Yesterday, I returned from a trip through Patagonia, which I appropriately accompanied with the novel In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin. The novel is a first-person account of Chatwin’s journey through Patagonia to find the old skin of a sloth, a piece reminiscent of his grandmother and his childhood. In Chatwin’s words, “Patagonia is the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origins. It is therefore a symbol of his restlessness. From its discovery it had the effect on the imagination like the Moon, but in my opinion more powerful” (25).
This explanation encompasses a widely agreed notion of the place, that there is a heartache for this destination we don’t even know, that compels us to go. Many of the characters we meet in the book, historical and current, have a story and a reason why they can be found their regions of Patagonia. Chatwin introduces these people in the style of individual portraits, despite the hundreds of people he details. One of my favorite accounts is of an older woman Chatwin meets just outside of Rio Pico. He says this:
“At some negative turning point she had married a moon-faced Swede. They joined two failures in one and drifted towards the end of the world. Caught by chance in this eddy, they built the perfect cottage of his native Malmo” (137).
The facts of this little story are tumultuous, but Chatwin describes the adventure in a way that makes the reader feel like they’ve read something that belongs in a snow globe, or a children’s book. I found that many of the stories Chatwin tells along the way appear similarly. Some of the profiles almost seemed like limericks to me. Another example: “There is a man in Punta Arenas, dreams pine forests, hums Lieder, wakes each morning and sees the black strait” (368). From the perspective of a traveler, I think this style of writing is the most realistic, like of course we meet lots of people in traveling, but it isn’t hard to recall the life story of a scrappy guy you shared a pot of stew with in your hostel common room. Of course we are always hoping for a big adventure, much like Chatwin’s quest to find the sloth skin. However, the anecdotes of the people, meal times, and transportation are the details that make the narrative in his book, and the real living in ours. The streamline of a combination of interior consciousness and exterior events leaves the reader with the impression that this isn’t a trip at all, really, it’s a snapshot of life as always, just captured in a book. I think this is the goal with many travelers, myself included, to feel not like we are vacationing in a place, but rather that we have simply packed up and decided to live there for a bit.
The sense of wandering and restlessness is also a theme throughout the novel. Chatwin’s encounters with the people and the land become so extensive that by the end of the novel, the reader feels as if they have gone on the journey, too. To me, it actually became less about the place, Patagonia specifically, and more about what is it is that’s inside of us and around us that takes us to these far corners of the earth. (Tierra del Fuego is quite literally the southernmost part of the world.) This theme encouraged me to stay malleable and open-minded while traveling. As I’ve mentioned in past posts, most of the time, the best stuff happens in the in-between. By the time Chatwin actually finds the sloth skin, I had forgotten that it was the “reason” he had set out in the first place. His quiet intake and account of life “in Patagonia” didn’t really need the flashy plot line, so I am glad for the historical diversions and quirky entanglements that ended up comprising the novel. It left me thinking, do we need a reason to travel?
Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. Vintage Classics, 2017.