In one sense, In Patagonia is a true-life adventure story: one man’s quest for a monster. As a boy, Bruce Chatwin spied a piece of dinosaur skin in his grandmother’s glass cabinet. Years later, with the skin thrown out following her death, he travels to Patagonia – ‘the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origin’ - to find a replacement and uncover the story of how his grandmother’s cousin, Charley Milward, came upon the original.
But In Patagonia is not a simple book, despite its pared-down style. Through 97 short chapters – some as brief as a few hundred words – Chatwin makes a sometimes elliptical journey through Patagonia, the southernmost part of Argentina and Chile, once the preserve of dinosaurs, then nomadic Indians, and finally 19th century white settlers.
He meets many of the descendants of those men and women who came seeking a better life. He takes literary snapshots of their thoughts. He travels back in time with the great explorers: Magellan, Cavendish, Darwin. And he gives voice to the more obscure: the French lawyer who laid claim to the unrecognised Kingdom of Araucania; the fantasist Henri Grien who hitched a ride on Milward’s ship and reinvented himself as Louis de Rougemont. He describes Fuegian Jemmy Button’s enforced introduction into English society and his fateful return to South America; Butch Cassidy’s retreat into the foothills of the Andes. He meets a witness to the Anarchist Antonio Soto’s part in the death of hundreds of men at the ranch La Anita; he portrays the Nazi inventor of the mobile gas chambers wandering lonely on a beach in Chile; he explains the folklore behind the Patagonian Giants; and he explores the myth of the enchanted Trapalanda, City of the Caesars.
In Patagonia is a travelogue in the sense that Chatwin describes the landscape, the wildlife, and the people he meets. But its erratic motion and frequent flights back and forth through history make it as hard to summarise as it is to categorise. In the end it's perhaps best to describe it as not just an account of a journey, but a philosophy of all journeys, an investigation into the impulse to travel.
Eventually Chatwin arrives at the end of the farthest place to which man can walk and gets to tell Charley Milward’s full story: sea tales from his unpublished journals, his shipwreck, his time as British Consul at Punta Arenas, his journey back to England, and his later return to Patagonia as a ruined but honourable man. Chatwin visits the cave where Charley found his dinosaur skin; and putting his hand in a crevice, he retrieves a tiny piece of his own.