An older book for this month’s review; one that many of you may have heard of. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin (1977) is known for its jumble of genres - is it a novel? Travelogue? Is it fact or fiction? Is it a true reflection of Patagonia and its people? Many think it revolutionised the travelogue genre - let’s discuss.
The first of Chatwin’s six books, In Patagonia offers a glimpse of the region in the eyes of the author. This is important; this is certainly not an encyclopaedic, factual, history-book snapshot of this vast Latin American region. In fact, you are likely to feel as mystified by this mysterious place when finishing the book as you were when commencing it - but this is one of its main strengths.
Chatwin’s penchant for retelling or creating whimsical, imaginative scenarios is encapsulated in the very first pages of the book. It begins by Chatwin, as a child, admiring a piece of ‘brontosaurus skin’ at his grandparents’ house that turns out to, in fact, be the skin of a giant sloth from Patagonia. This appears to lead to the adult Chatwin’s interest in the Argentine-Chilean region, and his eventual adventures there. The book jumps years forward, and we go on to meet a series of inhabitants that Chatwin interviews, many descendents of foreign settlers (usually European), many unexpected and almost fantastical (His Royal Highness Prince Philippe of Araucanía and Patagonia is one example of this). It becomes clear very quickly that Chatwin is blurring the lines between the real and the fictional, something that was almost unheard of in travel writing at the time.
Chatwin’s experimental use of form is also an unexpected twist to this book. A fragmented, stream-of-consciousness-like collection of stories creates huge gaps in the book and in our understanding. Instead, they are replaced with lengthy and detailed descriptions of the vast, remote yet colourful landscape. Chatwin’s fascination for the land is encapsulated magically in his prose, and the disconnected feel of the book successfully captures both the mystery of the region and the constant wonder of any traveller. As a reader, we are somewhat lost, but isn’t every nomad?
Critiques of this book have mainly centered around Chatwin’s bending of the truth, his rearranging of events and his misrepresentation of the people he met on his travels. To me, while this is justified in Chatwin stating that this is not an entirely factual account, as well as his right to artistic licence, the problem with this book is the lack of mention of natives of Patagonia or indigenous peoples. Indeed, when they are mentioned, they are ridiculed, and it is at this point that the book risks falling into a neocolonial trap, in which the European nomad wanders a foreign land without truly appreciating its culture. This does not mean the book shouldn’t be read - far from it, as this is a magical piece of writing - but this is to be taken into account throughout.
I would strongly recommend reading this extraordinary account of Chatwin’s journey through a region he clearly had a strong, personal fascination for. His capacity for experimental storytelling is impressive, his imagination without bounds and his peripatetic experience well-captured. This book will push you beyond your comfort zone - whether literarily, or geographically, or both - and it will almost certainly leave you all the more intrigued by the unending, historically rich landscape of Patagonia.
Have you read In Patagonia? Are you a Bruce Chatwin fan? What should we review next? We are always eager to hear your thoughts - tag #CSCVintage to join the conversation, and find out more about our collaboration with Vintage here.
You can find out more about In Patagonia here.