The "thick," "leathery" skin with "reddish hair" captivated Chatwin's imagination and led him to Patagonia to solve the mystery of the strange beast. However, instead of staying truthful to his original motive, his narration of Patagonia soon digresses into vignettes: a little chapter here on a bigoted Russian dissident, a little chapter there on the Sect of the Brujeria; huge sections that document Charley Milward's journeys, and multiple stories about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — everything but the supposed protagonist, the strange prehistoric animal. After all the digressions, Chatwin realizes that "[he] had one thing more to do in Patagonia: to find a replacement for the lost piece of skin" (p. 178). However, Chatwin immediately plunges into José Macias' legacy and forgets about the "one more thing to do". Sixteen pages later, Chatwin finally comes to the cave where the skin was originally found.
I tried to picture the cave with sloths in it, but I could not erase the fanged monster I associate with a blacked-out bedroom in wartime England. The floor was covered with turds, sloth turds, outside black leathery turds, full of ill-digested grass, that looked as if they had been shat last week.
I groped in the holes left by Albert Konrad's dynamiting, looking for another piece of skin. I found nothing.
"Well," I thought, "if there's no skin, at least there's a load of shit."
And then, poking out of a section, I saw some strands of the coarse reddish hair I knew so well. I eased them out, slid them into an envelope and sat down, immensely pleased. I had accomplished the object of this ridiculous journey. [p. 194]
At least Chatwin did not get too carried away by his many fascinating stories and managed to fulfill his initial goal, which he demoted from the very thing to do to "one more thing to do" in Patagonia.
Compared to many of the chapters in the book, this episode is quite tame. Is it too marginal and insignificant to make a satisfying story arc? How does Chatwin deal with the problem of the skin's relative smallness to the rest of his adventure? What is his ratio between irony and celebration?
Didion similarly ends "The White Album," by choosing one anecdote out of many (in her case the Manson slayings) and fitting it into a nice story arc. Didion, however, had prefaced her essay with a warning about nice story arcs, plots, she calls them. Does Chatwin ever send his readers a warning about the perils of narrative, or is the passage's last line ("I had accomplished the object of this ridiculous journey") sufficient?
Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
Last modified 20 April 2005