Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Chatwin's Travels

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin.

Bruce Chatwin died of AIDS early in 1989. Almost 50 at the time of his death, he came to literary life and fame relatively late. It is part of his legend that he announced his departure from the (London) Sunday Times in 1975 with a short telegram: “Gone to Patagonia for six months.” In Patagonia is, I assume, his first book, and it is quite an excellent traveler’s tale. Chatwin was a keen observer with a dry (but not precious) wit and a well-developed sense of the absurd.

His curiosity regarding one of the ends of the earth, the southernmost tip of South America, was instilled early in his childhood by a piece of “brontosaurus” skin given to his grandmother by a distant relation at the turn of the century. Charley Milward’s specimen may have been the excuse for Chatwin’s journey, but the story is not confined to it. Along with some history of 19th and 20th century Patagonia as related by various quaint inhabitants, we also learn of immigrant Welsh sheep ranchers; Butch Cassidy’s South American adventures; the Sect of the Brujeria (socialist sorcerers with gruesome, if improbable, rituals); a rumored plesiosaurus which set of a brief frenzy in the scientific community of two continents; an anarchist rabble-rouser named Simon Radowitzky; Jemmy Button, a native Fuegian who knew Darwin and whom Captain FitzRoy sought to “civilize”; a destitute but persistent Frenchman who tried to forge his own Patagonian Empire; Henri Grien, aka Louis de Rougemont, the charlatan; and the corpse of a suicidal barber with a hidden past.

Patagonia, a seemingly desolate land at the end of the world, seems to have attracted an endless stream of dreamers, eccentrics, and exiles over the centuries. Chatwin brings together a plethora of stories and personalities, scattered in time, into a seamless narrative, compulsively readable. And we even learn the rest of the story of Charley Milward, the unlucky sailor, and that little piece of skin.

Bruce Chatwin’s finest collection of short prose is What Am I Doing Here. The Songlines, in largest part a work of fiction set in the Australian outback, reflects Chatwin’s lifelong interst in nomadism and is also a pleasure to read.



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