Graves, Death, and Travel Writing in Chatwin¹s In Patagonia

Julia Hyun '90 (English 137, 1990)

Another book indebted to relics of the past for a story line is Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia . Its opening is simple enough and its premise clear. "In my grandmother's dining-room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in the cabinet a piece of skin." So enthralled was the author by this artifact that he holds it responsible for his earliest memories. Indeed, the ridicule he suffered at the hands of his peers and teachers derived from his falsely naming the animal a brontosaurus, as his family had called it. When he becomes of age and gets the opportunity, Chatwin sets out in search of the fabled brontosaurus and the heroic sailor who discovered it - his grandmother's cousin Charley Milward.

Without any type of goal towards which to drive the plot development, a story fails by its very definition. On one level, then, Chatwin's is simply an account about one man's quest to reclaim his past. To this end, the piece of skin serves as both a physical and intellectual clue. Chatwin has seen the artifact and knows it exists. At the same time, his contact with it has been minimal, and the resultant experiences have raised more questions than they have answered. In undertaking the quest, Chatwin seeks to develop for himself a construction of the past that is personally meaningful.

Of equal importance, however, is Chatwin's ability to expand the theme beyond his own personal scope. To his credit as a writer and observer, he shows the importance which having roots holds for man on a near-universal level. Chatwin consistently draws our attention to the sense of history and eagerness to make personal connections which remains endemic to the human condition. As we see from the following example, identification with the past and its rich and gloried tradition proves a source of comfort even when such distinctions seem foolish or out of context:

'This is an Englishman', one of them said.
'A Scotsman,' I corrected.
'Si, soy Escocés,' said Robbie Ross. He had no words of English.
'Mi Patria es la Inglaterra misma. '

For him England and Scotland were an indivisible blur. He shouldered the brunt of the hard work and was target for theothers' witticisms.

With this exchange, Chatwin exposes a Catch-22 in man's efforts to counteract his isolation and the resulting prejudices engendered by such attempts.

As the book progresses, however, we become increasingly aware of the ambiguous nature of the past which we use to define our present lives. This is done by acknowledging and developing differing sides of the same story. In fact, a significant portion of the book devotes itself solely towards shedding light upon three romantic mythical figures of the Patagonian past: Charley Milward, Charles Darwin, Butch Cassidy. As we see from the multifarious and often conflicting points of view expressed, our histories are interwoven. Man does not live in a vacuum; the gains made in a self-aggrandized past come at the expense of another group. Losses, however, and that which would serve to shame, have a way of slithering into the recesses of the mind, forgotten and rarely acknowledged.

History thus seems a confusing prospect and its actualities elude us, a constant source of contention. In this context artifacts and buried remains take on their greatest utility for man. They become trophies of the past, important only for the significance which we attach to them. Chatwin writes, "There was, however, a point at which the extinct beast merged with the living beast and the beast of the imagination. There were five contenders" (189). He then documents the nearly dozen parties who had been trying to hypothesize the animal's true place in history. The theory that won out would thus construct a reality upon which all mankind depends. As though the world is a courtroom, skin and bones become pieces of evidence marshalled in favor of one biased theory or another.

Finally, the Patagonian landscape lends a hand in clearly elucidating Chatwin's agenda. The region provides a time-honored setting in which a man may search for his past. Significantly, among the many who did so was Darwin, whose musings on the matter drastically perhaps irrevocably altered mankind's conception of natural history. Of equal import for Chatwin is the nature of Patagonia, which itself exists enhanced by confusion. Faced with a long tradition of colonizing under different cultures and serving as an accepting frontier for people of so many nations, Patagonia stands as a testament to the inadequacies of historical absolutism. In Patagonia , perhaps more than in any other place, events are seen through rose-colored lenses. Chatwin takes advantage of the situation and parallels the structure of the story accordingly, juxtaposing short, often culturally-loaded accounts of events whose interconnections are rarely apparent upon first glance. As in life, the reader is left to fashion for himself a coherent, meaningful reality out of such disparate events. To do so, he will necessarily call upon his own personal worldview.

United Kingdom In Patagonia