When Jorge Luis Borges wrote that all authors “creates [their] own precursors…[their]work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future” he means to say that writers actively seek out the books they want to be influenced by and choose how they want to be influence. This idea is key to understanding how Bruce Chatwin chooses to narrate his novel, In Patagonia, as the pages are brimming with allusions to past novelists and historians such as Coleridge, Swift and Darwin.
This use of intertexuality within the novel is really what binds the pages together and what helps make Patagonia, a region of mythical proportions and fantastical tales, come alive to its readers. The novel is structured in such a way that it gives its readers quick snapshots of various towns and characters that Chatwin visits and meets along his four month journey. Each chapter is brief, sometimes just spanning a paragraph or two, and is written in such a way that you know that Chatwin is unequivocally British due to the brusque, dark and often sarcastically refreshing diction and verbs that he employs. For instance, in the apex of the novel when Chatwin arrives to Buenos Aires in 1974, he remarks how the city reminds him of tsarist Russia, “the cars of the secret police bristling with aerials; women with splayed hunches licking ice cream in dusty parks; the same bullying statues, the pie crust architecture, the same avenues that were not quite straight, giving the illusion of endless space and leading out into nowhere” (Chatwin, 11). Chatwin’s ability to string together often contradictory images through his use of active verbs and jaunting adjectives lends itself to the candid tone that persists throughout the entire novel and which lends itself to a narrator that can be best described as kind of cheeky and at times jarring.
The novel takes place in southern Argentina and falls under the genre of travel writing and historical fiction. Chatwin narrates his experience as a lone traveler to places that are utterly surreal and remote. Places that up until now have only existed within the popular imagination. Chatwin takes his readers from rural Welsh sheep farming villages, where a majority of the population still only speaks welsh, to a handful of Swiss hamlets clustered on mountainous cliffs, to the frigid and barren terrain of Ushuaia. Not only does Chatwin describe the mountainous and rugged terrain of Patagonia but he walks rights into the lives of its inhabitants. While arriving to Gaiman, the epicenter of the Welsh Patagonia, Chatwin comes to meet an elderly Welsh woman named Mrs. Jones; “Her plums were ripe and her garden full of roses. ‘I can’t move, my dear’ she called through. You will have to come and talk to me through the kitchen. She was a squat old lady in her eighties. She sat propped up at a scrubbed deal table filling lemon curd tarts” (Chatwin, 12). Not only can the reader picture Mrs. Jones through Chatwins use of sensorial details and great dialogue but we also get an idea of how her life must be. These human snapshots or portraits of people that Chatwin paints, help move the narrative along and serve as a connector that enables Chatwin to discuss not only the inhabitants of the places he visits but also helps to frame the larger than life figures that passed through the same places Chatwn is now visiting. Such historical characters include Butch Cassidy, an infamous American bank robber at the turn of the 20th century who fled to Patagonia, naturalist and adventure seeker Charles Darwin who landed on the icy Patagonia shores, and Simon Radowitzky, a radical anarchist, who was jailed at the notorious Ushuaia prison in Tierra del Fuego for twenty one years until he was released and fled to neighboring Uruguay.
Often, the same characters, such as Butch Cassidy and Darwin, reappear throughout Chatwin’s travels as he hears differing accounts from locals about where they traveled to how they died. Perhaps, in many ways this is the beauty of Chatwin’s novel, its ability to obscure the lines between fiction and nonfiction, reality and fable. Even though many critics have claimed that Chatwin hyperbolized events, misrepresented those he interviewed and even extrapolated the truth, I wonder, does it really matter since the novel teeters the line between literary journalism and historical travel writing?
- Patagonia: National Geographic