The Role of Chatwin in Chatwin's Legends

Charles Vallely '06, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

Bruce Chatwin's own travels through Patagonia provide the backbone for his narrative. But the stories of those he encounters along his way and back — stories of the land itself — flesh that narrative out. These stories, which frequently focus on a single character, are often the stuff of legend, myth and fantasy: a French lawyer becomes king of "warrior Indians" (p. 18); Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hide out in Chubut; a boy whose mother "cut his umbilical cord with a sharp mussel-shell" (p. 126) later "traveled to London (and) saw a stone lion on the steps of Northumberland House" (p. 128).

They are the kind of stories that stand by themselves. And while Chatwin frames them with his conversations and personal fascinations, he often removes himself from the narrative and tries to place the reader, not in the room that he heard the tale, but in the tale itself. He attempts to remove his identity, to present the story as it would appear in a history book or piece of fiction.

Yet, as Chatwin's story of the Red Pig shows, he finds a way into the legend nonetheless.

The Onas' sheep rustling threatened the companies' dividends (in Buenos Aires the explorer Julius Popper spoke of their 'alarming Communist tendencies') and the accepted solution was to round them up and civilize them in the Mission - where they died of infected clothing and the despair of captivity. But Alexander MacLennan despised slow torture: it offended his sporting instincts [...]

He left the army and was recruited by Jose Menendez's agents. His methods succeeded where those of his predecessor failed. His dogs, horses and peons adored him. He was not among the farm-managers who offered �1 sterling for every Indian ear: he preferred to do the killing himself. He hated to see any animal in pain. [117]

Chatwin presents the stories as a factual series of events; he confidently uses the verb "to be" to create a sense of verified and historical actuality. But, in the final lines of the paragraphs above, when Chatwin succinctly describes the Red Pig's emotions, Chatwin's own voice can be heard. The absurd sincerity of the remarks reminds the reader that Chatwin tells the story still. The move is subtle, as Chatwin uses the same tone and sparse style. But in portraying the Red Pig as a proper gamesman hunting people Chatwin not only gives the tale a vivid horror, he also reinserts himself into the legend in the very telling of the story. While Chatwin attempts to remove himself from his own travels, he remains present as our tour-guide, critic and sage of Patagonia.


1. Where is the line between telling a legend and inserting commentary into a story? Which is to say, are we supposed to hear Chatwin in those comments, or are we simply supposed accept them as details of the story? How does Chatwin manipulate this wavering line?

2. How do the stories that Chatwin tells reflect or mirror his own story? The French Lawyer and the Red Pig travel to Patagonia because of a fantasy or delusion. Does Chatwin mean for these men's motivation to resemble his fascination with his grandmother's fossil and his childhood image of his Charley Milward?

3. What are the similarities and differences in how Tom Wolfe and Bruce Chatwin include themselves in their stories? How do they try to remove themselves but remain present beneath the surface? Do they succeed?

4. For a book that concerns itself so much with place and vivid descriptions of the land and its inhabitants, it seems, to me, that it dislocates geography — that the stories fracture the sense of where Chatwin is. Did other people feel this? If so, do you think this was a desired effect? How does Chatwin reconcile the actual journey — the miles traveled — and the stories that arise?


Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

United Kingdom In Patagonia Reading and Discussion Questions

Last modified 20 April 2005