Bruce Chatwin's Word-painting

uko Sano, English 137 (1990)

Bruce Chatwin, although he is a travel writer, does not use the detailed word-painting of Ruskin, Lawrence or Raban in his book In Patagonia . However, the authors' different purposes parallel this difference. Both Ruskin and Lawrence, and to a lesser degree Raban, immerse the reader in the landscape and consider the importance of the landscape to be supreme but, in contrast, Chatwin describes the landscape more to create a background for the interaction of his characters. Chatwin uses much more dialogue than Ruskin, Lawrence, or Raban. The bleak harsh landscape that Chatwin describes symbolizes the lack of connection between the land and the people, and such barren land is appropriate for Chatwin's characters who have all lost touch with their roots.

Chatwin uses word-painting that appeals to all of the senses, especially smell, and he connects the still environment with the activity of animals and insects, but he always uses the past tense. His use of the past tense naturally creates a barrier between the environment and the reader.

The cliff rose sheer above a ferry-landing. I climbed a path and from the top looked up-stream towards Chile. I could see the river, glinting and sliding through the bone-white cliffs with strips of emerald cultivation either side. Away from the cliffs was the desert. There was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass, and no other sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones.

The Patagonian desert is not a desert of sand or gravel, but a low thicket of grey-leaved thorns which give off a bitter smell when crushed. Unlike the deserts of Arabia it has not produced any dramatic excess of the spirit, but it does have a place in the record of human experience (In Patagonia , p.15).

Similar to his description of Lago Ghio (p.83), the Beagle Channel (p.134), and Puerto Natales (p.178-9), Chatwin's description of Bahia Blanca is in the past tense and uses passive verbs, thereby minimizing the immediacy of the landscape. His omission of active verbs when he writes that "away from the cliffs was the desert," that "there was no sound ," and that the desert "is not a desert of sand or gravel," manifest his desire to keep the landscape in the background. This technique suits his purposes; although Lawrence tries to evoke a sensation from the readers by placing them in the immediacy of the landscape, Chatwin attempts to tell a tale in which the landscape's importance is the connection between the people and the land.

However, although Chatwin's description of the landscape lacks the immediacy of Lawrence's, Chatwin does provide some expressive description that helps the reader to envision the landscape. He gives life to the snake-like movement of the river when he describes the "glinting and sliding" of the river. The image of the wind "whirring" and "whistling" effectively elicits the whirring sound of the wind because Chatwin uses adjectives that begin with a "wh" sound. Chatwin also appeals to the reader's sense of smell with his statement that the thorns "give off a bitter smell when crushed." However, this appeal to smell has a limited effect because it is not a smell that is simply existing in the air of the landscape at the time of narration, but rather is a smell that Chatwin knows from previous knowledge and shares with the reader, who can produce the smell only by means of a separate action that is not associated with the landscape; the reader has to crush the thorns to create the smell. As a result, although Chatwin's narration is similar to that of Lawrence and Raban because it effectively reproduces the image of the barren scenery, Lawrence and Raban paint a scene to immerse the reader in the atmosphere, whereas Chatwin paints the view for the reader from a distance.
United Kingdom In Patagonia