One never knows how to classify his books. All that is obvious is that their structure and intentions place them in no known genre. Inspired by a kind of avidity for the undiscovered, they move along a line where the points of demarcation are those strange manifestations and objects of which one cannot say whether they are real, or whether they are among the phantasms generated in our minds from time immemorial. Anthropological and mythological studies in the tradition of Tristes Tropiques, adventure stories looking back to our early childhood reading, collections of facts, dream books, regional novels, examples of lush exoticism, puritanical penance, sweeping baroque vision, self-denial, and personal confession – they are all these things together. It probably does them most justice to see their promiscuity, which breaks the mold of the modernist concept, as a late flowering of those traveler’s tales, going back to Marco Polo, where reality is constantly entering the realm of the metaphysical and miraculous, and the way through the world is taken from the first with an eye fixed on the writer’s own end.
W.G. Sebald could have been describing his own books, but his article The Mystery of the Red-Brown Skin was about Bruce Chatwin. In their own ways, both Bruce Chatwin and Max Sebald were fascinated by history, by travel, by walking, and their books tore down the boundaries between autobiography and fiction. Both perfected the art of wildly digressing, forcing the reader’s attention to careen from topic to topic down their pages like a pinball.
I went back to re-read Chatwin’s In Patagonia in the Penguin Classics edition with Nicholas Shakespeare’s Introduction and fell under the spell again. As with Sebald’s books, the attraction to In Patagonia is slightly sinister because the book is a horrific tale of self-delusion, dishonesty, madness, suicide, and death – all conducted in one of the most dismal climates on the planet. Sebald greatly admired the way in which Chatwin’s obsession for a piece of ancient skin from in his grandmother’s cupboard – skin reputedly, but falsely, attributed to be mastodon flesh – propelled Chatwin on his fabulous quest for its source at the tail end of South America. (It was, in Hitchcockian terms, Chatwin’s MacGuffin.)
As many have remarked, In Patagonia is not even close to being a traditional travel book. Chatwin, in fact, wanted his agent to make sure it wouldn’t be placed in the Travel section of bookstores. Chatwin described In Patagonia as “a symbolic voyage which is a meditation on the restlessness and exile.” He scarcely describes the landscape at all, telling, instead, a series of loosely connected stories about the people he meets. His chapters tend to start like this: “Anselmo told me to go and see the poet. ‘The Maestro,’ he said.” And: “A man I met in Rio Grande passed me on to his cousins who farmed close to the Chilean border.” Chatwin was profoundly attracted to those exiles for whom the home country had become a myth, a myth as powerful as it is indistinct and incorrect. Chatwin’s brilliance, it seems to me, was to be able to nail the personalities in a handful of sentences, and by the end of the book we begin to see the many facets of the colonial mind as it disintegrates during the post-colonial world. For this is what In Patagonia is really about, the pathological kinship between colonialism and self-deception, which we witness through the inability and unwillingness of so many in this book to disentangle themselves from the past. Throughout all of In Patagonia, I think there is only one soul who has “gone native” and come to terms with his adopted country.
Just as the ever-present undercurrent to Sebald’s books was the Nazi-led Holocaust, the recurring theme to In Patagonia is the holocaust that led to the near-extermination of South America’s indigenous peoples – the Alakaluf, the Yaghan, the Onas, the Haush. (Collector that he was, Chatwin specialized in rare words.) In one example Chatwin describes the 1593 voyage of the Desire up the coast of Brazil, and the resulting slaughter of warriors from the Tehuelches and other tribes. During the respite between fighting the natives, the men of the well-named ship Desire take time to club to death 20,000 penguins, determined to return with a hold full of penguin meat. But on shipboard, the penguins carcasses took their revenge, breeding worms that nearly killed every sailor during the return voyage.
As craftsmen, though, Chatwin and Sebald could hardly be more dissimilar. Chatwin’s color-infused, perfunctory sentences are the polar opposite of Sebald’s meandering prose.
As we drove into Esquel, a bush fire was burning on one of the tight brown hills that hemmed in the town. I ate at a green restaurant on the main street. A zinc counter ran the length of the room. At one end a glass vitrine displayed steaks and kidneys and racks of lamb and sausages. The wine was acid and came in pottery penguins. There were hard black hats at every table. The gauchos wore boots creased like concertinas and black bombachas.
The style that Chatwin uses, seemingly straight off the pages of noir, tough-guy writers like Raymond Chandler, is perfectly suited to this book in which the threat of crime and murder lurks continually.
Nicholas Shakespeare writes about the influence of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and his idea of “the decisive moment” on Chatwin, not on Chatwin’s photographs, which are static, overly scenic images of Patagonia safely tucked into a clump of glossy pages in the middle of the book, but on Chatwin’s writing. With razor-sharp incisiveness, Chatwin can drop a decisive image onto the page when one least expects it. In Chapter 84, which is only two paragraphs long, Chatwin attends church in Puntas Arenas, where the minister asks the congregation to pray for General Pinochet, then the head of Chile’s repressive military junta. Here is the second and final paragraph of the chapter in its entirety.
I also met an American lady ornithologist, down here to study the fighting behavior of Darwin’s Rheas. She said the two males locked necks and whirled round in circles: the one who got dizzy first was the loser.
W.G. Sebald’s review of Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Chatwin was first published in German in 2000 in Literaturen, and is translated in Sebald’s anthology Campo Santo.