In Patagonia

Introduction, by Nicholas Shakespeare

In December 1974, the 34 year-old Bruce Chatwin departed Buenos Aires on the night bus south, beginning a journey that would transform a truant journalist to one of the most stylish and original travel-writers of the late twentieth-century. That same year, almost to the day, I left school to work as a cowhand in the Buenos Aires province.  To the south, the plains spread on and on into Patagonia.

I was seventeen and, of course, it scored me. With my head full of all that empty space I returned to tiny, congested England (“Is it in America?” asked Gallo, a cowhand who had never, except in magazines, seen a mountain or the sea ). I instantly forgot the flies, the saddle-sores, the boredom.  I was desperate to go back.

Six years later, I created an opportunity and travelled through Rio Negro and Chubut to Tierra del Fuego.  The military junta had erected signs beside the roads – “To know Patagonia is a duty” – but no one was taking notice. Patagonia, in the estimation of one Buenos Aires writer, was “just emptiness – a back alley where different cultures swirled about and rather a boring place”.

One morning, in a gesture soon to be repeated by a generation of backpackers, I was waiting for a bus in the dusty scrubland west of Trelew when I dug out a book I’d brought with me, a paperback edition that today bears the creases and marginalia of three visits to Patagonia

I’d never heard of the author, but his was the only contemporary book I could find about my destination. I opened the first page and I read the first paragraph and that, really, was that.

Patagonia is not a precise region on the map. It is a vast, vague territory which encompasses 900,000 square kilometres of Argentina and Chile. The area is most effectively defined by its soil. You know you are in Patagonia when you see rodados patagonicos, the basalt pebbles left behind by glaciers, and jarilla, the low bush which is its dominant flora. Patagonia may also be described by its climate. The wind which blows with terrific force from October to March – in Chatwin’s expression, “stripping men to the raw” – made Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s plane fly backward instead of forward.

Travellers from Darwin onwards have noted how this bleakness seizes the imagination. Patagonia’s nothingness forces the mind in on itself. In the museum in Trelew I’d found the diary of a stern Welsh pioneer. John Murray Thomas, trekking inland in July 1877, wrote in his fading pencil: “Last night dreamt of Harriett that we were in the bedroom. Had a nice kiss. Hardly a night passes but that I see her in my dreams.”

In Patagonia, the isolation makes it easy to exaggerate the person you are: the drinker drinks; the devout prays; the lonely grows lonelier, sometimes fatally. Tom Jones worked as British Consul in Punta Arenas. In his 1961 memoir  A Patagonian Panorama, he wrote: “Whether it is the dreary and crude climate of Patagonia or the lonely life in the camp after the day’s work or remorse after a bout of hard drinking, I cannot say, but I have known, some very intimately, well over 20 people who have committed suicide.”

The first sheep farmers arrived from the Falkland Islands in the late 1860s. The temptation among their descendants to cling to the culture their forbears left behind remains fierce. Patagonia spans two nations; a good many of its inhabitants pass a life likewise divided and rebuilding the environment they have escaped. The remoter the valley, the more faithful the recreation of an original homeland. In Gaiman, the Welsh preserve their language and their hymns. In Rio Pico, the Germans plant lupins and cherry trees. In Sarmiento, the Boers continue to dry biltong (of guanaco). As Chatwin wrote in his journal, “The further one gets from the great centres of civilisation, the more prevalent become the fanciful reconstructions of the world of Madame du Barry.”

Barren for the most part, Patagonia is a land of extreme fertility in one respect. To travel through it, as Chatwin soon discovered, is “the most jaw-dropping experience because everywhere you’d turn up, there, sure enough, was this somewhat eccentric personality who had this fantastic story. At every place I came to it wasn’t a question of hunting for the story it was a question of the story coming at you… I also think the wind had something possibly to do with it.”

Like the Galapagos, Patagonia has scarcely advanced from its early maps showing blue unicorns, red centaurs, elephant-bearing condors and giants. It still likes to think of itself as a land of giants. “Not those giants referred to by Hernando de Magellanes,” wrote Tom Jones, “but those men and women, many of them British, who made this vast, bleak and windswept land, prosperous and habitable for civilised people.” Even today, it remains scattered both with dinosaur bones and living relicts who live sixty kilometres from the nearest pavement and talk of “leagues” and “chappies” and “t’other side”. Everyone seems seven foot high, an oddball. Dreams proliferate. (This may explain why Ted Turner and Sylvester Stallone have bought properties there). “Patagonia is different from anywhere else,” says Teresita Braun-Menéndez, of the family which did most to open up the territory in the nineteenth century. “That loneliness, that grandiosity. Anything can happen.”

Like many people, I experienced its effect in heightened colours when reading In Patagonia.  I’d read Hudson and Darwin and Lucas Bridges, but none had validated my Patagonia as Chatwin had.

In crowded London, I sought the author out. My pretext was to get the telephone number of the Frenchman who would be King of Patagonia. Really, I wanted to meet Chatwin.

In those days I kept a diary. On January 19th 1982 I wrote: “The morning with Bruce Chatwin, after eventually locating his Eaton Place bedsit: a bicycle against the wall and Flaubert on the floor. He was younger than I imagined, rather like a Polish refugee: baggy trousered, emaciated, grey blonde and blue-eyed, sharp-featured and razor-worded. He has just delivered a manuscript – a novel about a square mile near Clyro where 2 families fight, without exposure to the modern world, through 2 world wars. He talks like a bird, very funny, very boyish and very well read. ‘Isn’t it extraordinary how the most fraudulent people often have a very good eye for the genuine article?’”

His book had conjured a loose-limbed ascetic at one with the desert around Trelew, a silent man whose longest sentence was “I see”. In fact, he told me later, “I’m at my happiest having a good old yakking conversation.” Only afterwards did I meet the lady in Puerto Natales who confessed, “Don Bruce, he talked a lot, bastante.” Or, in Alice Springs, an anthropologist who complained: “He murdered people with talk.” He didn’t stop yakking from the moment I entered his tiny attic flat. Within minutes, he’d provided a telephone number for the King of Patagonia and Araucania, a pipe-smoker with glaucoma who ran the Free Faculty of Law in the Faubourg Poissonière. He also gave me numbers for the King of Crete, the heir to the Aztec throne – and a guitarist in Boston who believed he was god.

In return he wanted to know about Argentina.

One of Chatwin’s literary gifts was to make readers feel involved in his fantasies. He could exercise the same power in the flesh. His first editor, Francis Wyndham, said of him: “He made you participate in what, in that moment, did not seem to be a fantasy. One was included in it, even though he did all the talking.” Chatwin was particularly adept at extracting from perfect strangers their best stories and making extravagant connections. This is what happened at our first meeting.

Swiftly he drew from me how, as an adolescent living in Buenos Aires, I read aloud to the blind Borges; how our house in Martinez was guarded by ex-SAS bodyguards who stored their grenades in my youngest brother’s desk; and a story I’d picked up in Salta, about a figure called Guemes, a hero of Argentina’s independence who had lent his colours to the famous gaucho poncho. Black for the death of Guemes, red for the blood of his soldiers.

It was the Guemes story that held Chatwin – and taught me at first hand his talent for persuading others to view the world as he did.

Guemes, I had learnt – indeed I’d worn the same poncho – was an hispanicization of the Scottish Wemyss: the colours were possibly those of a Wemyss tartan. Chatwin’s blue eyes widened and with hands waving he explained how he was at that moment at work on a theory about the colour red. Did I know that Garibaldi, while fighting for neighbouring Uruguay’s independence, had filched a consignment of these ponchos from a warehouse in Montevideo and on the ship back to Italy had scissored them into the uniforms for his “red-shirts” – and so inspired the red flags flying over the barricades of revolutionary Europe and ultimately the Kremlin?

I didn’t, but I left his flat taking very seriously the link between a Scots tartan and the red flag of Socialism.

There was a further reason to be excited. He promised to take me on a pilgrimage to Southhampton to see the tomb of the Argentine dictator General Rosas, who’d died in exile as a milk-farmer in Hampshire and who, in power, had worn Guemes’ poncho as a uniform for his colorados, a terrifying gaucho cavalry.

We met two or three times a year after that. Our pilgrimage to Rosas’s tomb would crop up in conversation, but Southampton was just down the road. It could wait, we could go there any time. Meanwhile, Chatwin was off to Australia, India, China. I felt glad to be able to pin him down just once, to appear on a BBC television programme about South American literature with Vargas Llosa and Borges. He disliked giving interviews and it would be one of his few television appearances. As I waited to escort Borges into the studio, Chatwin started enthusing uninhibitedly. “He’s just a genius: you can’t go anywhere without taking your Borges. It’s like packing your toothbrush.” To which Borges, standing next to me, muttered: “How unhygienic.”

Chatwin died before we could make it to Rosas’s tomb. Soon afterwards, Rosas’s bones were transported with tremendous fanfare back to Buenos Aires and reburied in the Recoleta cemetery. In 1992, I visited the new grave with Chatwin’s widow Elizabeth before heading south with her in his footsteps. I thought he would have enjoyed the latest story to circulate about Rosas, that his original grave in Southampton had been destroyed in the blitz, killing a few stray cattle. The bones in the ornamented Buenos Aires tomb belonged most likely to a bomb-blasted cow.

******

Bruce Chatwin was always attracted to border countries. To places on the rim of the world, sandwiched ambiguously between cultures, neither one thing nor another. In South Africa I met a poet who said that Chatwin wrote as if he was in exile from a country that didn’t exist. “He was in exile from everywhere,” says his wife Elizabeth. And he was on the run again when he boarded the bus in Buenos Aires.

He’d resigned from the auctioneer’s Sotheby’s to study archaeology at Edinburgh University, had left Edinburgh prematurely to write a book on nomads, and had put aside the manuscript in a mood of despair to work as a journalist on the Sunday Times  magazine. In November 1974 he’d arrived in New York with $3,500 expenses in his pocket to research a story on the Guggenheim family when “on the spur of the moment” he made a break for it.

The following month a letter arrived on his editor’s desk in London postmarked Lima: “I have done what I threatened/ I suddenly got fed up with N.Y. and ran away to South America/ I have been staying with a cousin in Lima for the past week and am going tonight to Buenos Aires. I intend to spend Christmas in the middle of Patagonia/ I am doing a story there for myself, something I have always wanted to write up.”

The story, he went on, “could be marvellous, but I’ll have to do it in my  own way.” Provisionally entitled “A Piece of Brontosaurus”, it related to a treasured object from his childhood: a wedding gift sent to his grandmother in Birmingham from her cousin at the end of the world. The opening paragraph gives the flavour:

In my grandmother’s dining room there was a glass-fronted cabinet and in the cabinet a piece of skin. It was a small piece only, but thick and leathery, with strands of coarse, reddish hair. It was stuck to a card with a rusty pin. On the card was some writing in faded black ink, but I was too young then to read.

‘What’s that?’

‘A piece of brontosaurus.’

…Never in my life have I wanted anything as I wanted that piece of skin.

The scrap of “brontosaurus” was in fact cut from the hide of a mylodon, or Giant Sloth, and Chatwin’s parents had thrown it out when they moved to Stratford in 1961, but he had never lost sight of its provenance. The safest place in the event of nuclear war, the place where he planned to escape from his Shropshire boarding-school, Patagonia was the habitat of several tribes Chatwin had studied at Edinburgh. Among the few lectures to stir his blood were those of Charles Thomas on the Welsh in Chubut and on Charles Darwin’s shocked reaction to the Yaghans of Tierra del Fuego. In December 1972, the Irish designer and architect Eileen Gray had rekindled Chatwin’s “childhood infatuation” – after visiting Gray in her Paris apartment, he wrote to thank her for “the most enjoyable Sunday afternoon I have spent in years”. Gray, then 93, had on her wall a large map of Patagonia which she had painted in gouache. Chatwin pointed to it: “That’s one of the places I’ve always wanted to go to.” It was Gray’s ambition too. If she were young again she would try to see Cape Horn. “Allez-y pour moi, go on my behalf.” He later said: “It was almost one of the things that decided me in fact to go.”

Chatwin didn’t mind giving the illusion that he had gone to Patagonia for four months and dashed off a classic. But he took with him a body of knowledge that he had cultivated for years. Although In Patagonia would become an overnight success, it had been an arduous apprenticeship. Haunting Chatwin on his journey south was “the rotten experience” of The Nomadic Alternative,  the book on which he’d spent several years and which his editor at Jonathan Cape, Tom Maschler, had pronounced unpublishable after reading 50 pages. (“They were terrible. They were completely sterile. They were a chore to read and I imagine a chore to write.”) This time Chatwin determined to keep silent until he was finished. “The fatal thing is ever to tell anyone about what you’re really writing till it’s done because a) you don’t do it and b) you get people vaguely worked up about it and they try to tell you what to do.”

But what was he writing? The question would vex editors and critics. Just as Patagonia is not a place with an exact border so Chatwin’s “peculiarly dotty book”, as he called it, would not fall into an easy category. Was it travel writing? Was it historical fiction? Was it reportage? And was it true – and, if not, did it matter?

In advance of its American publication Chatwin drafted a letter to his agent, requesting that In Patagonia  be taken out of the travel class. He wanted the blurb on the American edition to convey four points, in his opinion the key to understanding the book:

1. “Patagonia is the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origins. It is therefore a symbol of his restlessness. From its discovery it had the effect on the imagination something like the Moon, but in my opinion more powerful.”

2. The form described in the Daily Telegraph  as “wildly unorthodox” was in fact as old as literature itself: “the hunt for a strange animal in a remote land.”

3. He preferred to leave the reader with the choice of two journeys: one to Patagonia in 1975, the other “a symbolic voyage which is a meditation on the restlessness and exile.”

4. “All the stories were chosen with the purpose of illustrating some particular aspect of wandering and/or of exile: i.e. what happens when you get stuck. The whole should be an illustration of the Myth of Cain and Abel.”

His letter makes clear that Chatwin had come to Argentina with a fixed idea: to retrieve from his abandoned nomad manuscript (“that wretched book”, Elizabeth called it) the idea of the Journey as Metaphor, in particular Lord Raglan’s paradigm of the young hero who sets off on a voyage and does battle with a monster. Such journeys are the meat and drink of our earliest stories, he told the Argentinian journalist Uki Goni – an “absolute constant, a universal in literature”. He wanted to write a spoof of this form. Where Jason had sought the Golden Fleece, he would seek the animal in his grandmother’s cabinet. And if possible find a replacement scrap.

The spoof was a protective device. It concealed a desire to continue his serious exploration into wandering and exile. Only this time, he intended to grapple with his theme not in the abstract terms which had suffocated The Nomadic Alternative, but in concrete stories.

“Your fascination is people?” asked Goni.

“Yes, in the end. It took rather a long time to discover that.”

The people Bruce would meet in Patagonia were often rootless story-tellers like himself. Fugitives of justice, régime change or simply “the coopof England”. The whole place was a magnet for those who suffered from a bad case of Baudelaire’s Great Malady: Horror of One’s Home. Hence the roll-call of mad lingerie-salesmen, maestros, autodidacts, geniuses, bandits, women with tatters of extraordinary beauty and exiles like the Arab who “kept a sprig of mint on the bar to remind him of a home he had not seen.”

Exactly as a 34 year-old French lawyer had decreed it res nullius  – and therefore a perfect place of which to become king – so Patagonia enticed Chatwin as a marvellous and limitless backdrop against which to play out his thesis. A theatre for his own restlessness, Patagonia, he would covertly argue, was the source of everyone else’s restlessness too.

Under his transforming gaze a windswept desert of basalt pebbles and jarilla  bushes unravels into something else. In Chatwin’s Patagonia, the uniqueness of the landscape hardly comes into view. His book is largely about interiors which are elsewheres. You won’t come across many Patagonian Patagonians in its pages; nor will you discover much about the author, who remains teasingly absent. “How had he travelled from here to there?” Paul Theroux wanted to know. “How had he met this or that person? Life was never so neat as Bruce made out.” Nowhere, for instance, will you find details of Chatwin’s arrest by the Chilean military or his seduction of the young pianist “Anselmo” – ie the meat and drink of travel-writers like Theroux. But you will find the Patagonian origin of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Darwin’s theory of evolution, Shakespeare’s Caliban, Dante’s Hell, Conan Doyle’s Lost World, Swift’s Brobdignagians, Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Even the Patagonian origin of Man himself.

On January 21, marooned in the small village of Baja Caracolles, Chatwin wrote to his wife. He was stranded in the middle of nowhere, but he had arrived.

“Dearest E

I have begun letters I don’t know how many times and then abandoned them. Now I am stuck, for 3 days at least, because the justice of the peace, to whom I confided some of my things, has run off with the key.

Writing this in the archetypal Patagonian scene, a boliche  or roadman’s hotel at a cross-roads of insignificant importance with roads leading all directions apparently to nowhere. A long mint green bar with blue green walls and a picture of a glacier, the view from the window a line of lombardy poplars tilted about 20 {degree sign} from the wind and beyond the rolling grey pampas (the grass is bleached yellow but it has black roots, like a dyed blonde) with clouds rushing across it and a howling wind.

On no previous journey am I conscious of having done more. Patagonia is as I expected but more so, inspiring violent outbursts of love and hate. Physically it is magnificent, a series of graded steps or barrancas  which are the cliff lines of prehistoric seas and unusually full of fossilised oyster shells 10” diam. In the east you suddenly confront the great wall of the cordillera  with bright turquoise lakes (some are milky white and others a pale jade green) with unbelievable colours to the rocks (in the pre-cordillera). Sometimes it seems that the Almighty has been playing at making Neapolitan ice-cream. Imagine climbing (as I did) a cliff face 2000 feet high alternatively striped vanilla, strawberry and pistachio in bands of 100 feet or more. Imagine an upland lake where the rock face on one side is bright purple, the other bright green, with cracked orange mud and a white rim. You have to be a geologist to appreciate it. Then I know of no place that you are aware of prehistoric animals. They sometimes seem more alive than the living. Everybody talks of pleisiosaurus, or ichtyosaurus. I met an old gentleman who was born in Lithuania who found a dinosaur the other day and didn’t think much of it. He thought much more of the fact he had a pilot’s license, at the age of 85 being probably the oldest solo flyer in the world. When he was younger he tried to be a bird man.

I have been caught in the lost beast fervour and 2 days ago scaled an appalling cliff to the bed of an ancient lake… and there discovered to my inexpressible delight a collection of fragments of the carapace of the glyptodon. The glyptodon has if anything replaced the mylodon in my affections – there are about 6 whole ones in the Museum of La Plata – an enormous armadillo up to 9-10 feet long, each scale of its armour looking like a Japanese chrysanthemum. The entertaining fact about my discovery, and one that no archaeologist will believe, is that in the middle of one scatter of bones were 2 obsidian knives quite definitely man-made. Now Man is often thought to have done away with the Glyptodon, but there is no evidence of his having done so.

Not an Indian in sight. Sometimes you see a hawkish profile that seems to be a Tehuelche i.e. old Patagonian, but the colonisers did a very thorough job, and this gives the whole land its haunted quality.

Animal life is not extraordinary, except for the guanaco  which I love. The young are called chulengos  and have the finest fur, a sort of mangy brown and white. There is a very rare deer called a Huemeul and the Puma (which is commoner than you would think but difficult to see). Otherwise pinchi  the small armadillo, hares everywhere, and a most beguiling skunk, very small, black with white stripes; far from spraying me one came and took a crust from my hand.

Birds are wonderful. Condors in the cordillera, a black and white vulture, a beautiful grey harrier (also amazingly tame), and the black necked swan which has my prize for the best bird in the world. On the mud flats are flamingoes – these are a kind of orange colour – the Patagonian goose inappropriately called an abutarda, and every kind of duck.

You would think from the fact that the landscape is so uniform and the occupation (sheep-farming) also, that the people would be correspondingly dull. But I have sung “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” in Welsh in a remote chapel on Christmas Day, have eaten lemon curd tartlets with an old Scot (who has never been to Scotland) but has made his own bagpipes and wears the kilt to dinner. I have stayed with a Swiss ex-diva who married a Swedish trucker who lives in the remotest of all Patagonian valleys, decorating her house with murals of the lake of Geneva. I have dined with a man who knew Butch Cassidy and other members of the Black Jack Gang, I have drunk to the memory of Ludwig of Bavaria with a German whose house and style of life belongs rather to the world of the Brothers Grimm. I have discussed the poetics of Mandelstam with a Ukrainian doctor missing both legs. I have seen Charlie Milward’s estancia  and lodged with the peons drinking mate till 3am. (Maté  incidentally is a drink for which I also have a love/hate relationship). I have visited a poet-hermit who lived according to Thoreau and the Georgics. I have listened to the wild outpourings of the Patagonian archaeologist, who claims the existence of a. the Patagonian unicorn b. a protohominid in Tierra del Fuego (Fuego pithicus patensis) 80 cm high.

There is a fantastic amount of stuff for a book – from the Anarchist (Yes, Bakunin inspired) Rebellion of 1920, to the hunting of the Black Jack Gang, Cassidy etc. the temporary kingdom of Patagonia, the lost city of the Caesars, the travels of Musters, the hunting of Indians etc. Everything I need.”

There is no better précis of the manuscript which he delivered to his agent in August 1976. In his four months there he had discovered Patagonia as a subject and himself as a writer.

“The book is extraordinary, and like nothing else – a law unto itself,” his agent wrote in a cover note to Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape. Maschler had no inkling that this was anything other than the nomad book. “And then I read this thing.” He describes the experience as “one of the ten most exciting events” in his publishing career: “to read this book which I have commissioned which bears no relation to what I had commissioned.”

In England the book sold 6,000 copies and won instant praise, Graham Greene writing to say that In Patagonia  was “one of my favourite travel books”. But its publication in America one month after winning the Hawthornden Prize eclipsed even Maschler’s expectations. Chatwin’s editor at Summit Press, Jim Silberman, had bought American rights for $5,000 after reading Paul Theroux’s enthusiastic review in The Times.. “It had been offered and no one had bought it. I went to a sales meeting and afterwards the head of the parent company came up and said: ‘You know there’s one book on your list that not going to sell’. I said, ‘I know which book and you’re wrong.’”

One after another the critics stood up.

“Reviews from U.S. to burn the eyes out,” Chatwin wrote to Elizabeth. “Doesn’t mean to say they won’t come up with a stinker, but mentioned in the same breath as Gulliver’s Travels, Out of Africa, Eothen, Monasteries of the Levant, Kipling’s Letters of Travel  etc. People lose all sense of proportion.”  There was even a “Rolling Stone” cartoon showing the author wandering about Patagonia with a cup of tea in his hand and a bowler hat. “The one that did go really to my heart was a Robert Taylor (Boston Globe): ‘It celebrates the recovery of something inspiring memory, as if Proust could in fact taste his madeleine’ – ENFIN  somebody’s got the point.”

Few showed greater enthusiasm than the French writer, and Patagonian Consul in France, Jean Raspail. He wrote “in a state of emotion” after finishing the book, bringing news of one more award. “The Patagonian consulate which represents in France the government of HM Orélie Antoine I, King of Patagonia and Araucania in 1863, has decided to award you the first great prize of Patagonian literature.”

Chatwin’s first book is a literary equivalent of his grandmother’s cabinet, its 93 chapters a catalogue for a collection of stories gathered with a singular eye. For all his insistence that he followed a traditional form, most readers disagreed. Among booksellers it inaugurated a new category: “the new non-fiction”.

Its influences are nevertheless easy to discern. Another provisional title, “Journey to Patagonia”, acknowledges the importance of Osip Mandelstam (“one of my gods”) whose elliptical Journey to Armenia he had read aloud to a startled Sunday Times  art department.

On April 14 1979, Mandelstam’s translator, Clarence Brown, wrote to ask “with a certain trepidation” whether Chatwin was aware “that the spirit of OM seems to peep out from behind this or that phrase or stroke of portraiture or landscape.” Chatwin replied by return: “Of course Journey to Armenia  was the biggest single ingredient – more so even than met the eye. Perhaps too much so – ‘skull-white cabbages etc’ … But one bit of plagiarism was quite unintentional (though indicative of the degree to which I had steeped myself in the Journey) Not until after I had passed the final proofs did I realise I had lifted ‘the accordion of his forehead’ straight. I rang up the copy editor in a panic. She said it was too late and, besides, all writers were cribbers.”

Chatwin admitted to cribbing from other Russians. Brown’s translation of The Noise of Time  had led him to “discover” writers like Isaac Babel (“Soon afterwards I started to write”). He had “immersed” himself at the time of writing in the literature of Turgenev and Chekhov: the way Anglo-Argentines clung to their estates in order to enjoy a life in town was exactly the story of The Cherry Orchard.

Then there were the Americans: Edmund Wilson’s travel journals, Black Brown Red and Olive, Gaylord Simpson’s Attending Marvels, and, of course, Hemingway’s short-stories. Along with Journey to Armenia,  Chatwin had carried  In Our Time  in his rucksack.

Less obvious was the influence of the French photographer Cartier-Bresson, and it was in photographic terms that Chatwin preferred to describe his odyssey to his friend Colin Thubron. “I was determined to see myself as a sort of literary Cartier-Bresson going SNAP, like that. It was supposed to be a take each time.” Stay longer and the picture would fog.

His quick snap-shots – both dense and clear – had the effect of reducing his subjects to the essentials of a black and white portrait. “It’s like looking at your passport photograph,” said David Bridges who in the book is called Bill Phillips. “It’s not flattering, but it’s the truth.” Speaking of the effect In Patagonia  had had in Patagonia, Bridges observed: “If you haven’t ruffled any feathers, you certainly haven’t written anything worth writing.” Bridges knew what he was talking about: his father Lucas Bridges was author of the first classic on Tierra del Fuego, Uttermost Part of the Earth. He said: “I’ve never known an author yet who’s left a happy stream behind him. Some get on their high horse and what they get on their horse about is as ridiculous as a fish on a roof. They have illusions about themselves that a photographer hasn’t.”

Down south, Chatwin certainly ruffled feathers by stripping these illusions. In the Welsh community of Gaiman, few guessed what he was up to. When they read about themselves in his book it was as though they had been blasted by the Patagonian wind. These were private and religious farmers whose ancestors had come to Patagonia expressly to get away from the kind of Englishman represented by a young man with a socking great forehead and blue staring eyes who bowled into their village wearing green Bermuda shorts and announced himself in a ringing public-school accent as Bruce Chatwin. They were unused to scrutiny and they resented his treatment of them. Not telling them that the camera was rolling, he caught them unawares and condensed their lives into a few vivid details. In the process, some felt, he had made off with their intimate moments and preserved them behind the glass of his prose for strangers to look at. They had not had an easy life in the desert. Chatwin had described their difficulties with a twentieth century eye, passing swiftly through their lives and refusing to dwell. He had snatched the intimacy Borges writes of: “That kernel of myself that I have saved, somehow.” Not only that, but turned them into stories as tall as the original population, the enormous-footed Patagons: legendary Indians 11 feet high who swallowed rats without skinning them and took pleasure in the yard-long breasts of their women.

The person most upset was the daughter of the former British Consul, Tom Jones, who whenever Chatwin’s name came up in the press, would fire off salvos to the letters page, listing complaints about his “disgraceful” book. Daphne Hobbs did not possess a copy of  In Patagonia. “I would not sully my shelves.” But her sense that Chatwin had twisted the truth to make it more readable would strike a responsive chord among local historians and one or two English critics, who suspected that a number of Chatwin’s brontosauri were mylodons. Chatwin’s book, she often wrote to the Buenos Aires Herald, “whilst containing some elements of truth was much exaggerated and in some instance pure lies.”

He admitted as much to Michael Ignatieff. “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 are errors of fact which had Chatwin known about he would surely have corrected. Several may be attributed to his poor Spanish. (In the Silseian Museum in Punta Arenas, for instance, he writes down the wrong name for the murdered priest: Father Pistone instead of Father Juan Silvestro). Other mistakes seem the result of his haste. (Patagonia is generally understood to begin not at the banks of the Rio Negro, but 120 kilometres north at the Rio Colorado). But there are, surprisingly, strikingly few instances of mere invention. He told the Argentine critic Christian Kupchik: “Everything that is in the book happened, although of course in another order.” The “lies” he admits to Ignatieff are examples of his romanticism, as when he describes an ordinary stainless steel chair as being “by Mies van der Rohe” or makes an Ukrainian nurse in Rio Pico a devotee of his beloved Mandelstam instead of Agatha Christie. These are artistic devices. He was not writing a government report. Nor a tourist brochure. His structure was of a journey constantly interrupted, zigzagging among texts and through time. As a master fabulist he had absorbed the rules and contrived something original out of them. Generally speaking, he did not subtract from the truth so much as add to it. He told not a half-truth but a truth and a half. His achievement is not to depict Patagonia as it really is, but to create a landscape called Patagonia – a new way of looking, a new aspect of the world. And in the process he reinvented himself.

As with the author, Chatwin’s Patagonia is a landscape to which people do not remain neutral. “An unfortunate book,” the King of Patagonia told me at a chateau in the Périgord. He spoke shortly after proposing a champagne toast to “La Patagonie et L’Araucanie libre!” surrounded by his court in exile, amongst whom In Patagonia had gone down like a leadish balloon.

Yet in Patagonia itself, the book has had a liberating effect. In 1981, six years after its author passed through, Gaiman was a dusty grid of pale red houses, two of them tea-rooms. The Welsh language was spoken by fewer than 2,000 in the region and in danger of disappearing altogether. In the burial ground at Chapel Moriah, the headstones of the founders pitched at an angle and vandalised plastic roses lay melted under the sun. The place was sinking back into the desert.

Today, the village spreads in a new development beyond the Bethel chapel. There are seven tea-rooms, including the ranch-style “Caerdydd” which was favoured with a visit from Diana, Princess of Wales, in November 1995. Twice a week in January, a Welsh choir performs to bus-loads of tourists, among them 500 Americans on a Cunard cruise down the coast. Gaiman is firmly on the map and the eight pages Chatwin wrote about it are quoted on board by the lecturer on the evening the ship docks in Puerto Madryn.

“We should write something on the gringos  who come here with In Patagonia,” says Fabio Roberts de Gonzalez, who sings in the choir. “It’s their Bible.”

 

 

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