WHEN HE FIRST LAID EYES ON Bruce Chatwins In Patagonia in 1996, Adrian Giménez Hutton had been visiting southern Argentina for more than two decades. I was very impressed with Chatwins narrative style, with his way of mixing fact and fiction, little personal anecdotes with larger histories, said Giménez, a Buenos Aires lawyer and travel writer.
When a friend surprised him by saying that the work was completely fictional, implying that Chatwin had never set foot in Patagonia, Giménez thought it was impossible, that the book must reflect actual experiences. But prompted by his friends declaration, he decided to go see for himself. So on and off over the next couple of years, Giménez jeeped around Patagonia, tracing Chatwins footsteps, visiting towns and estancias where he had been and interviewing the people he had interviewed. Giménezs narrative as he put it, the journal of his journal aptly titled La Patagonia de Chatwin, was published in Argentina in 1998.
Chatwin had ventured to this remote zone of Argentina and Chiles southern latitudes because of the skin of a giant sloth, a mylodon, found in a cave on Last Hope Sound by his grandmothers cousin, Charley Milward, a merchant-ship captain who had settled in Punta Arenas after a shipwreck. Milward had mailed a scrap of the skin back to the family in England, and although it was later lost, Chatwins sight of it black and leathery, with strands of coarse, reddish hair in a cabinet in his grandmothers dining room had lodged in his mind. At least, thats how he recounted it in the opening page of his first book. Elsewhere he added that he had gone to Patagonia to free himself from the strictures of life in London and to realize an unfulfilled desire to be a writer. Above all, he wanted to explore not a place but an idea: nomadism.
Some background on Chatwin
Born in England in 1940, Chatwin studied architecture and made a stab at acting. At age eighteen he joined Sothebys auction house in London where he had a meteoric career, rising from porter to director in a few years. He left Sothebys to study archaeology but soon signed on with the London Sunday Times magazine. Before he died of AIDS in 1989 at age forty-eight, Chatwin had gone on to write three novels and The Songlines (1987), in which he returned to the theme of wandering, recounting his excursion to the real and dream worlds of peripatetic Australian aborigines. (Two collections of his essays and one book of his photographs have been published posthumously.) During his entire life he traveled incessantly to the obvious countries, like Italy and the United States, and the not so obvious, like Afghanistan and Benin. Chatwin was a compulsive mover.
We are all nomads
Susannah Clapp, who edited In Patagonia, writes that nomadism was the biggest of Bruce Chatwins big themes. His friend Salman Rushdie says that Chatwins desire to write the book on nomadism was the burden he[d] been carrying all his writing life.
Chatwin posited that nomadism has been in our DNA from the very beginning that we are instinctively restless. At one point, he declared, All our activities are linked to the idea of journeys. (Lest anyone miss the point, he entitled the essay Its a Nomad Nomad Nomad NOMAD World.) He also suggested that nomads survive because they have an irreverent and timeless vitality. This ideè fixe suffuses In Patagonia, the spiritual warm-up to The Songlines.
In Patagonia portrays individuals at the edge of the earth. (The original title was At the End: A Journey to Patagonia.) Once you get to Argentina, he said, youre pretty well there, arent you. But it was the people, not the landscape, who beckoned Chatwin. His Patagonia was not the wild, distant land of icy mountains and wind-scoured steppes populated by graceful guanacos and cute penguins that adorn Sierra Club calendars. It was the last stop of the roamers, the final destination of ancient indigenes migrating south from the Northern Hemisphere and of a latter-day diaspora Spanish anarchists, Welsh devotees, Boer refugees, and American bandits who arrived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from around the globe. Chatwin underscored the nationality of the people he met. Whether he named them or not (in a few cases he gave them aliases), he pegged their ethnicity Yugoslav, Galician, Russian, Chilote, Scot, Canary Islander to remind readers of the urge to move, an urge that fevers mankind.
Travel book? Travel writer?
Whether Chatwins readers picked up on his fascination with nomadism or not, they did notice his writing. They couldnt help it: In Patagonia was not your ordinary travel book. Spanish Nobel Laureate Camilo José Cela coined the word vagabundaje, for the picaresque travel book, though for Cela, the traveler is front and center, whereas Chatwin evaporates. In Patagonia, an almost plotless, loose skein of ninety-seven numbered sketches or episodes, displays elements of the picaresque novel. (There is no table of contents or index, though an appendix lists a couple of dozen sources for aspects of Patagonian history touched on in the book.) Chatwin did not recommend hotels with fluffy pillows, pass on the names of favorite restaurants, or suggest scenic routes. What he did was to sketch portraits, and like all artists, he subtracted and added. The pictures he created are vivid. Recalling his visit to Sonny Urquharts farm near Bahía Blanca, for example, Chatwin wrote:
The Scot called the dogs off and led the way down a narrow green corridor into a tall, darker green room lit by a single bulb. Round the fire were some Victorian easy chairs with flat wooden armrests. Damp whisky glasses had bitten rings into the French polish. High on the walls were prints of willowy gentlemen and ladies in crinolines.
Sonny Urquhart was a hard stringy man with blond hair swept back and parted in the center. He had moles on his face and a big Adams apple. The back of his neck was criss-crossed with lines from working hatless in the sun. His eyes were watery blue, and rather bloodshot.
Ernest Hemingway was one of Chatwins favorite writers. Like him, he had a knack for capturing snapshots, lean and quick, of places he had seen:
Las Pampas was twenty miles on from Río Pico, the last settlement before the frontier. To the north towered El Cono, an extinct volcano of bone-white screes and brighter snows. In the valley the river ran fast and green over white stones. Each log cabin had a potato patch, barricaded from cattle by stakes and thorns.
Chatwin dubbed his book cubist. He traveled and observed, making sardonic, witty, and occasionally moralizing comments as he went. He narrated, but he was not necessarily telling the literal truth in every instance; he was creating his own Patagonian journal, written as if he had seen it all.
The eighteenth-century post-road inspector Concolorcorvo wrote in El Lazarillo: A Guide for Inexperienced Travelers Between Buenos Aires and Lima (1773) that if the words traveler and liar are synonymous, then the reading of fables should be preferred to that of history. His point was that much history is based on the accounts of travelers. Granted, then, the uncertain nature of history, he continued, I say again that the reading and study of fables ought to be preferable inasmuch as, being the offspring of free and unfettered imagination, they offer more inspiration and pleasure.
A traveler and a fabulist, Chatwin might have agreed. Responding to a query about his book, he said, As you can read into the text of In Patagonia: this was not serious history! When an interviewer asked where the division between fiction and nonfiction lay in his work, he replied, I dont think there is one. There definitely should be, but I dont know where it is. Ive always written very close to the line. Ive tried applying fiction techniques to actual bits of travel. I once made the experiment of counting up the lies in the book I wrote about Patagonia. It wasnt, in fact, too bad; there werent too many.
One critic called him the best travel writer of his generation, but Chatwin perversely denied that In Patagonia was a travel book, although thats where bookshops invariably shelve it. It always irritated me, he complained, to be called a travel writer. His obituary in the New York Times identified him as a one of his generations ranking travel writers, adding that he was also an elegant literary craftsman and storyteller. He was all three.
Whatever the validity of his nomadic theory (many of the people he met found themselves in Patagonia as a result not of their DNA but of wars, economic travails, and religious upheavals in their homelands), Chatwins In Patagonia impelled many a traveler to venture into deepest Argentina and Chile.
But, when In Patagonia, first published in England in 1977, made its way to Argentina and Chile it met a chilly reception that had nothing to do with the climate, but everything to do with his penchant for mixing literary fancy with historical facts: He highlighted the strange and the unconventional sometimes inventing the strange and the unconventional, and describing a few locals in less than handsome terms. In a few cases, he gave his subjects thinly veiled pseudonyms.
Patagonian ire was still in evidence when English journalist John Pilkington came calling some fifteen years after Chatwin. The descendent of one English estancia owner, whom Chatwin had implied had participated in the hunting of Indians in 1900, reported having considered suing the writer. The hunting of Indians by estancieros, of course, was not unheard of, so Chatwin might have been close to the mark.
In her 1997 memoir, With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer, Clapp explains that Chatwins sketches are idiosyncratic short stories:
Nobody reading In Patagonia could mistake it for an attempt to give a comprehensive or balanced view of its characters: it is a series of quick-fire, impressionistic pen-portraits written by someone who is clearly drawn to the unexpected, the self-contradictory, the sharp edged and who likes to turn a tale in a small space.
In an 1980 interview, Chatwin told Argentine journalist Uki Goñi that his temperament was towards being entertained and seeing an opportunity when you met one of these characters and pursue it. The whole of this journey was like a sort of pursuit, not only for this ridiculous piece of skin . . . but as it developed it became chasing one story, or one set of characters, after another.
By the time Giménez got on the trail, some of the characters Chatwin had sketched had died. Among those still living, some had strong opinions about In Patagonia, even if theyd never read it. But Giménez sensed a mellowing on the subject of Chatwins sparky imagination because, the gospel truth or not, it was generating tourism. He was not such a blackguard after all. In any event, Giménez found that though Chatwins poetic license-takings had attained almost legendary proportions, they were not as frequent as was believed. (As Chatwin himself put it, there werent too many.)
Giménez believes what harmed the most was not what was written but how it was written . . . a description of a person in one or two paragraphs as occurs in the majority of cases is always partial, and then it would be very difficult for someone to conform to what was written about them.
Whatever the Patagonians may think, Chatwins book is the most widely read work about South Americas bright-skied south. Judged on its own terms that is, as a collage of personal, highly charged, and sometimes invented impressions of the people and places of the zone it is a literary triumph. And it has won a permanent audience, remaining in print almost a quarter century after its first appearance. Dusty sun-burned backpackers troop Patagonia like breviary-toting pilgrims, clutching Chatwins now classic nontravel book. If Chatwins Patagonia is not precisely there, thats beside the point.
POSTSCRIPT: Adrian Gimenez Hutton died in a plane crash in April 2001, en route from Buenos Aires to Patagonia.
Daniel Buck, is a contributing editor of South American Explorer and a contributor to Américas. "Sequels to a Patagonian Journal" was originally published in the March 2000 Américas.