In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

1977. Penguin. Paperback. 204 pages.

From: the library

Author recommended by: Vishy

In a nutshell:

Bruce Chatwin became fascinated by Patagonia when he was a child.  His grandmother had a scrap of prehistoric animal skin in her house, sent to her by her cousin, Captain Charley Milward, from one of the ends of the earth: Patagonia.

This book is the story of his travels in Patagonia as an adult, complemented by scraps of relevant history.


I think one reason I am fond of travel writing is that I love a good anecdote.  I like the short tales of people met, lives and places encountered, conversations with strangers.  When I visited cities as a child from a small Maine town, I was astounded by the throngs of people.  I wondered what all of their stories were.  Reading travel writing taps into that brand of wonder.

When Bruce Chatwin was in school, the Cold War was in full swing and everyone expected imminent destruction from bombs.  This prompted research into where one could flee from the fall-out:

We fixed on Patagonia as the safest place on earth.  I pictured a low timber house with a shingled roof, caulked against storms, with blazing log fires inside and the walls lined with the best books, somewhere to live when the rest of the world blew up.

p. 3

Later, traveling in Patagonia as an adult, Chatwin encounters people who find Patagonia an ideal remote refuge and others who are homesick for their original homelands.  Chatwin inquires locals about Butch Cassidy and members of his gang who fled to Patagonia to escape the law.  He is often on the trail of some local legendary and infamous figure.

As Chatwin’s travels take him further south to Tierra del Fuego, he increasingly focuses on the life and journeys of his relative, Captain Charley Milward who had spent time down there at the end of the Americas.  He even includes fascinating excerpts from Milward’s own memoirs of his seafaring days.

I did wish that I knew more about Argentinian and Chilean history while reading In Patagonia.  Chatwin often makes fleeting references to conflicts, revolutions and military leaders that I only half-understood.  It wasn’t enough to make me completely lost in the text, but I did feel that I wasn’t getting a full comprehension of certain anecdotes.

Chatwin tends to let tragedy and people’s callousness speak for themselves.  While on Navarino Island, Chatwin meets Grandpa Felipe, the last member of the Yaghan people lives in a shanty on base.  Grandpa Felipe tells Chatwin of how his people lost their language to compulsory English education, and then lost their lives to epidemics.  In another anecdote, Chatwin talks to an old English farmer who refers to the Ona people in terms of ‘tame Indians’ and ‘wild ones.’

After reading this book, the overall picture I get of Patagonia is that of a hardscrabble, lonely place, a place where one would likely  feel inconsequential.

Here are a couple excerpts from the book:

Paco loved his truck and called her Rosaura.  He scrubbed her and polished her and hung her cab with lace frills. Above her dashboard he fixed a statuette of the Virgin of Lujan, a St Christopher and a plastic penguin that nodded with the corrugations of the road. He pinned nudes to the roof, but somehow the girls were an abstraction whereas Rosaura was a real woman.

p. 79

Offshore there were grebes and steamer ducks, and out in the strait, sooty albatrosses wheeling effortlessly, like knives flying.

p. 134

Other reviews:

A Brooklynite on the Ice – “The tales Chatwin tells of them are typical of his unparalleled nose for backstory, his ability to find the choice historical nugget that gives a place meanings unrevealed by classical history.”

Macumbeira – “And what a story teller Chatwin was! We get it all and all in a same breath, in a short elegantly starved down style we switch from Paleontological Monsters to Mythological Unicorns, from American desperadoes to Communist agitators, from Wells and Darwin to Bakunin and Mandelstam.”

ricklibrarian – “The sharp-image quality may make little sense to someone plowing through the book quickly. To them it may seem to be just one thing after another. Readers need to pause and contemplate what Chatwin has shown them to draw their own conclusions about the place and its people.”

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Filed under Travel Writing