The Traveler's Journey: From Departure to Arrival

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Chapter 5 (v.1) - Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia

Submitted: May 21, 2007

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Submitted: May 21, 2007



Bruce Chatwin,In Patagonia

"The more I read, the more convinced I became that nomads had been the crankhandle of history, if for no other reason than that the great monotheisms had, all of them, surfaced from the pastoral milieu" (Chatwin, Songlines 19). To say that Bruce Chatwin had an obsession with nomadism would be an understatement. At the age of twenty-four, suffering from lazy eye, he left his job at Sotheby's at the advice of a doctor to search for "some long horizons" (Chatwin, Songlines 17) and found himself staring at the Red Sea Hills in Sudan. The area was nomad country, and Chatwin's encounter with the Beja changed his outlook permanently. The self-sufficiency of the Beja coupled with a personal "sense of homecoming" (Chatwin, Songlines 18) led Chatwin to devote the rest of his life trying to discover why nomads had outlasted the ancient sedentary civilizations of the world. "The Pharaohs had vanished: Mahmoud and his people [Beja] had lasted. I felt I had to know the secret of their timeless and irreverent vitality" (Chatwin, Songlines 18). His personal journey took him to the far reaches of the world, from the hot deserts of Australia to the cold, rocky shorelines of Patagonia.

To summarize Chatwin's life as such a journey would be an over-simplification of an exceptionally complex man. He was, self-admittedly, obsessed with the notion of restlessness and the idea of nomadism, but to say that his writings were devoted to the sincere representation of the lives and culture of nomadic people would be a stretch. His works have as much the imprint of Chatwin as impressions of the places he visited. Admired by friends and writers as a unique stylist and possessed of an "erudite and possibly the most brilliant mind I ever came across" as Rushdie once claimed, Chatwin was denounced by critics as a fabulist and mythomane, inventing facts and situations that often placed in a less than admirable light the people he encountered. Chatwin himself confessed as much, declaring to Michael Igantieff: "I once made the experiment of counting up the lies in the book I wrote about Patagonia. It wasn't, in fact, too bad. There weren't too many" (Shakespeare xxii).

The book about Patagonia, titled In Patagonia, was Chatwin's first and one of his most successful. Yet it is one of Chatwin's most unusual books. Only two hundred pages long, yet containing nearly a hundred chapters, the book is filled with all sorts of anecdotes: character sketches, historical accounts, short narratives. Furthermore, most are unrelated to the main premise of the book.

The premise of In Patagonia begins with a "thick and leathery" (Chatwin 1) piece of skin that Chatwin, as a child, finds in his grandmother's cabinet. The young Chatwin suspects the skin is brontosaurus skin, sent to his grandmother from her cousin Charley Milward the Sailor, a captain of a merchant ship that sank at the entrance to the Strait of Magellan leaving him stranded in Patagonia. After discovering the fossil, Milward sent a small piece by post to his cousin, Chatwin's grandmother. The Patagonian brontosaurus, as well as Charley Milward the Intrepid Explorer, captured Chatwin's imagination for a long time. Even when the skin was thrown away by his mother, or was later revealed to be the skin of a mylodon, the South American Giant Sloth, the initial impression Chatwin created of Patagonia remained with him. Through World War II and the Cold War, as the world appeared to be on the brink of extermination, Chatwin continued to dream about his Patagonia, now as a place of sanctuary from the chaos in the world. "Then Stalin died and we sang hymns of praise in chapel, but I continued to hold Patagonia in reserve" (Chatwin, Patagonia 3).

All this familial history is encapsulated within the first chapter. Then Charley Milward and the mylodon skin disappear from the book, rarely making an appearance until the last fifty pages. The tense changes from past to present, and the reader is abruptly placed into the circumstances of Chatwin the adult traveler. Without context or background, the reader is suddenly with Chatwin in La Plata, Patagonia admiring a skeleton of a large dinosaur discovered by a Lithuanian, a Casimir Slapelic. The context, however, is not mundane. Chatwin did not plan his four month tour of Patagonia. Assigned to write an article for The Times on the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Chatwin decided that New York did not suit him and hopped on a plane to Lima, sending a short note his editor saying he was going to Patagonia. From Lima he traveled by bus to Buenos Aires and then Patagonia.

The traveling aspect of Chatwin's journey is notably amiss in his book. "How had he travelled from here to there? How had he met this or that person? Life was never so neat as Bruce made out" (qtd. in Shakespeare xv - xvi) asked Paul Theroux. The most Chatwin would mention would be something along the lines of: "I took the train to La Plata to see the best Natural History Museum in South America" (Patagonia 5). Every other paragraph in the chapter would be a brief sketch of some person, place, or object. Even in that particular chapter, Chatwin goes from describing a beaten woman and child as "two every day victims of machismo" (Patagonia 5) to the graffiti in La Plata to the dinosaur fossils in the museum. Each chapter, though only a few pages long, is packed with pithy description.

To treat In Patagonia as a simple travel book recounting a journey would drive the reader mad. The short chapters jump from one location to another, miles away, without ever describing the route in between. Historical accounts mix and mingle with present tense narratives: Chatwin might speak of John Davis, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Baudelaire in the same breath (Patagonia 90). Local people are mentioned, dropped for a seventy pages, and mentioned again without reference to the previous connection. Casimir Slapelic, the reader learns, is not only the discoverer of a giant dinosaur (Chatwin, Patagonia 3) but also one of the oldest solo pilots in the world (Chatwin, Patagonia 69).

Most disturbing is the lack of a sense of time. Dates are rarely mentioned, and the omnipresent present tense is disjointing, as the reader shifts from one location to another without having any sense of how much time has passed. The chronology of the book follows an internal clock, based on the connections and associations between the different characters in the book. There is almost a circular rhythm to the book, with people and events coming up over and over again, in an increasingly intricate web, culminating with the reappearance of Charles Milward.

Reading the book then is interpreting a symbolic journey, one which Chatwin himself provided clues about. Shakespeare mentions in the Introduction a letter Chatwin sent to his agent in advance of the American edition of In Patagonia. In the letter, Chatwin requested the blurb of the book to communicate four points, in his view essential to understanding his book: 1) Patagonia was a symbol for man's restlessness 2) The book took the form of a "hunt for a strange animal in a remote land" (Shakespeare xiv) 3) there was a choice of two journeys for the reader to embark upon: one to Patagonia in 1975 and the other "a symbolic voyage which is a meditation on the restlessness and exile" (Shakespeare xiv) 4) All stories illustrate some aspect of wandering and/or exile. The whole should be an illustration of the Myth of Cain and Abel.

Restlessness, that central obsession of Chatwin's life, reappears as a central theme in In Patagonia. Whether a character sketch about a Swiss ex-diva whose son is a truck driver or a historical account of Magellan and his attempt to secure a Telhuelche Indian, each story is defined by nomadism and/or exile, and each exhibits the quality of restlessness.

One of the longer narratives to appear in the book concerns the escapades of Butch Cassidy (Robert Leroy Parker) and the Sundance Kid (Harry Longabough). Infamous for their North American bank robberies, the duo disappeared into Argentina in 1901 after law enforcement began to tighten its grip on criminal activities. They settled near Cholila in a North American style log cabin, a house Chatwin would later come across. At this point history becomes blurred. Rumors of two North American outlaws hitting and robbing several local banks suggest that they continued their criminal ways. The usual story of their death involves a shootout in Bolivia with the local cavalry in 1909, where they end their own life before falling into the hands of the law.

Chatwin follows the story from the house in Cholila, discovering in a book an account of two North American outlaws named Wilson and Evans who possess a number of similarities with Parker and Longabough. As Chatwin pursues the path of these two outlaws, historical narrative weaves in and out of his present travels and the people he encounters. A Chilean Indian woman now owns and introduces him to the infamous log cabin in Cholila. A man named Florentino Solis leads him to site of death of Wilson and Evans, and explains how his predecessor was the man who led an Army patrol to the site. Apparently, Evans had been sleeping with his wife. Solis: the name was associated with the death of Wilson and Evans, who were quite possibly Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Now, a member of the Solis family was leading Chatwin to the site of their death. Past and present were connected through narrative.

The intertwining of past and present in Chatwin's book is one of the most distinctive characteristics of the semiotics of his writing. The intertwining illustrates the first of Chatwin's own essential points for understanding his book: Patagonia as a symbol for human restlessness. The juxtaposition of past and present events concentrated in one location serves to illustrate that each event is part of the larger symbol of Patagonia. When Chatwin recounts the exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the reader can see how the metaphorical Patagonia extends beyond geographical boundaries. The story of restlessness that begins in Wyoming and Montana and moved to geographical Patagonia continues in Chatwin's narrative. The house built by the energies of Parker and Longabough is now part of the history of Senora Sepulvedra. The now drafty and dilapidated house is where Senora Sepulvedra lives with her drunk and useless husband. It is where she marries off her eldest daughter to a young truck driver, and to where she returns alone, crying (Chatwin, Patagonia 42).

The log cabin acts as different symbols in several different stories. For Parker and Longabough, it marks the destination of their exile. For Senora Sepulvedra, it marks the site of her life's decay, where she must deal with a decrepit house and decrepit husband. For her daughter, it marks the beginning of a new life, and the possibility of a new home. In Patagonia reveals a diversity of perspectives, connected by seemingly random relationships between seemingly unconnected people and places. North Americans, South Americans, American Indians, and more can lay claim to Patagonia, both as a geographical location and as a symbol for restlessness. Chatwin exposes the foundation of these stories and shows how they are built on the energies of the restless. Restlessness is what connects different people and places. One man's house is another woman's burden. Restlessness is what lies at the root of Chatwin's idea of Patagonia.

For Chatwin, Patagonia is not defined by its namesake geographical formation, but by its inhabitants and the relationships between those inhabitants. Yet the idea of nomadism is but one aspect of the larger symbol of Patagonia. As Chatwin suggests in In Patagonia, restlessness, the source of nomadism, can be the source of the condition of exile as well. The house built by Parker and Longabough suggested a wildness of adventure, but as a house owned by Senora Sepulvedra, it suggests a site of stagnation. Restlessness, combined with the ability to travel, leads to nomadism but restlessness without that ability can lead to the stagnation that is characteristic of exiles. For Chatwin, they are two faces of the same symbol.

One of Chatwin's more touching anecdotes is about "what happens when people get stuck" (Shakespeare xiv). After injuring himself in his search for Wilson and Evans, Chatwin is brought to the local hospital, where he meets a Russian igr She is a nurse whose legs have been amputated and whose thoughts linger constantly on her mother country. "She spent every spare peso ordering books from the Y.M.C.A. Press in Paris. Mandelstam, Tsvetayeva, Pasternak, Gumilev, Akhmatova, Solzhenitsyn - the names rolled off her tongue with the reverberation of a litany" (Chatwin, Patagonia 60). The exiles in Chatwin's book often possess nostalgia for their home country in one form or another. Yet in Patagonia, whether by circumstance or self-imposed, they are stuck.

"'Things have changed,' I said, 'and there is now the dente.'

She wanted to believe it was true. Then, with the particular sadness that suppresses tears, she said: 'The dente is for Americans, no for us. No. It would not be safe for me to go.'" (Chatwin, Patagonia 61)

Even faced with the option of returning to Russia, the nurse hesitates. She clings to an image that has already passed: Russia as it was before World War II. To return would be to face a new reality, and nostalgia disappears with the appearance of reality. The nurse clings to not the thought of her homeland as it is now, but the memory of her homeland that has been lost. In recovering her story, lost in the wildness of Patagonia, Chatwin reveals the events that underlay her feeling of nostalgia: her capture by the Nazis, her ending up in West Germany, her marriage to Pole with family in Argentina. Chatwin revealed the involuntary travel that led from Russia to West Germany to Argentina. More importantly, Chatwin revealed the motivations:

"She shrugged and left me guessing.

And then I remembered a story once told to me by an Italian friend: she was a girl at the end of the war, living in a villa near Padua. One night she heard women screaming in the village. The screams scarred her imagination and, for years, she woke at night and heard the same hideous screaming. Long after she asked her mother about the screams and the mother said: ‘Those were the Russian nurses, the ones Churchill and Roosevelt sent back to Stalin. They were packing them into trucks and they knew they were going home to die.'" (Chatwin, Patagonia 61)

As Chatwin further notes, it may have been her amputated legs that saved her life. The amputation, her sadness, her nostalgia: they were connected. Involuntary travel was the cause. And her memory of Russia caused in her a restlessness to embark on the return journey. Yet her restrictions, both imposed by others in her youth and self-imposed as a result of her fear of discovering a different Russia, caused her to remain stuck and thus in her condition of exile. Restlessness was at the root of her nostalgia, at the root of her exile.

The recovery of the nurse's story parallels Chatwin's search for the story of Charley Milward and the origin of the brontosaurus skin. His childhood memory of time spent with his grandmother echoes the Russian nurse's memory of her childhood in pre-World War II Russia. The way the Russian nurse leans on her nostalgia for Russia as a source of support in her exile echoes Chatwin's appropriation of Patagonia a symbol for sanctuary, away from the chaos in the world. In Patagonia is indeed a hunt for a strange animal: recovering the story behind the Russian nurse's nostalgia is analogous with Chatwin's search for the story behind his own symbol of adventure and sanctuary. The revelation of both stories is how they are rooted in similar themes. Patagonia for Chatwin as a child suggested both the adventurousness of Charley Milward and the separateness of a place away from the Cold War. Through his writing, Chatwin makes explicit what he had intuited as a child: how exile and nomadism are rooted in the common idea of restlessness.

Restlessness according to Chatwin is thus essential to the human spirit and an integral part of human history: nomads as the crankhandles of the world. Chatwin's obsession appears again and again in his travels and writings. Shakespeare notes in the Introduction how Chatwin did not just bring moleskine notebooks to Patagonia, but the erudition of many years of study and the burden of an incomplete dissertation on The Nomadic Alternative (Shakespeare xiv - xv), an unreadable work attempting to deal with nomadism in the abstract.

Yet to say Patagonia is a place where one can see the nomadic alternative in the concrete would be an over-simplification. In Patagonia is not simply a candid retelling of Chatwin's travels; it is not just reality as Chatwin recounts, but reality as Chatwin envisions. Chatwin himself admitted to embellishment, not the least of which was his Russian nurse, who read Agatha Christie rather than Mandelstam (Shakespeare xxiii): a romanticization, as Chatwin called it, that was essential in creating the character of an exile steeped in nostalgia.

Chatwin was telling "not a half-truth but a truth and a half" declared Shakespeare, who suggested his romanticizations were artistic devices. Chatwin was himself in agreement; his purpose was not adherence to the truth; he was writing fiction. In Patagonia, viewed as a work of fiction, possesses a unique semiotics that suggests a unique subjectivity. Chatwin is writing about nomadism not as a person providing evidence of its influence, but as a person envisioning a world where its influence is central.

A key characteristic of In Patagonia is the lack of presence of the narrator. This is especially strange in comparison with the real Bruce Chatwin, who described himself as "happiest having a good old yakking conversation" (Shakespeare x). An anthropologist who met Chatwin in Australia described him as a man who "murdered people with talk" (Shakespeare x). Yet the narrator, in Shakespeare's words, appears as "a loose-limbed ascetic at one with the desert around Trelew" (x), uttering at most a few monosyllabic words of assent. The disparity suggests that moving the narrator from the foreground of the book was important to Chatwin's purpose and ultimately his subjectivity.

The disappearance of the narrator allows Chatwin to ignore details that would form the substance of the work of travel writers such as Paul Theroux. In the book, Anselmo is a budding pianist the narrator meets during his travels. In reality, Anselmo was also Chatwin's lover (Shakespeare xii). Chatwin leaves out these types of encounters to shift the focus of the book from the narrator's escapades to the characters the narrator encounters. The focus on the characters allows Chatwin to build upon the symbolic journey he describes, his meditation on restlessness and exile. The lack of narrative presence supports the credibility of a Patagonia inhabited by the characters Chatwin describes by making his observations less the product of subjective experience and more compelling and concrete. There is a suspension of disbelief similar to that required for fiction. Creating the persona of an ascetic wanderer allowed Chatwin to create his version of Patagonia, one where restlessness underlies the lives of all its inhabitants.

Restlessness was central to Chatwin's world as a child. His father was an officer of the Navy during World War II, so his mother and he had to run around, staying at relatives. "Home, if we had one, was a solid black suitcase called the Rev-Robe, in which there was a corner for my clothes and my Mickey Mouse gas-mask"( Chatwin, Songlines 6). Restlessness remained central to Chatwin's life, and eventually became a life-long obsession with nomadism. As a child, Chatwin imagined Patagonia as both a place of wanderers and a place of separate from the rest of the world. In In Patagonia, there is a realization of that idea. The characters of In Patagonia have come to Patagonia as the result of interminable wanderings or due to the imposition of exile.

Chatwin's subjectivity is thus based on the fantasies of his childhood. Through his book, he builds upon his idea of Patagonia, and consequently helps define Patagonia as a symbol for restlessness: a place of wanderers, adventurers, and exiles. His revelations of the underlying connections between his characters are simultaneously acts of creation that hint at the larger metaphor he suggested: an illustration of the story of Cain. All the qualities that seemed strange and disjointed - the short anecdotes, the lack of a sense of chronology, the interviewing of past and present and past and present tenses, the romanticizations - become clear when one considers Chatwin's work a projection of his fantasies. The disjointedness allows Chatwin to focus solely on the elements that would strengthen his notion of Patagonia, and to ignore elements that might have detracted from that notion without compromising the narrative or structure of the book. To have spoken of events like his affair with Anselmo would have diminished the effect of In Patagonia: the sense of immersion in a world of fantasy.

In this way, the book is fantastical. It is Chatwin imagining an exotic and remote place. Being fantasy, the book is thus deeply personal and unique. "The book is extraordinary, and like nothing else - a law unto itself" (Shakespeare xix) declared his agent when he first read it. The deeply personal purpose of the book and Chatwin's personal subjectivity lends to the book a semiotics different from most travel books. The disjointed and short chapters, the pithy anecdotes recall few similarities to mind besides Marco Polo's Travels or Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. Yet each of these books was fantastical in nature as well, and reflected the deeply personal perspective of each traveler (the latter being pure fantasy).

Chatwin's search for the nomadic alternative then was also a search for the fulfillment of his childhood fantasies. His search for the brontosaurus skin, with all its associations of adventure, Romance, the exotic, and the remote, never ended, not even with his book on Patagonia. The "sense of homecoming" Chatwin experienced when among the nomads of the world would never leave him.

Chatwin eventually finds out that his brontosaurus skin was actually from the mylodon much later in his life. "This version was less romantic," Chatwin says, "but had the merit of being true" (Chatwin, Patagonia 3). One might describe In Patagonia in the opposite way: a version that was less true but had the merit of being more romantic. In the end, Chatwin's hunt for a strange animal in a remote land was literally and metaphorically the hunt for that piece of brontosaurus skin, both as an object and as a symbol for his lifelong restlessness.

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