Saturday, January 8, 2011

"In Patagonia" by Bruce Chatwin

Soldado de Rosas by Auguste Monvoisin

For Christmas, I treated myself with a first impression, first U.K. edition, of Bruce Chatwin’s cult book “In Patagonia”.

Published by Jonathan Cape, it is one of the initial 4000 hardcover, octavo-sized copies wrapped in that horrendous blue and violet dust cover that hit the bookstores on the 13th of October 1977. A true 1st edition, with the wrapper picturing the Perito Moreno glacier, the blue and white endpaper maps of Tierro Del Fuego, the black and white plates (taken out for the first American edition) and the black and white frontispiece map of Argentina it is still in a very good, tight and clean condition, with few flaws: the mildest foxing to the flaps, only very minor fading to the spine, but unfortunately price clipped and some pages tainted.

“In Patagonia” is a classic. It recounts the journey Bruce Chatwin made to the end of the world, to a lost cave in the southern-most part of Patagonia. This cave was special for Chatwin, because it was here that were found the bones and pieces of skin of a monster that had both attracted and haunted him in his childhood.

Bruce had, since a very early age, been fascinated by a “piece of Brontosaurus” which his grandmother had kept in her private curiosity cabinet, a glass framed Burgher closet. The leathery piece of skin, with red coarse hair still attached, was sent to her as a wedding gift by her brother Charles Milward. He had dug it up himself in a cave somewhere in Patagonia. The young bride must have been delighted with her present, but she knew her brother to be a strange one. He had been a well-to-do sea captain at the turn of the century but had, after some unsuccessful investments, spend the last years of his live in relative poverty in Patagonia. The piece of skin, which was actually from a 10.000 year old Mylodon, a kind of giant antediluvian sloth was lost when Chatwin’s grandmother’s belongings were moved after her dead.

Chatwin, still enchanted by that fantastic story, but also in search of a topic for a book, decided to travel to Patagonia in search of the lost beast, to the cave where Milward had found his Mylodon’s skin.


It was the seeing of a map of Patagonia hanging in the apartment of Eileen Gray, the famous Irish designer, that had reminded Chatwin of  his interest for Patagonia. When he said “One day I’ll travel there”, she had replied “ Go there for us both”
I rather like to think that the Patagonian subject was embedded in Bruce mind and never ever left, since he read as a child, Joshua Slocum’s famous epic “Around the world with the Spray”.

“A storyteller is most influenced by the kind of stories he first thrills to” says Nicholas Shakespeare in his brilliant Chatwin biography and I can well picture young Chatwin mesmerized by the account of Slocum’s epic voyage through the strait of Magellan: The Patagonian Indians and some nasty half-breeds trying to attack the lonely captain lost in the meanders of Tierra del Fuego and only Slocum’s inventiveness and his Winchester rifle, keeping him out of the hands of the savages.

This reading and retracing of Slocum’s diary on the maps of the Times Atlas in the dusk of his Old Hall school library in Shropshire must have been the basis for Chatwin's fascination for that mysterious part of the world.


The story goes that while on assignment in 1974 in New York, Bruce Chatwin, now a journalist for the Sunday Times, suddenly decided to leave for Patagonia and that he send a telegram to his employer, which said “Gone to Patagonia for four months”

While it is true that Chatwin left for South America “on the spur of the moment”, the telegram he allegedly sent, is probably just a myth.

But he did take leave from his boss Francis Wyndham. The latter one remembers that while he was having a drink with an acquaintance in a hotel bar, Chatwin suddenly appeared in front of him, “dressed like a Boy scout in khaki shorts, rucksack on his back. “ I am off to Patagonia”, he said and started walking down Broadway Avenue as if “he would walk and walk until he reached Patagonia”. He must have looked as weird as Paul Hogan in the “Crocodile Dundee” flick.

The only luggage Chatwin, an experienced backpack traveler, took with him was a self – designed rucksack, two books, his sleeping bag and 3500 Usd in cash. Chatwin, who was normally always short of money, had received  this sum as an advance for a series of articles on the Guggenheim family. The Sunday Times would just have to wait for their article.

Whatever the theatricals, there was without doubt a sense of urgency in Chatwin’s departure.

Chatwin was aware that he was as ready as he would ever be in his aspiration to become a writer. While the enviable job he had at the Sunday Times had exhausted all its appeal, his years working for the culture pages taught him to write erudite concise prose. He had learned to write for an audience and to stick to a deadline.

Also important was that Chatwin had finally understood that his previous attempt of a book “The Nomadic Alternative” was a failure. His topic had been too broad, his intentions too vague. He had to start all over again with a new subject. That new subject turned out to be that “Charles Mildward Brontosaurus story” that had simmered in his mind since childhood . Chatwin knew that with this story he probably had a good subject for a book.

It was indeed now or never.

Chatwin’s trip to Argentina en Chili had few compulsive stops: a visit to cousin Monica Bartnett, daughter of Charles Milward and an exploration of the cave of the Mylodon, not far from the town of Punta Arenas. In between, he could travel to museums, were they hopefully kept some Mylodon’s skeletons and travel, by foot and bus mostly, through the Argentinian backcountry gathering trivia and curiosities along the way.

On the second of November 1974, he flew from New York to Lima to look up his cousin.

This was an important visit. Monica was the keeper of her father’s journal, letters and other private papers. She had kept the papers well, for she too planned to write a biography of her father. She told so to Bruce, but never objected to him studying them. Bruce, with the permission of his cousin, read and studied Milward’s papers, took notes and even made some photocopies. The journal appeared to be much more interesting than he had hoped. Milward had been a genuine seafaring adventurer, in the style of his childhood heroes Voss, Slocum and Dana and had written everything down in a detailed journal.

Captivated by the study of the journal, only interrupted once or twice for some sightseeing, Bruce stayed close to six weeks with his cousin.

On the 12 th of December, he flew to Buenos Aires. Here he could do some last investigations at the library before entering Patagonia.

On the 18th of December he took the overnight bus to Bahia Blanca, further south and to the small town of Cabildo. In their estancia, Bruce met David, son of Lucas Bridges, writer of “Uttermost part of the Earth”, one of Bruce favorite’s books. Bridges had a lot of relations further south and Bruce wanted from him “introductions” in order to easy his contacts with the locals. Bridges appears in “In Patagonia” slightly disguised as Bill Philips.

He soon hit the road again, and from now on mostly walking, started to realize the task he had set himself in that immense country. On the 22 nd of December he was as lonely as ever. He felt old and tired and he understood that he needed to leave the trodden paths if he wanted to see other things than what was usually served to tourists. He continued by bus and on the 24th he arrived in the town of Gaiman.

Bruce was saved from a lonely Christmas by the local schoolteacher. She took pity on him and invited him for evening celebrations. It was she who introduced Bruce to the young musical genius Enrique Fernandez.

Bruce staid till the 29th in Gaiman and then headed further inland for probably the roughest part of his voyage. For the next three weeks few details are known. He zigzagged close to the foot of the Andes. Esquel, Rio Pico, Lago Posada.

In a letter to his wife Elisabeth, written on the 21 th of January from a place named Baja Carracoles, he complains about the hardship of the travel but marvels at the many stories he has collected and which he can incorporate in his book.

On the 27th of January, he was back at a scene from Milwards journal. David Bridges had given him an introduction to a Mr Jack Frazer and his wife. Bruce spend the evening, maybe a few with them, staid at their estancia but left quite rudely without any thanks or goodbyes. Monica Bartnett and therefore Bruce also, suspected Jack Frazer’s father as being the man who had raped Monica’s mother. The poor girl, who had been a governess at the Frazer’s, had fled in the night on horseback and arrived at the British consulate at Punta Arenas completely exhausted and shocked. The decent man who took care of her and helped her get to England was … Charles Milward. They would later marry.
Bruce wrote it all down, only thinly veiled.

He arrived in Punta Arenas in Chile around the 10th of February. There, he befriended an Australian couple and together they travelled around. An excursion to the island of Chiloé, a flight over Desolation island in a chartered plane ( Milward had wrecked the boat under his command and his career on the rocks of Desolation island ) and then to the final destination at Puerto Natales.

The cave of the Mylodon was a short trip north of Natales. Bruce had reached the end of his “ridiculous journey”. In the cave, he found a bit of red hair and heaps of Milodon dung.
There were other visitors. There does not seem to have been a moment of private celebration or contemplation.

A few days later, Chatwin left Patagonia and returned to Lima. He was back in the house of Monica Barnett by the fifth of April 1975.

He had been away for 115 days.


While not exactly the “Wonder” voyage he had wanted to experience, Chatwin’s travel trough the Argentinean hinterland was adventurous enough. He often slept in the open, behind bushes, in caves, in peons huts, in boliches or cheap roadman’s hotels and sometimes if he was lucky in an Estancia. He hitchhiked, caught free rides on the back of trucks but mostly walked and walked and walked… On the road he complained of loneliness and boredom, stomach problems and hunger. And he did encounter the usual threats and problems of the lonely traveler

Travelling alone and by foot in a place so desolate as Patagonia had it risks. When he catches a ride on a truck, in the middle of nowhere, climbing in the back with some other peones, one cannot help to crinch at the risks he is taking. Chatwin, in his boy-scout shorts looked more like a fallen cherubim than a hardcore adventurer. An Australian girl he met in Punta Arenas, near the end of his trip, described him in a letter to her mother:

He is rather an eccentric type of chap, who is in the middle of his thirties but still looks like the typical private school English boy with big feet and blond hair that he parts down the centre, and has a very pronounced Oxford accent.

One can imagine some horny gauchos licking their lips at the mere sight of him and there are occasions when things indeed get dangerous: An encounter with Bahai – Iranians, who live isolated and share a black sex – slave, a game of sueno and culo with some locals, where Chatwin is too much culo ( ass ) and misses sueno ( luck ) and a binge – drinking session with a group of gaucho’s where one suggests to Chatwin to sleep in his room to protect him from the other men.

Of course, reading fiction we never know if it is the truth or if Chatwin’s sexual fantasy has taken over:  homosexual, masochistic, rapish even, à la Rimbaud or Laurence.

Chatwin admitted that he found gauchos had a rough sexual charm. Early in the book, while lunching with a young male friend, he describes a picture : “At a lunch we sat under a painting of one of General Rosa’s gauchos, by Raymond Monvoison, a follower of Delacroix. He lay swathed in a blood-red poncho, a male odalisque, cat like and passively erotic”.

There are quite a few hints of sexual encounters in his book too.

Most notably with the young Chopin player Enrique Fernandez. In the book his name is Anselmo and after playing the last Mazurka of Chopin, Bruce, confesses in a letter to a friend that he could not resist him and dragged him into bed. In the pages of “In Patagonia”, Bruce however did not unveil this secret.

Chatwin interacted well enough with the locals and had empathy and intelligence enough to understand them and their problems. He describes the different communities of whites, the Welsh, the Germans and the British, how they sometimes pathetically cling to a lifestyle they think is still authentic.

He also describes their loneliness, their bitterness from failed get-rich-quick schemes. There are but a few Indians left and those who he meets are low down alcoholics. He is especially fascinated by the odd types he encounters, it seems, at every turn of the road. He writes to his wife Elisabeth: “ I have stayed with a Swiss ex-diva…, I have dined with a man who knew Butch Cassidy…, 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 visited a poet –hermit … etc etc”. He finishes with” there is a fantastic amount of stuff for a book”

Not surprisingly, the lonely trip at moments also confronted Chatwin with himself.

Somewhere in the book, Chatwin’s, borrowing a ride on a truck, suddenly sees a person standing at the side of the road. It appears as if Chatwin has a vision of himself: An androgyne angel at the end of the world

“The landscape was empty…At the foot of a telegraph pole we saw a single standing figure. He had blond hair and was travelling south. The hair flipped over his face and he flipped it back with a shake of his head. His body was soft and girlish”..

“He had been one of the original Flower children in the Haight – Ashbury district of San Francisco. Once, when he was hungry, he had picked up a half eaten Hershey bar off the sidewalk of
Haight Street. This incident had printed itself on his memory and he mentioned it a number of times”

One cannot but be reminded of Truman Capote’s alter ego,  P.B. Jones, the “Hershey bar whore”. Chatwin had without doubt read Capote’s infamous installment "La Cote Basque", a chapter of the unfinished novel “Answered Prayers”, which had been published in 1975 in Esquire magazine. P.B. Jones, Capote's dark fictive doppelganger, works as a male prostitute to finance a promising first novel.

Even far away from the people he knew, Chatwin, was to remain very insecure about his homosexuality and when the Ukrainian legless woman doctor he meets along the road, starts raving about Western decadence, it’s toleration of disgusting homosexuality, Bruce dares not to confront her and admits so privately in his diary.


For all its merits, the “journal” part of Chatwin,s book only makes up a quarter of the written pages. And it is not that content that would lure hordes of backpack travelers from around the world, trying to retrace his steps and turn “In Patagonia” into the cult book it would soon become.

Still an important creative process had to be done

Back in the States, by the 5th of May 1975, Bruce knew he had his subject and enough notes to turn into a new book. Chatwin had lost his job in the meantime but the freedom suited him well. He immediately went to work. To avoid distraction, he rented a quiet place, a house on a private island off the Connecticut coast. He was still writing when he returned to England on the Queen Elisabeth II. And he moved in November to an isolated cottage in Bonnieux in France where he was able to finish his work at last.


In the process of writing his book, Chatwin mixed the factual elements of his journey with a number of other writings. Chunks of Milward’s journal for instance, of which he had copied whole chapters. More surprisingly there is a whole piece of Americana: the legend of Butch Cassidy and his Hole in the Wall gang cronies. Butch Cassidy was still “hot” in those days after the George Hill movie of 1969 starring Paul Newman en Robert Redford. People were  fascinated by the mystery surrounding the final days of Cassidy and the Sundance kid. Chatwin had planned a piece on it for the “Sunday Times” but they had refused it and he incorporated the pages in his book. There was a tentative connection because Chatwin visited a log cabin belonging to “the Nortamericanos” from where, rumors said, Butch Cassidy had continued his operations in Patagonia. Chatwin also added pieces describing communist revolts, the extermination of the Patagonian Indians by the whites, Darwin and other explorers excursions..

In the end the book looked like nothing that had been done before. It certainly did not look like a travel journal to Patagonia.

Chatwin explained later to the critics that he had wanted to write:

“a modern Wonder voyage: the piece of Brontosaurus is the essential ingredient of the quest. Patagonia, as the farthest place man walked from his origins on foot, is a symbol as well as a country”

and he added:

“I think the photographs were a mistake. [They gave the impression that “In Patagonia” was a travel guide] If it gets reprinted I am going to have them out” 

In fact no early critic or reader had recognized that Wonder voyage theme. People on the contrary were puzzled by the form. It was compared to a mosaic, a tapestry, a jigsaw, a collage.

It looked as if he had chopped up the 200 pages in 95 chapters to give the book an appearance of a genuine journal, like Robert Byron had done before him, something like a chapter a day,  a collection of rough unedited travel notes.

Nicholas Shakespeare compared “In Patagonia” with a “ Cabinet of curiosities”, interesting strange bits and pieces collected and presented to the curious.

Chatwin explained how he went to work. He saw himself as a sort of literary Cartier – Bresson “ going SNAP, like that, each chapter was supposed to be a take...” Nicholas Shakespeare explains in his biography how this comparaison is instructive. Like Cartier – Bresson, known for taking pictures at the decisive moment, Chatwin would seek for the same unique moment when everything was in balance and would put it down on paper.

Each chapter is a quick snaphot of the ordinary people he met while walking down Patagonia. Unlike Cartier – Bresson, Chatwin did not ask permission to take the picture and he would manipulate them, sometimes beyond recognition in his secret darkroom.


People at Sotheby remembered Chatwin’s talent, when describing pieces of art, to look for the awkward, the strange, the exotic detail, the story behind the objects, the people, even the stories behind stories to enhance the value of what was usually described quite dryly.

He did it so well, that they called this turning of a dry object into a must-have unique masterpiece, as “Doing a Bruce”.

And that is what he did. Chatwin “did a Bruce” all over again.

In the book, the Ukrainian doctor he meets reads Osip Mandelstham and Akhmatova but in reality she was plainer in her choice of books. She read Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle, Nicholas Shakespeare corrects.
Same thing happens with Senora Eberhard who sits in an ordinary stainless steel chair when she meets Chatwin and not in a Mies van der Rohe design,.

Quite innocent “enjoliments” but others are bad enough:

With few exceptions, most people were infuriated when they recognized themselves in Chatwin’s book. Or rather they did not recognize themselves in the awkward grotesque portraits Chatwin had painted.

Bruce suggested for instance that Enrique’s friend Edmundo, Euan in the book, was more than just a friend. For years, Edmundo would be bothered by other travelers, Chatwin’s book in hand, assuming intimate knowledge of him, asking him personal questions.

On three matters, the appearance of “In Patagonia” even had the whiff of a scandal. A Family scandal !

When Monica Barnett, the cousin Chatwin was so indebted to, started to read “In Patagonia”, which Bruce had so graciously send her, she was absolutely shocked and horrified at what she read.

Chatwin had in his description of what had happened to her mother, clearly written that she had been raped by her employer. Barnett immediately stated in a letter to Chatwin’s parent that she had told this story to Bruce but had begged him not to tell it further, let alone write it down. Jonathan Cape also received a letter from Barnett :

“This paragraph is full of conjuncture and half truths and quite clearly impugns the honor of both my parents”

Barnett also objected to a footnote mentioning the circumstances of bankruptcy and imprisonment of Chatwin’s and her great grandfather. Again Chatwin had transgressed the borders by mentioning the unmentionable.

Last but not least was a matter of copyright. Barnett accused Chatwin of having stolen whole chunks out of her father’s journal. Indeed chapters 73 75 and 86 were copied with minor alterations as where the slightly adapted chapters 72 to 85.

Bruce sincerely apologized and made the editors correct all subsequent editions.

The books, Chatwin, admitted to be indebted to, are also interesting to understand what he wanted to do, or who he wanted to resemble.

Chatwin mentioned Isaac Babel, Edmund Wilson with his “ Black Brown Red and Olive”, Gaylord Simpson’s “Attending Marvels” but most of all the Babur- Nama. He especially liked the qualities of Mughal pictures: extraordinary portraiture, very deep and psychological, superb technically, with all sorts of enrichment. It sounds a bit like a “In Patagonia” blurb

In his rucksack Chatwin carried Osip Mandelstam’s “Journey to Armenia”. He admitted that Mandelstam,     “ the shaman and seer of his time”, was one of his literary gods. Some details of descriptions of people “in Patagonia” were copied from Mandelstam by Chatwin, probably unintentionally.

“All writers are cribbers” said his editor.

Like it or not, the other book in the rucksack was Hemingway’s short stories.


It took Chatwin about a year to finish his book but this time he did finish it and in the first week of August 1976 he could submit the 350 page thick manuscript, titled “ A piece of Brontosaurus” to his surprised agent Deborah Rogers. This time he had kept silent about his work. Rogers and Tom Maschler, the head of Jonathan Cape, were still expecting a new version of “ The Nomadic Alternative”, the book Chatwin was trying to finish.

They found an altogether different book, not only different of his previous attempt, but as his agent Deborah Rogers said “extraordinary and like nothing else she had ever read”.

It was not perfect and it needed editing, but she send the manuscript, “after a first exalted reading”, to Tom Maschler. She asked him to give it at a try, because she was sure that Chatwin would write more good books in the future.
Maschler, too, was impressed. It was he said, “one of the ten most exciting events in his publishing career”. The title had to been changed. Chatwin suggested, Mandelstam in mind, “At the end: a journey to Patagonia”.
Maschler send the manuscript to Susannah Clap, one of the editors of Jonathan Cape. Together with Clap, Bruce reduced the manuscript to two hundred pages. Clapp was surprised how Chatwin on her simple advice could tear out whole sections without any comment and then come back with another dozen of freshly written pages. She had some difficulty to find a general logical thread in the work. It was “ a series of exquisite cameos without a central drive”. The title was shortened to “In Patagonia”. The road to market took about a year and Chatwin’s first book could finally be distributed throughout Britain on the 13th of October 1977.

It was indeed like nothing, readers and critics alike, had ever seen.


The peculiarity of a first edition is of course that it is not tainted by the reaction of critics and first readers and indeed, when you compare the first to the later editions, you see that Chatwin had managed to change, delete or amended certain lines as he had promised. For the first American edition he took out the pictures but they have since been back in all new pocket editions.

Reception was in general very positive but reading the appreciations, Chatwin, happy enough with his achievement, felt a bit misunderstood. Nobody had seen the theme of the “Wonder voyage” between the patchwork of his 95 chapters and in the blurbs of the subsequent pocket editions, he would make sure that the readers would not miss this point.

“In Patagonia” is obviously not much of a travel book. It’s main attraction lies in the storytelling. 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.

As such Chatwin becomes a symbol of absolute freedom. Freedom to travel wherever we want, to experience whatever we feel like,  to think and to act the way we want. A privilege of the young, living in a generation of opulence.
With his erudition, he constantly points at other subjects, presents other thinking paths, introduces new people. It is like sitting with someone well travelled, well read, eloquent and who is because of this unique combination a charming and entertaining guest.

Wild, wicked and never boring.

“Bruce Chatwin” by Nicholas Shakespeare
“Under the sun, the letters of Bruce Chatwin” by Elisabeth Chatwin & Nicholas Shakespeare