in Patagonia



Commentary on Bruce Chatwin's Book

At the end of the 1920s, on one of his constant trips to Brazil, the French-Swiss writer Blaise Cendras (1887-1961), a keen observer, wrote with humor about São Paulo. He said that “Here the League of Silence is not known / As in all new countries / The joy of living and earning money is expressed in the sound of horns and in the farting of open exhaust pipes” (“Electric horns”, in Du Monde Entier au Coeur du Monde).

Writer and journalist Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989), in his book in Patagonia, uses as an epigraph two small verses from the same Cendras, contained in Trans-Siberian Prose, which summarize with rare happiness what a good part of the region is: “Patagonia, only Patagonia / It suits my immense sadness”.

Lover of traveling around the world, from 1968 the Englishman Chatwin traveled the immense distance that separates Afghanistan from Mauritania, studying nomadic peoples. In 1970 he curated the exhibition “The Animal Style”, held at the Asia Society in New York. From 1972 to 1975 he worked at the English newspaper The Sunday Times. The original edition of in Patagonia is from 1977 and became a bestseller, winning the Hawthorden Award (1978) and the EM Forster Award, from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1979).

He then published several other books, some of them translated into Portuguese: The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) – novel that inspired the film “Cobra Verde” by Werner Herzog; The Black Hill Twins (1982) – film: “On the Black Hill”, directed by Andrew Grieve –; the nomadic corner (1987); utz (1988) – film “Utz”, directed by George Sluizer -; What am I doing here? (1989) Photographs and Notebooks (1993); Anatomy of wandering – various writings (1997) and Winding Phats (1998). He has also received several other awards for his writings.

in Patagonia is a travel report and 97 small chapters, which rarely exceed three pages each, about Chatwin's wanderings (by bus, train, boat, car, truck, on foot) through the region, that is, the territory located between the Rio Negro and Tierra del Fuego. He started his trip to Argentina (later passing through Chile) in 1974, not the most peaceful time to walk around the southern cone.

His judgment on Buenos Aires is caustic: “At all times, the city reminded me of Russia: the secret police cars with their antennas; the wide-hipped women licking ice cream in dusty parks; the same apotheotic statues, the architecture of a wedding cake, the same avenues that weren't quite straight, giving the illusion of infinite space and leading nowhere. It was rather Tsarist Russia than Soviet Russia…” (p. 13).

The next stop was the university city of La Plata, to visit the best Museum of Natural History in South America. Despite acknowledging that most of the graffiti on the walls of La Plata were imitations of May 1968, he is attracted by some: “If Evita were alive, she would be montonera”; “Death to the English Pirates”; “Isabel Perón or Death”; “The best intellectual is a dead intellectual.”

He returned to Buenos Aires and took a night bus towards Patagonia. From there, his narrative goes from the present to the past (and vice versa), approaching historical and geographical aspects of the region, as well as tracking the participation of human beings in the events. After the publication of the book, residents of Patagonia ended up contradicting several events described by Chatwin, claiming that many conversations and characters described were fictionalized – it would not be the last time that this would happen.

A little before Bahía Blanca, Chatwin arrives at a village where some English and Italian farms are located, dedicated to the raising of Jersey cattle and sheep. From there he goes to Bahía Blanca, “the last great center before the Patagonian desert” (p. 23). The bus crosses the bridge over the Rio Negro, which at the end of the year becomes voluminous due to the melting snow that came from the Andes. This desert is not made of sand or pebbles, “but of low, thorny bushes with gray leaves, which give off a bitter smell when crushed” (p. 24).

Around 1860, the Rio Negro was the northern border of an unusual kingdom, which even today maintains a court in exile in Paris: the Kingdom of Araucania and Patagonia, whose first sovereign was a 33-year-old Freemason lawyer, Orélie -Antoine de Tounens, born in Périgueux (France).

The American Indians and the Patagonians accepted his reign and, thus, Orélie-Antoine “signed a document annexing all of South America, from 42 degrees of latitude to Cape Horn” (p. 27). The unfortunate sovereign was arrested in Chile and released months later thanks to the action of the French consul, who took him on a war vessel from his country. After some frustrated attempts to cross the Cordillera, he ended up dying in 1878 in the village of Tourtoirac, where he lived with a nephew who was a butcher, working as a lamplighter. The other kings of Araucania and Patagonia, he says, are still active and dreamers, but without the slightest possibility of reigning.

The author heads south, arriving at Puerto Madryn where, in 1865, 153 Welsh colonists disembarked in search of a New Wales, refugees from the exhausted coal valleys and the failure of the independence movement, among other reasons. The Argentine government granted them land along the Chubut River. Chatwin travels through the villages of Gaimán (“the center of Welsh Patagonia today”), Bethesda, Esquel and Travelin. Then he walks to the north of Esquel, village of Epuyen, a colony of Christian Arabs. His next stop was Cholila, “a town close to the Chilean border, where gunslingers Robert Leroy Parker, Harry Longabaugh and the beautiful Etta Place – or, to quote their best-known names, Butch Cassisy, lived for years at the beginning of the century. Sundance Kid and teacher Etta, companion of both.

They lived locally, fleeing the US, and used Cholila as their base for five years, undisturbed. As a detective, Chatwin goes after residents of the region, relatives and contemporaries of the romantic gunmen, scouring notebooks and family notes, putting together alternative versions of the classic version of their deaths in San Vicente, Bolivia, in 1909.

According to some witnesses, Butch was still alive in 1915, taking guns to Pancho Villa in Mexico, or mining with Wyatt Eart in Alaska, or touring the West in a Model T Ford, visiting old girlfriends. His sister, a lady in her 90s, swears he went back and ate strawberry pie with the family in the fall of 1925, dying of pneumonia in Washington state in the late 30s. there were not a few who witnessed his death in an eastern city, where he would have been a retired railroad engineer with two married daughters. Further on, on another stopover on his trip, in Rio Pico, Chatwin raises the possibility that at least the Sundance Kid was killed and buried in this city.

Arroyo Pescado, Rio Pico (once the German colony Nueva Germania) and Las Pampas are visited, and then Sarmiento, where he meets many Boers, descendants of hardline Afrikaners who emigrated to Patagonia in 1903. “they lived in the fear of the Lord … and swore on the Dutch Reformed Bible … their daughters had to go to the kitchen if a Latino entered the house” (p. 81).

Chatwin walks through Comodoro Rivadavia, Perito Moreno, Lago Blanco, Arroyo Feo, Lago Posadas, Paso Roballos and returns to the coast, arriving at Puerto Deseado and passing through three other cities: San Julián, Puerto Santa Cruz and Río Gallegos. As you go down the coast, the vegetation becomes greener, the farms where sheep are raised richer and the British more numerous. They are direct descendants of those who besieged the lands in the 1890s, many of whom were “Kelpers” from the Falkland Islands (Malvinas).

Today the farms are almost on the verge of bankruptcy, but they are well maintained. Sheep farming was introduced to Patagonia in 1877, when a merchant from Punta Arenas (Chile) brought a flock from the Falklands and took them to graze on Elizabeth Island, in the strait. “The sheep multiplied prodigiously, and other traders took advantage of the cue” (p. 104-105).

Several pages are devoted to Antonio Soto, leader of the anarchist rebellion against the estancia owners in 1920-21; walks around Tierra del Fuego, talks about the Ona, Hausth, Alakaluf and Yaghan (or Yamana) Indians, and also about the voyages of Darwin and Fitz Roy, who returned to England in October 1836.

Visit Cabo Vírgenes, Río Grande, Ushuaia (“the southernmost city in the world”, p. 136), Puerto Williams, Harberton and Almanza. He then goes to Porvenir, in Chile, where he takes the ferry to Punta Arenas, the city that elected Salvador Allien as deputy. It was also there that Charley Milward lived, his grandmother's cousin, who maintained a repair shipyard and a foundry on the site – on pages 163-195, Chatwin tells the story of “cousin Charley“, one of the highlights of the book.

The narrator takes a ride in an air taxi bound for Dawson Island, as he “wanted to see the concentration camp where the ministers of the Allende regime were confined, but the soldiers prevented me from leaving the plane” (p. 195). From there it goes to Puerto Natales and then to Puerto Consuelo, returning to Punta Arenas. For a week he waited at the Hotel Residencial Ritz, with the curfew in full effect, for the arrival of the steamer that would take him from Patagonia.

Bruce Chatwin engages with the people and landscapes of Patagonia, with the desert, with the emptiness and silence. In a light, humorous and sometimes incisive style, he scours the region in search of explanations, trying to make sense of the varied range of fragments he collects from the Welsh, from South African farmers, from the French and Germans, from Russian emigrants, to Indians, Argentines and Chileans, among others. The few photos in the book reaffirm a scenario of desolation and emptiness, in which man is fully integrated, trying to survive and be happy in his own way.

Perhaps it is for no other reason that Chatwin wrote, on the last page, that “in the paneled saloon (of the ship that took him across the Pacific) we drank with the employees of a kaolin mine, whom the steamer would leave one of these nights. , on his white island, devoid of women, in the middle of the sea” (p. 218) – the Big Island of Chiloé [1].

*Afranio Catani is a retired professor at USP and visiting professor at UFF.


Bruce Chatwin. in Patagonia. Translated by Carlos Eugênio Marcondes de Moura. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 1988.


[1] This article is a shortened version of the review published in “Caderno de Sabado”, by the extinct Jornal da Tarde, on May 7, 1988.

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