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||WHEN HE FIRST LAID EYES ON Bruce Chatwins In Patagonia in 1996, Adrian Giménez Hutton had been visiting southern Argentina for more than two decades. I was very impressed with Chatwins narrative style, with his way of mixing fact and fiction, little personal anecdotes with larger histories, said Giménez, a Buenos Aires lawyer and travel writer.
When a friend surprised him by saying that the work was completely fictional, implying that Chatwin had never set foot in Patagonia, Giménez thought it was impossible, that the book must reflect actual experiences. But prompted by his friends declaration, he decided to go see for himself. So on and off over the next couple of years, Giménez jeeped around Patagonia, tracing Chatwins footsteps, visiting towns and estancias where he had been and interviewing the people he had interviewed. Giménezs narrative as he put it, the journal of his journal aptly titled La Patagonia de Chatwin, was published in Argentina in 1998.
Chatwin had ventured to this remote zone of Argentina and Chiles southern latitudes because of the skin of a giant sloth, a mylodon, found in a cave on Last Hope Sound by his grandmothers cousin, Charley Milward, a merchant-ship captain who had settled in Punta Arenas after a shipwreck. Milward had mailed a scrap of the skin back to the family in England, and although it was later lost, Chatwins sight of it black and leathery, with strands of coarse, reddish hair in a cabinet in his grandmothers dining room had lodged in his mind. At least, thats how he recounted it in the opening page of his first book. Elsewhere he added that he had gone to Patagonia to free himself from the strictures of life in London and to realize an unfulfilled desire to be a writer. Above all, he wanted to explore not a place but an idea: nomadism.
Some background on Chatwin
Born in England in 1940, Chatwin studied architecture and made a stab at acting. At age eighteen he joined Sothebys auction house in London where he had a meteoric career, rising from porter to director in a few years. He left Sothebys to study archaeology but soon signed on with the London Sunday Times magazine. Before he died of AIDS in 1989 at age forty-eight, Chatwin had gone on to write three novels and The Songlines (1987), in which he returned to the theme of wandering, recounting his excursion to the real and dream worlds of peripatetic Australian aborigines. (Two collections of his essays and one book of his photographs have been published posthumously.) During his entire life he traveled incessantly to the obvious countries, like Italy and the United States, and the not so obvious, like Afghanistan and Benin. Chatwin was a compulsive mover.
We are all nomads
Susannah Clapp, who edited In Patagonia, writes that nomadism was the biggest of Bruce Chatwins big themes. His friend Salman Rushdie says that Chatwins desire to write the book on nomadism was the burden he[d] been carrying all his writing life.
Chatwin posited that nomadism has been in our DNA from the very beginning that we are instinctively restless. At one point, he declared, All our activities are linked to the idea of journeys. (Lest anyone miss the point, he entitled the essay Its a Nomad Nomad Nomad NOMAD World.) He also suggested that nomads survive because they have an irreverent and timeless vitality. This ideè fixe suffuses In Patagonia, the spiritual warm-up to The Songlines.
In Patagonia portrays individuals at the edge of the earth. (The original title was At the End: A Journey to Patagonia.) Once you get to Argentina, he said, youre pretty well there, arent you. But it was the people, not the landscape, who beckoned Chatwin. His Patagonia was not the wild, distant land of icy mountains and wind-scoured steppes populated by graceful guanacos and cute penguins that adorn Sierra Club calendars. It was the last stop of the roamers, the final destination of ancient indigenes migrating south from the Northern Hemisphere and of a latter-day diaspora Spanish anarchists, Welsh devotees, Boer refugees, and American bandits who arrived in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from around the globe. Chatwin underscored the nationality of the people he met. Whether he named them or not (in a few cases he gave them aliases), he pegged their ethnicity Yugoslav, Galician, Russian, Chilote, Scot, Canary Islander to remind readers of the urge to move, an urge that fevers mankind.