By Bruce Chatwin
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Penguin Classics (March 25, 2003)
While Bruce Chatwin, who was working as a journalist for the Sunday Times, was interviewing the then 93-year-old architect and designer, Eileen Gray, he noticed a map of Patagonia on her wall.
“I’ve always wanted to go there,” he said.
“So have I,” Gray replied. “Go there for me.”
Chatwin immediately left for Patagonia, and when he got there he telegrammed his employers: “Have gone to Patagonia”. What follows is an amazing trip, mostly journeyed on foot throughout the south of South America, and the accounts experienced there written down in Chatwin’s now-classic In Patagonia.
The book starts off with Chatwin’s recollection when as a child, he sees a piece of old animal skin in his grandmother’s house. His mother tells him it is from a brontosaurus, but later he finds out it is actually from the sloth-like Mylodon. This doesn’t dampen his fascination with the piece of skin and soon he becomes even more fascinated with the person, his great-uncle Charley, who had brought it all the way to England from Patagonia. Zig-zagging his way across arid plains and deserts, Chatwin tracks the history of the people and places he comes across as well as digging up information about his ancestor at his home in Punta Arenas.
In this book, his first, Chatwin writes with variable consistency. Sometimes the prose feels forced and dry: “In the Plaza de Armas a ceremony was in progress. It was one hundred years since Don José Menéndez set foot in Punta Arenas and a well-heeled party of his descendants had come south to unveil his memorial. The woman wore black dresses, pearls furs and patent shoes. The men had the drawn look that comes of protecting an overextended acreage.”
Other times, it feels like he’s riding on a passionate train of thought and one tends to feel Chatwin was as excited writing it as one is while reading: “Never in my life have I wanted anything as I wanted that piece of skin. My grandmother said I should have it one day, perhaps. And when she died I said: ‘Now I can have the piece of brontosaurus,’ but my mother said: ‘Oh, that thing! I’m afraid we threw it away.'”
In Patagonia isn’t just a record of a wandering writer, it’s a history book, a novel and a travel book in one. With this book, Chatwin redefined the genre of travel writing with his little nuggets of historical information weaved intricately together with his search for anecdotes about his uncle and his time. The result is a sometimes wonderful, sometimes tiresome account. But stick with it – you will be rewarded and delighted with Chatwin’s experiences and discoveries.
Ted Mahsun works in a local online games publisher as a content writer. When he’s not writing content, he’s either writing short stories, or writing for his literary blog, Ted’s Thoughts (http://tedmahsun.blogspot.com).