• Email
  • Print

On the Go

In Patagonia

by Bruce Chatwin
Summit Books, 205 pp., $8.95

In Patagonia is one of the most exhilarating travel books I have read. Chatwin has a young and individual voice and yet writes in the tradition of the traveler scholar or the traveler poet—one of the “vrais voyageurs” of Baudelaire’s lines,

   …ceux-là seuls qui partent
Pour partir; coeurs légers sem- blables aux ballons,

driven before the wind of their curiosity, restlessness, sense of wonder.

In my grandmother’s dining-room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in the cabinet a piece of skin. It was a small piece only….” This is the simple, light-footed opening paragraph of the book; the scrap of leathery skin is a piece of brontosaurus sent home by a seafaring cousin whose ship was wrecked in the Strait of Magellan a century ago, the boy Bruce is told, and it works on his imagination. Thirty years later he sets off on a journey southward to that “uttermost part of the earth,” that chimerical triangle of land, the tip of South America: Patagonia. It is a journey in quest of the traveler’s kinsman, the sailor, and of that prehistoric animal of the bit of rough skin, the brontosaurus that never was and becomes the mylodon, the glyptodon, the Cappadocian dragon, the giant sloth. It is also a journey in quest of truth and hallucination.

En route Chatwin passes through Buenos Aires and describes it in one pointillist page.

The history of Buenos Aires is written in its telephone directory. Pompey Romanov, Emilio Rommel,…Elisabeta Marta Calman de Rothschild—names taken at random from among the R’s—told a story of exile, disillusion and anxiety behind lace curtains.

It was full summer weather, “the Christmas decorations were in the shops….”

They had just opened the Péron Mausoleum at Olivos; Eva was in good shape after her tour of European bank-vaults. Some catholics had said a Requiem Mass for the soul of Hitler and they were expecting a military coup.

But the city kept reminding him of Russia—

the cars of the secret police bristling with aerials; women with splayed haunches…; the same bullying statues, the pie-crust architecture, the same avenues that were not quite straight, giving the illusion of endless space and leading out into nowhere.

Tsarist rather than Soviet Russia. The Cherry Orchard, he says, is an Argentinian situation. The Russia of greedy Kulaks, corrupt officials…and he goes on to use the word “asquint” with a fine appositeness.

Soon, on a crowded nocturnal bus south bound for the antipodean ultimate, the true journey begins: picaresque encounters, historical exploration, romantic pursuit of ambiguous trails. What is Patagonia to us? What does every schoolboy know about it? That Butch Cassidy spent his last days here? That W.H. Hudson wrote Idle Days in Patagonia about it? And The Voyage of the Beagle: “Are you here because of Darwin, or to see us?” Chatwin is asked at one of his stops. In his book landscapes, odd facts—some very odd facts—legends, life stories criss-crossed by history, anthropology, zoology, converge; connect. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner: the Elizabethan John Davis’s voyage and the vengeance of the twenty thousand penguins murdered by his crew; evocations of The Tempest, of Edgar Allan Poe; the fantastic character (alive), Monsieur Philippe Boiry, His Royal Highness Prince Philippe of Araucania and Patagonia, recognized as head of state in exile (Paris) by the consul of San Salvador, and the equally fantastic story of his forbear, Orélie-Antoine I (a native of Périgueux, France), who actually had himself proclaimed hereditary constitutional king on Patagonian soil. (He was flung into prison, made to renounce the throne, but escaped and passed on the succession to his son, a Dr. Cros, Antoine II. “The later history of the kingdom of…Patagonia belongs rather to the obsessions of bourgeois France than to the politics of South America,” Chatwin remarks. There are the hundred and fifty Welsh colonists who landed at Port Madryn off the brig Mimosa in 1865 (and their present-day descendants). They had

…combed the earth for a stretch of open country uncontaminated by Englishmen. They chose Patagonia for its absolute remoteness and foul climate; they did not want to get rich.

Chatwin tells seafaring stories with a sense of toughness conveyed in an immensely visual style (it has to me something of the painter’s technique, as if Watteau, say, had done a shipwreck). There are also stories of bandits who do not always come to a sticky end, sad stories of exile and defeat like that of the Russian Jewish anarchist Simón Radowitzky, who in 1909 at age eighteen was convicted of throwing a bomb into the car of the chief of police of Buenos Aires and “disappeared into the labyrinths of rats and reinforced concrete,” until 1930, when he was released “as a gesture to the working class.”

Without papers, without money, and dressed in some ill-fitting clothes got from a Turk in Ushuaia, “the victim of the bourgeoisie” walked down the steamer gang-plank to the cheers of an Anarchist crowd. The reception committee hoped for the words and gestures of a firebrand, and were disappointed by the puzzled, mild-mannered man, with beetling brows and a face streaked with livid veins, who smiled vaguely and didn’t know where to put his hands.

Bruce Chatwin does not raise his voice, but lets the tale speak for itself with sparse elegance and sotto voce fury. Here is a paragraph about the chain reaction—and, one might say, the futility—of violence.

On January 27th 1923 Colonel Varela [who had recently executed a hundred and twenty hostages] was shot dead, on the corner of Fitzroy and Santa Fé, by Kurt Wilkens, a Tolstoyan Anarchist from Schleswig Holstein. A month later, on February 26th, Wilkens was shot dead in the Prison of the Encausaderos by his warder, Jorge Pérez Millán Témperley (though how he got there nobody knew). And on Monday, February 9th 1925, Témperley was shot dead in a Buenos Aires hospital for the criminally insane by a Yugoslav midget called Lukic.

His most glacial example of the quiet voice—and no comment—is effective in a deadly way.

There is a man in Punta Arenas, dreams pine forests, hums Lieder, wakes each morning and sees the black strait. He drives to a factory that smells of the sea. All about him are scarlet crabs, crawling, then steaming. He hears the shells crack and the claws breaking, sees the sweet white flesh packed firm in metal cans. He is an efficient man, with some previous experience of the production line. Does he remember that other smell, of burning? And that other sound, of low voices singing? And the piles of hair cast away as the claws of crabs?

Herman Rauff is credited with the invention and administration of the Mobile Gas Oven.

In Patagonia is Chatwin’s first book. It came out in England a year ago, was very well received and this summer awarded the Hawthorndon Prize for 1978. Chatwin was educated at Marlborough, the English public school, from there went to Sotheby’s, and became the head of the Impressionist Department and one of the youngest directors of the firm. It was only in his early thirties that he gave up this stationary job and gave himself to travel (a good deal of it, I would gather, in ships and on foot). Afghanistan, Mauritania (on the trail of nomadic tribes), Russia, Europe, the Americas…. In 1970 he helped to organize the exhibition “The Animal Style” at the Asia Society in New York. According to an interview in The Guardian he has a horror of houses, possessions, fixed abodes, counting himself naturaliser one of the nomads. He appears to believe that settlement is unnatural and degenerative for human kind, that men, and women, were originally constructed as a wandering species: we have sprung arches, apes flat feet. Yet he also seems to hold that wanderers have little to show for their expense of vitality, that they tend to keep on the move for moving’s sake. The concluding lines of Baudelaire’s stanza from Le Voyage say indeed,

De leur fatalité jamais il ne s’écartent,
Et, sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!

And, without knowing why, they only cry: we go! Bruce Chatwin is one of these fate-driven voyagers of Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, as well as a writer. It has always been a happy configuration.

  • Email
  • Print