Bruce Chatwin’s Patagonia: Reading Between the Lies

The internet is awash with articles about Bruce Chatwin, mainly about his singular brilliance and his influence on budding travel writers at a time when the genre had one foot in the grave. With a neat forty years since the publication of his debut novel, In Patagonia — and with my own recent move to Edinburgh,  the city where Chatwin was an undergraduate — I feel justified in adding another drop in this ocean and in the changing the tide of his reception.

In Patagonia is a book about Chatwin’s impromptu jaunt to South America’s southern tip, having quit his job to search for a mysterious creature about which his grandmother told him stories as a child. Yet, in this book, his account of his travels is fragmented into taut little sections which flit willy-nilly between tales of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, encounters with the region’s Welsh community, and depictions of the local Araucanian ‘Indians’. In each passage, nomadism — Chatwin’s perennial theme —  becomes the central concern, in this place where the wind ‘strip[s] men to the raw.’

Quite honestly, Chatwin — and this book in particular — was one of two people who inspired my interest in South America. The other was Che Guevara. Together, for me, these figures evoked an image of South America indissociable from a mood of revolution and exile. I have taken too long to recognise this image as largely romanticising and racist, yet I feel these two tropes still inform the European image of the ‘New World’. As a Peruvian friend once said, Europe retains a daft sense that, ‘in Latin America, revolution is always only a moment away. This is simply not true.’

I’ve recently discovered that Chatwin’s book, incidentally, has been described in similar terms — i.e. as being simply untrue. And whilst discussions about the responsibilities, freedoms, and creative licence of ‘Art’ are rather dull, the fact that Chatwin may have just fabricated the stories he presented as truth was a fairly crushing discovery. He gloated, with anything but humility, ‘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.’

There is much anecdotal evidence for Chatwin’s literary disingenuousness: his theft of a personal diary from the real-life corollary of one of his characters; his appalled refusal when asked to donate some royalties to research and libraries in Patagonia; his embellishment and distortion of the information discovered in sources and personal interviews (see Miguel A. Cabañas’s ‘Traveling Lies’ for more). In this light, all that made the book so alluring — its pristine style, the poignancy of its characters, his eye for the comic or absurd — was, for me, undermined and Chatwin disgraced.

My discovery of his fabrications prompted a recognition of Chatwin’s fraudulent fantasy. His Patagonia is a bleak and restless landscape populated by Europeans and birds — and by the odd indigenous alcoholic who appears as the unwelcome hangover from an idealised pre-history. It is less of a place that Chatwin describes than a parade of tortured European souls, fortunately unburdened by the unromanticness of truth.

Chatwin’s book was written for Europeans. It is no surprise then that, despite its dishonesty, it retains an almost biblical status for many tourists in the region. It only now strikes me that the place for which they search — “Chatwin’s Patagonia” — is a place that never existed at all.

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