Why Chatwin travels to Patagonia

Anthony Bongiorni, English 180, Brown University Spring 2002

Why exactly does Chatwin travel to Patagonia? He tells of terrain known for its "bright sunshine days" via descriptions of anachronistic dinosaurs and sentiments like:

The sky was grey and patches of mist hung in the valleys. The wheatfields were turning from green to yellow and in the pastures black cattle were grazing. We kept crossing streams with willows and pampas grass. The houses of the estancias shrank behind screens of poplar and eucalyptus. [7-8]

While Chatwin says that he had always held Patagonia "in reserve" in his heart (3), it seems that he is in fact looking for other nomadic people like himself. Others that hate their lonely lives yet see no other option. For example, Chatwin seeks out an elderly Russian woman who had been captured by Nazi's, left in West Germany, married to a Pole, and finally left by the only people who cared (which was no one) in Patagonia. Chatwin's exchange captures the essence of being a long-term foreigner:

'You, who have been to Russia," she asked, 'would they let me back? The Communists I do not mind. I would do anything to go back.'

'Things have changed,' I said, 'and there is now the détente.'

She wanted to believe it was true. Then, with the particular sadness that suppresses tears, she said: 'The détente is for the Americans, not for us. No, It would not be safe for me to go.'

The Russian has been an exile for so long that she is now a permanent member of the "other" class. Even though she wishes to return to her "home," the home has changed so much that should she visit she would still be only a visitor. She will always be a visitor.

Chatwin devotes pages to the Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy, a gang exiled and never able to return. He remarks how Cassidy was sighted everywhere even after his death, a man always on the move. The Wild Bunch was a gang always on the run, never able to stop. By telling their story, Chatwin attaches their loneliness and wanderlust to his own.

Likewise, Chatwin finds an affinity with a woman he meets named Miss Starling. Miss Starling, like Chatwin, has an animosity or at least detached indifference towards the cultures she is drawn to. Starling tells the story of a woman she boarded with in Hong Kong:

'A dreadful woman,' Miss Starling said. 'Tried to pretend she was English.' Mrs. Wood had an old Chinese servant called Ah-hing. Ah-hing was under the impression that she was working for an English-woman, but could not understand why, if she were English, she would treat her that way.

'But I told her the truth,' Miss Starling said. '"Ah-hing," I said, "your employer is not English at all. She's a Russian Jewess." And Ah-hing was upset because all the bad treatment was no explained' (120).

Miss Starling evokes the resin of emotion that her fellow nomads feel towards life and the places that they are drawn to like magnets. She says of Patagonia, "It is beautiful, but I wouldn't want to come back." Chatwin answers, "Neither would I." Interestingly, there is no description of what makes this area of Patagonia beautiful. Therefore, it becomes more the ambiance and feeling of being away that makes Patagonia beautiful. Possibly, it is the connection with another traveler that makes the moment beautiful.

Chatwin says that he had "always wanted to walk the track" from Haberton to Viamante blazed by fellow explorer Lucas Bridges (139). In the woods he encounters a guanaco, which up close is "a single male, his coat all muddied and his front gashed with scar. He had been in a fight and lost. Now he was a sterile wanderer" (141). While it might be tempting to immediately say Chatwin identifies completely with the guanaco, it is likely not the case. Instead, as earlier he sees a kinship with anyone is lost. The guanaco is alone. He has no opportunities for a mate or to be healed. Chatwin is simply sympathetic to someone who shares a similar problem, not anthropomorphizing an animal for the sake of symbolism.

The Swedish soprano Chatwin meets is a similarly empathetic character. Chatwin draws a picture of a fragile painter, her strength removed by the loss of her sense of place. Instead the soprano paints pictures of her homeland. The paint is chipping off her fingernails. Her piano is so worn the keys are mostly a pale white. Even her voice, of course, is the delicate warble of a soprano. After waiting for a week (a wait that Chatwin interestingly doesn't seem to mind), he finally boards his ship to somewhere. Yet, the ship itself is a representation of the place that Chatwin is supposed to be leaving. It has Chiloes, Patagonian food and the greasy ambiance of the Third World. While the ship is a symbol of Patagonia, it doesn't escape Chatwin general distaste for the essence of the region. He portrays the ship as decrepit, replete with a rusting piano.

However, given that Chatwin chooses to leave on a ship almost like the country he planned on leaving is telling. After all his traveling, all his pain, all his travails, he has found a place where everyone is like him. In a place where everyone is lost, and everyone wants to leave, being lost and wanting to leave don't seem so strange. Chatwin comes to need the reassurance of his new "homeland" almost as much as he needs to move. By traveling on a "Patagonian" ship, he manages to have both.

United Kingdom In Patagonia

Last modified 29 April 2002