Stories in Songlines and In Patagonia

Frederica Miller '91 (English 137, 1990)

Chatwin's final goal as a travel writer is to close the story and offer some sort of interpretation. He ends it rather simply -- he finishes gathering all the information that he can and leaves Patagonia. The meaning that he provides is spread throughout the book. As a master of experience and reporter, Chatwinıs interpretation consists mainly of the way that he defines or describes events with little use of general statements. Speaking of the Araucanian Indians he says,

A hundred years ago, the Araucanians were incredibly fierce and brave. They painted their bodies red and flayed their enemies alive and sucked at the hearts of the dead. Their boysı education consisted of hockey, horsemanship, liquor, insolence, and sexual athletics, and for centuries they scared the Spaniards out of their wits...The Araucanians are still very tough and would be a lot tougher if they gave up drink (In Patagonia, p.14).

We can see that Chatwin admires the Indians even before he describes them as tough. He accounts their activities like a pirateıs exploits and lists them with equal delight. Flippantly turning the tables on normal historical reports, he presents the Spaniards as unheroic and ³scared out of their wits.² He refers to Indian killing as butchery; crude Darwinian theory he refers to as a slogan; and he attributes the European ³illusion of superiority over the far fitter bodies of the natives² to the slogan and guns (In Patagonia , p.116). He presents quotations from those who feel the ³business of Indian killing is being a bit overstretched² (p.143), but he is not impartial. The statements of those with whom he disagrees become ironic reflections on the speaker when read in the context of his other statements. He only appears to interpret less than someone like Lawrence because he does not make long pronouncements or overarching recommendations of how to improve the Indiansı lot.

In Songlines , his preference for the natives appears even more obvious since he puts himself in a position of student regarding the natives, expresses admiration for their way of life, and exposes the often coarse and brutal characters of racists. He describes the policemanıs investigation of a white vagrantıs death: "He was deing most officiously polite. His Adamıs apple worked up and down the U of his khaki shirt. It was his duty, we would understand that, to ask a few questions. Run over a coon in Alice springs and no oneıd give it a thought. But a white man" (Songlines , p. 40). Writing about the aborigines, he is indignant and emotionally involved, but because the book is about his personal reaction to them, he is allowed to be impartial. This emphasis on the self is what prevents Songlines from being a true travel book.

United Kingdom In Patagonia