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 …