagonia—a place where the architect had always wanted to go.

The major themes of the novel are the quest, the nomadic life, and the hostility of landscape The author's alleged inspiration for the story is a piece of animal skin, which his grandparents referred to as "a piece of brontosaurus" (it was actually from a giant sloth). Chatwin's quest for this animal lends a mystique to the work and frames his search as a fantastical quest.

In Patagonia is structured as ninety-seven chapters, which feature conversations with inhabitants of Patagonia about their nomadic life. The content primarily recounts interviews with people who have settled there. Chatwin's characters are diverse, but their commonality is their having come from other lands.

Finally, the hostility of this extreme landscape is important for Chatwin's work. Patagonia is "a vast, vague territory." The region is defined by its soil and its high winds, "stripping men to the raw." As such, the novel explores how people react to extreme landscapes. It is suggested that such isolation makes men exaggerated versions of themselves. Chatwin remarks on how encounters with "eccentric personalities" pervaded his trip. This exaggerated and remote landscape, for Chatwin and his readers, is a locus for fantastical thoughts and experiences—an effect of the land's simultaneous vastness and remoteness.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1228

Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is a notable addition to the genre of travel literature. Within this boundary the episodic book ranges freely, partaking of a number of other forms—adventure tales, dream histories, character sketches, short stories by Charley Milward, commentaries on literature inspired by the idea or the actuality of Patagonia, and imaginatively re-created historical accounts. These elements reflect Chatwin’s focus on the Patagonian people, but he is a skilled depicter of the Patagonian landscape as well. His presence on Annie Dillard’s “Natural History: An Annotated Checklist” confirms this ability.

The author’s absorption in the subject of Patagonia begins in childhood, with his longing for a reddish scrap of mylodon hair given to his grandmother by her cousin, Charley Milward the sailor. In Patagonia claims genesis in a quest for that lost piece of mylodon hide. Chatwin’s journey is roughly southward, a rambling voyage through Patagonia, a desert region divided between Chile and Argentina.

Approaching the Rio Negro, the traveler notes heat, drinking, dust, and small discords of the border region. The mixture of peoples—British, Scots, “Its,” Araucanian Indians—prefigures the complex microcosm he will encounter in the desert. Rio Negro astonishes with other contrasts, the bitter-leaved thorns of the desert juxtaposed to the settlement fruits and flowers. The narrator muses on Charles Darwin’s puzzlement over the desert’s magic spell, contrasting him with W.H. Hudson, so sure of its quiet source. This early episode conveys a whole series of the author’s interests—Patagonian unrest, microcosms, startling oppositions, literary antecedents.

A plethora of incidents and eccentric characters, too many to itemize, reinforce these and other concerns. From a wealth of colorful scenes, three sets of characters stand out. These figures grip Chatwin’s imagination most strongly: Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch; Patagonian anarchists, who rebel against estancia owners and other authorities; and Charley Milward, worldwide wanderer, purveyor of mylodon hair, captain, and entrepreneur.

In Cholila, near the Chilean frontier, Chatwin visits a decaying log cabin. Now the home of a poor family, the cabin is the starting point for an imaginary journey. Chatwin shows the reader a letter which proves to be from Butch Cassidy, one of the local bandoleros norteamericanos. This author pursues Cassidy through his Western career, portraying him as a revolutionary beloved of Mormon homesteaders, a young man who saw his natural foes as banks, railroads, and cattle companies. He recounts two well-known versions of Cassidy’s death, one the familiar account of a shoot-out in Bolivia, the other a Pinkerton Agency record in which Cassidy and the Sundance Kid die in a gunfight with Uruguayan police. He adds a further history in which they kidnap the young, disturbed patrician, Ramos Luis Otero; Otero escapes and the two are killed. In Rio Pico Chatwin discusses this tale with members of the Hahn family. An old woman recalls the popularity of the two men and recounts how the Hahns buried Cassidy and Sundance on family land. Chatwin visits the grave and suggests that Cassidy escaped, that another member of the gang was buried beside Sundance; this theory tallies with Lula Betenson’s story of her brother’s return to the family home in Utah. Later, Chatwin learns that the famous pair once met a retired sailor—Captain Milward of Punta Arenas.

From Cassidy it is an easy journey to the Anarchist rebellion of 1920-1921. Antonio Soto is the first of Chatwin’s anarchist figures, a Gallician who leads several campaigns against Patagonian estancia owners. Soto begins his protest with work stoppages; later his red council attacks sheep farmers in their homes. Soto’s rebel bands of Chilean migrants dissolve under attack by soldiers of the Argentine cavalry. Hundreds of Chilotes meekly laid down their arms and surrendered, only to dig their own graves and face execution by the army. The anarchist leaders chose quick retreat; Chatwin reports that Soto eventually dwindles into obscurity. About 1945 he is found working in a foundry owned by the wife of Charley Milward. A more poignant figure is Simon Radowitzky, a young Jewish anarchist from Kiev. Shortly after arriving in Buenos Aires, he slips a bomb into a car driven by the chief of police. Sentenced to Ushuaia Prison in Tierra del Fuego, Radowitzky becomes a leader among the prisoners and grieves for his old Ushuaia friends when he is pardoned many years later. The last in Chatwin’s troika of anarchists is Jose Macias, once a leader of workers, later a barber. When Chatwin arrives in Puerto Natales, Macias has just shot himself. Fastidious in his arrangements, Macias’ next-to-final act is to turn down his collar and expose the mysterious and, until then, carefully hidden scar of a bullet wound on his neck.

Charley Milward’s life is a central concern for the author. Milward’s story touches Soto, Cassidy, and many other Patagonian castaways. Chatwin’s search for Milward begins in England with mylodon hair, continues to La Plata’s natural history museum, and then makes its first biographical stop at Estancia Valle Huemeules, Milward’s old sheep station. Moving south, the traveler notes other British sheep farms left from the “sheep boom” at the turn of the century and makes a moonlight call on Archie Tuffnell, who remembers Milward as “Old Mill.” At Punta Arenas Chatwin goes on pilgrimage to the captain’s house, Casilla 182.

He digresses to discuss the old man’s stories, sea tales of violence, rough justice, and curious adventure. Several tales are included in full, while others are summarized. The finest of these is a tale about choppy seas near the Horn. The ship’s carpenter falls overboard, and a rescue boat sets out to recover him. As the men on board spot the returning accident boat, it capsizes. The sailors swim, the ship drifts. Finally, a second boat reaches the first, but the second boat’s crew is attacked by albatross. No members of the crew are found, only unfastened life belts and the life buoy thrown safely to the carpenter. Two boys close to the young Charley’s age die and leave empty berths near his own. Another fascinating tale delineates the loss, after prophecies by the mysterious Henri Grien and after engine malfunction, of Captain Milward’s Mataura. The Strait of Magellan captures his ship, and it sticks on what is now Milward Rock at Mataura Cove. Despite the temerity of his officers, Milward saves the crew and passengers, including two women, in a highly entertaining fashion. He carefully salvages the wreck, without making the captain’s customary under-the-table salvage fee and is promptly fired.

Charley Milward’s subsequent career takes him into oil drilling, salvaging, foundries, banking, and sheep farming. His position as consul earns for him opprobrium during the war, when he refuses to break from his German business partner. When Charley accurately reports the location of the German cruiser Dresden, the British do not believe him. Marrying a second time, he moves to England but is ruined by the avarice of others in Punta Arenas. He returns to pay off the debts incurred in his name.

One of Chatwin’s final acts in Patagonia is to return to the cave of mylodons. Here, where Milward obtained the skin, bones, and claws of giant sloths for the British Museum, the author salvages a few coarse threads of hair.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 63

Clemons, Walter. Review in Newsweek. XCII (July 17, 1978), p. 84.

Deas, Malcolm. “The Sands of the Deep South,” in The Times Literary Supplement. December 9, 1977, p. 1444.

Kramer, Hilton. “Patagonia Revisited,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIII (July 30, 1978), p. 3.

Reid, Alastair. “The Giant Ground Sloth and Other Wonders,” in The New Yorker. LIV (October 9, 1978), p. 186.

Richardson, Maurice. “Walkabout,” in New Statesman. XCIV (October 21, 1977), pp. 550-551.

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