I am currently most-way through Chatwin’s seminal work, In Patagonia, which I’m reading for Simon at StuckInABook’s #1977Club, the biannual celebration of a particular year in literature. I hope you don’t think it’s too much of a cheat that I’m writing it up before it’s finished…
Travel writing is an interesting one for me because, with a few exceptions, I usually gravitate more to books about places I’ve already been rather than using it as inspiration for future travelling. Maybe it’s a little like wanting to read the book before you see the film, so as not to let someone else’s impressions influence your own too heavily. Although having said that, I love seeking out fictional characters in their ‘real’ locations, so I don’t know. Anyway, I’ve always felt I should read this particular Chatwin because of how important it is to the genre.
Patagonia was a place Chatwin had always wanted to visit and he ‘ran away to South America’ (to quote from his letter to Francis Wyndham) in November 1974, arriving in Patagonia a month later. In so doing, he left his role as staff writer for The Sunday Times to pursue a story that he had always wanted to write. This story eventually became In Patagonia and Chatwin himself described the book as ‘the narrative of an actual journey and a symbolic one’.
In Patagonia is definitely not a conventional travel narrative and I can see why it had the impact it did when it was published, as well as paving the way for some of the travel narratives it inspired. My copy includes an introduction by Chatwin’s biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, who says: ‘…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.’
I can’t think of a better way to describe the book because it really is like a photo album in words not pictures. But somehow the words can’t be pinned down in quite the same way because the impression they create isn’t fixed. It’s more like a mood, which catches you in an instant but is also changeable over time. There aren’t lists of must sees; instead In Patagonia is a elaborate construction of story, impression and – occasionally, by Chatwin’s own admission – embellishment for effect. There are stories from sources Chatwin met along the way, as well as tales he purposely tracked down. It’s not always clear whether some of them are true or not, but that’s not the point. This is very definitely Chatwin’s Patagonia.
Most striking of all is that, despite the many wonderful descriptions of the landscape of Patagonia, this is primarily a book about the people Chatwin met on his travels. This is a land of exiles as well as people who have travelled from one country (sometimes generations before) and recreated it in another. Like Gaiman – a little patch of Wales transplanted to the other side of the world. There’s a sense that many of the characters in the book had their own reasons for coming to Patagonia, and that some are still searching for their promised land.
Not all the ‘snapshots’ land for me but when they do, they shine. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Butch Cassidy, who settled in Patagonia with his share of the spoils from the Winnemucca First National Bank Robbery but refused to consider a quiet retirement. There are also lovely descriptive touches and many arresting images, like this one: ‘The ticket salesman had the face of a private drinker.’ I do struggle a little, however, with Chatwin’s reputation for entwining fact and fiction. Blurring the line in a work of non-fiction, about real people, seems less acceptable than, say, an openly fictionalised account of a real person or event. But then perhaps Chatwin wouldn’t have classed his writing as non-fiction in the conventional sense.
On the whole, I’d say I’m enjoying it, although I’d prefer to read some of his letters next to see how his ‘private’ voice compares to his public one.