Bruce Chatwin begins his book about travelling to Patagonia with the ostensive reason for his trip. It is esoteric, personal, verging on the fetishistic: a scrap of giant sloth skin, brought back from Patagonia by his Uncle Charley and preserved in a cabinet in his grandmother’s home in Birmingham, ‘thick and leathery, with strands of coarse, reddish hair.’ Chatwin was obsessed – ‘Never in my life have I wanted anything as I wanted that piece of skin’ – and developed a further obsession with the place it had come from. I first read In Patagonia two years before travelling there for my own reasons. The place was hazy in my mind then. I knew where it was, more or less, but basically thought of it as a cipher for the remote: the horizon line on those t-shirts marketed on far-flung adventure; the vast, generic distance Melville summons with the phrase ‘a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds’; the place Iris Murdoch was talking about when she said bad reviews made as much difference to her as whether it was raining in Patagonia.
I didn’t finish In Patagonia with a substantially clearer picture. Instead of presenting a full account or even a continuous journey, it’s a book of pieces: short, gnomic chapters formed of blunt, unusual observations. It follows Chatwin’s trip south through Patagonia in the 1970s but takes ample digressions into the lives of people he meets there, into mythology, natural history, literature, botany, anthropology and anecdote. There are sections theorising the source of Coleridge’s ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and the fate of Butch Cassidy’s gang. Patagonia is the connective tissue but it’s a book of brilliant distractions.
From the sloth skin onwards, In Patagonia is built around scraps and surfaces. Chatwin’s descriptions are precise accretions of colour and texture: ‘grey dough clung to her hands. Her blood-red nails were cracked and chipped’; ‘the wind blew in sideways and coated the flowers and the bronze with white dust’; ‘They were […] separated from the red river by a red granite balustrade.’; ‘a brick-red sunset’; ‘a green restaurant’. Chatwin reports on the people, buildings and environments he encounters with the same hard-staring reportage of their exteriors. This kind of writing becomes a compacted surface in itself.
Altogether, reading it wasn’t unlike like looking through someone’s holiday photos: intriguing but opaque, sometimes capturing straightforwardly spectacular sights, other times labouring over subjects of personal and obscure interest, occasionally overwrought in their composition, and at times inadvertently confessional, seeming to reveal something more, though still something mysterious, about the photographer than the place in front of the lens.
We take pictures to remember the places we’ve been. Or do we go travelling to take photos? When I went to Patagonia it was with the express intention of making a film. There were four of us, friends planning to become collaborators, and we left Buenos Aires with backpacks stacked tall with recording equipment – tripods, microphones, a video camera bought on credit card, small- and medium-format film cameras, all wrapped in T-shirts and socks. The January air was hot and close, and the south of the country beyond the city – the gigantic sur – existed as a whisper of possibility in the stacks of fleeces for sale at markets, in the pictures of glaciers on calendars at the backs of bars.
We took a bus to Puerto Madryn, on the east coast of the province of Chubut: the first stop on a long and improvised journey. Patagonia isn’t a strictly defined geographical area, but rather the southern extents of Argentina and Chile, beginning somewhere around the Colorado and Barrancas rivers and ending at the South Atlantic after Tierra del Fuego. It is dominated by steppe-like plains of dry shingle populated by guanacos and sheep, small towns and large farms. It covers over a million square kilometres, with an average of just under two people for each. The country was wide open and so were the months ahead.
We drove all day through the pampas, and then it was night. I always sleep well on hard-seated buses, with their mysterious stops which scoop you out of sleep and drop you back in. At dawn we were crossing low hills. After some blank, unsubscribed billboards, Puerto Madryn appeared, shut in by the plain on three sides and staring out to the Atlantic.
Our plan was to make a documentary. We didn’t have a narrative or agenda in mind but were ready for something to arise from the dry land, naturally and irresistibly. Between us we imagined it variously as observational, abstract, historical and investigative. Somewhere in my mind were Chatwin and all his distractions. All you needed to do, his book seemed to indicate, was to leave the house, climb on a night bus or stick your thumb out into the Ruta 40 in order to encounter a surplus of novelty and strangeness.
I didn’t expect Puerto Madryn to be the destination it was, with semi-grand restaurants and agencies offering trips out to see the sea life. The beach was huge, sinewed with seaweed and stretching out to an impossibly far tide. We walked around town, filmed some of the statues along the shore, photographed a diorama of the migratory patterns of southern right whales. We rented bikes and cycled down the gravelly coast, puncturing three tyres between us, to look over the cliff at the golden-bellied sea lions beside the dark sea and film orange jellyfish cresting the waves. Nothing we were doing was entirely indistinguishable from tourism.
Back at our hostel, the owner gave us black coffee and the number of the president of the local Welsh society. In 1865, 153 Welsh colonists arrived in Puerto Madryn, escaping the British government’s hostility to Welsh language and culture. They had their fights and their accords with the Aónikenk, or Tehuelche, people who they found there, but were not ambitious colonists. Today, Welsh teahouses and museums are key visitor attractions in Chubut. As visitors, it followed that we should be interested. When we visited in the late afternoon, the president unlocked the community centre and told us about their activities. We filmed the empty building with its vocabulary posters, hand-drawn flags, and trestle tables. She mentioned a language class being held in the Museo del Desembarco on the other side of Golfo Nuevo bay. When we arrived, a choir was singing Welsh hymns. The sun was setting and the sky was like petrol over the town. We set up and filmed the class, who smiled patiently and returned to their song sheets. Then we walked back down the enormous coast, feeling auspicious.
Much of the first part of Chatwin’s book deals with the history and present of Welsh Patagonia. He recounts the colonists’ arrival, visits a series of ‘bright and weatherbeaten’ families, and spends Christmas with the Davies family on Ty-Ysaf farm. The surrealness of a Welsh teahouse in the middle of the South American desert is emblematic of the kind of minor-key oddity, dense with history and inflected with the possibility of camp, to which Chatwin is drawn for the remainder of the book. As a rule, he is interested in outsiders, visitors, and exiles: Californian hippies, Neapolitan hoteliers, Boer farmers, Scottish estancieros, Russian biologists. This focus is partly deliberate – the more or less declared themes of the book are exile and restlessness – and partly feels instinctive; there is a resonance between the author’s jarring presence in Patagonia and his subjects’.
Chatwin comes in a lineage of travellers formed in the colonial myths of empty lands and heroic conquest. Many men before him (and since) have written about stomping alone through places far away from England, displaying hardiness, wit, erudition and capability. Chatwin seems to both epitomise this tradition and represent the point at which it begins to denature. His travel books are oblique appraisals, somewhere between parody and homage, of the tropes of the terra nullis and the lone adventurer. He is drawn to Patagonia, and later to central Australia in The Songlines, as huge and apparently vacant lands, but characterises both as not, after all, empty. Chatwin writes about the Indigenous populations of Patagonia and Australia with a contradictory mixture of sympathy and disdain, reverence and infantilisation. The Songlines is particularly relentless in this respect, comprising a widely disputed and criticised crib-sheet for Indigenous Australian culture and beliefs, whose tone of mediating explication felt outdated even when it was first published. Chatwin may write about them erroneously – to say nothing of offensively – but Indigenous populations are always pivotal to his accounts. His exiles’ colonial dreams are offset and made surreal or ridiculous by the longer history of Patagonia, its land and its people. In Patagonia contends with an inhabited place, and Chatwin always relishes the incongruence, articulated with varying degrees of condemnation and condescension, between fantasy and reality.
At the University of Patagonia in Puerto Madryn, we interviewed a palaeontologist who relayed the cosy, frictionless account of Welsh colonisation we heard several times, one that might have been accurate but like any potted history of displacement and settlement felt thin in the telling. The extremity of contrasts wound into this story is an alluring subject for any visitor, never mind would-be filmmakers. In Gaiman we filmed a retired headmistress who spoke English with a perfect Welsh accent and had lived in the small town for ninety years, apart from two studying in Buenos Aires and one in Swansea. The dissonance entailed imperialism is often a tourist attraction – just think of the celebration of colonial architecture in guidebooks. Its surrealness is a valid thing for Chatwin to highlight, especially when so much imperial rhetoric, as critics like Ariella Azoulay explore, depends on asserting a kind of realism – on characterising colonial presence as not just unbizarre but proper or even inevitable, using documents such as photographs to categorise people and places while claiming to depict an objective reality. But the distinction between oddness and violence in this strangeness, and the line between observing and indulging it, cannot be innocently overlooked.
We went on to Trelew. Many of these towns have grown since Chatwin’s visit, but his repeated description of them as ‘dusty grids’ holds. Trelew offered none of the more amenable get-outs of Puerto Madryn, with the exception of a dinosaur museum, which was shut. Even the reliably optimistic Lonely Planet currently describes it as ‘uneventful’. We stayed in a towering hotel in a room overlooking the lift shaft. Our second day was spent by the still, dirty lake, strangely dense with geese, waiting for the evening, when a bus was going west. My experience of Trelew was so featureless that I struggle to write about it, partly, I think, because in a sense I was already writing about it while I was there, seeking to metabolise the dazzling boredom.
Travelling is full of these dissatisfactions: the necessary waits, the mistakes and frustrations, the misgivings. After I returned from Patagonia, and discovered a vaguely embarrassing interest in Chatwin possessing me, I read about of some of the practicalities which In Patagonia inevitably skips over: ‘the immense boredom, the inertia of waiting’ Chatwin confesses to in his letters home; his dismay at being ‘150 miles from the nearest lettuce’. Through writing, such experiences can be transformed into a narrative turn, or a joke, or better yet vanished altogether.
Going far from home involves a loss of your usual contexts and company that loosens your grip on your self; it follows that, even without deliberate exaggeration or fabrication, writing about your travels is an opportunity to reinvent yourself. Chatwin was interested in this impulse even he was subject to it. If he documents dozens of self-styled exiles, his books equally represent a work of expert self-presentation. Chatwin was an obsessive performer and flamboyant raconteur, a notorious seducer of men and women, a profligate artificer, an avid collector. He began his career at Sotheby’s, showing an unerring eye for priceless paintings hidden in the homes of unsuspecting pensioners. He wrote five books that earned him a cult following, tried and failed to write a magnum opus on the essential restlessness of the human condition titled The Nomadic Alternative, bounded around the world making outlandish acquaintances and sleeping with many of them, and propagated countless myths about himself. He died of AIDS aged forty-eight (only twelve years after the publication of In Patagonia, his debut), insisting his disease was a vanishingly rare Chinese fungal infection.
Not much about this unruly character resembles the protagonist of In Patagonia. The opening gambit about the sloth skin turns out to be a tightly controlled set-up for a narrator who is terse, acerbic, and unshowy to the point of invisibility. Chatwin’s editor Susannah Clapp recalls how he relentlessly cut the ‘reaction shots’ from In Patagonia – excising evocations of his own feelings and responses as a narrator to leave what appears as untethered observation. Where his voice does appear, it is often precisely, paradoxically, to disclaim authorial intervention. A phrase quoted from his Uncle Charley’s notebooks might be the model for this whole, ingenious pose: ‘I do not attempt to explain this … I only state what happened.’ This gesture of calculated reticence, posing as modesty, concealing its manipulations, quintessentially English, is echoed in an addendum to In Patagonia written for Granta, which describes a series of eery coincidences and ends, simply: ‘I too am mystified by this story.’ Both turns of phrase remind me of a line from Cervantes that we heard several times in Patagonia: ‘Yo no creo en las brujas, pero que las hay, las hay’ – ‘I don’t believe in witches, but if they’re there, they’re there’.
In In Patagonia, Chatwin’s self-invention is achieved through absence and omission rather than assertion. The few facts we do get are selective. They tend to come posing as incidental detail – a glancing reference to a single leather rucksack, evoking a light, ascetic traveller – or through interactions with others – showing a Welsh Patagonian where their ancestors’ town is located on a tea-towel map, suggesting lightly-worn erudition (in the less controlled The Songlines, he even has someone even remark to him ‘I see you’ve done your reading’). In fact, accounts in his biography testify to Chatwin travelling with forty kilos of extra baggage including flannel pyjamas; in Tierra del Fuego, one of his characters remembered him as ‘the chap who brought his own cereal’ on account of the muesli he carried wherever he went. One passage in The Songlines about him coolly erecting a hammock to avoid snakes while his companions are hysterical with fear turns out to be an exact inversion of real events.
As in his descriptions of others and of the world, Chatwin gives us the outward facts – economical truths – and leaves us to speculate at their interiors. His feel for surface and texture can directly coincide with this tactic of self-fabulation – take this description of time spent in Central Africa from The Songlines: ‘I slept in black tents, blue tents, skin tents, yurts of felt and windbreaks of thorns.’ You can only imagine what went on behind those facades, the insouciant, inveterate traveller they housed.
Pull on these few loose threads in the otherwise taut surface, and the complex, unruly self behind it comes hazily into view. Chatwin said he wanted In Patagonia to be a book of Cartier-Bresson-like snapshots, capturing ‘decisive moments’. Whatever Chatwin’s wishes, his scenes are not often ‘decisive’. Instead they are quivering, ambiguously emotive, insinuating, and incomplete. Like a photograph, his prose deals in pure appearances, but, also like a photograph, it suggests a mediating, coercive hand behind it. Chatwin’s own photographs – some of which are printed in the middle of In Patagonia, while others were published posthumously – display a recognisable descriptive eye, capturing bright and tightly cropped assemblages of corrugated iron, hide, tarpaulin, wood, paint. Like his prose, they are less reminiscent of Cartier-Bresson than they are the abstract expressionist paintings of Chatwin’s friend Howard Hodgkin, which Chatwin described with the lucid precision of someone inadvertently recognising themselves: ‘brilliantly coloured and basically autobiographical … done both with bravura and with anxiety.’ The brilliant surface of Chatwin’s prose finally betrays the act of concealment it involves.
I think the film fell apart at the bottom of a hill in Esquel. There was a dog lying under a tree there, and each time a car came over the hill it would get up and bark at the car until it had descended and turned the corner into town. Then it would settle back into its crossed paws in the dust. A car came every five minutes or so, and Andy wanted to get a long shot of the dog rising and falling. We had spent all afternoon trudging around up in the hills. I was waiting for Andy to finish shooting. I remember, at once, admiring his lack of impatience, his ability to stop and get the shot even when bone-tired and desperate for a shower or a beer, and realising I had been doing too much waiting for him for too long.
Travelling for months on end in a faraway place is enough to acid-rinse a friendship. But the project’s disintegration also coincided, pretty exactly, with the transformation of our surroundings. We had gone to Esquel following the promise of more mountains, more greenness, and moving south from there the landscape only became more unequivocally astonishing. I kept taking photographs. Zach kept writing. Frank kept filming, so did Andy. But we had found some other kind of reason to be on the road. Now, I’m not sure if setting out to make a film was an accidentally honest acknowledgement of the extent to which our impulse to travel was propelled by wanting to record and recall it – by the picture of future reflection – or if it was an excuse, an evasion of some other drive, less easy or comfortable to recognise.
We stomped happily around national parks, squinted at hulking, opaque glaciers, slept in yellow tents, camped in a valley beside a half-flooded village, ate ceviche and roast lamb when we got back to town. In Rio Gallegos, we waited for a day to change buses. In the evening I sat on my bag in the bus depot as the streetlights came on. Very far away were my warring family, the job I had left, someone I was realising I had fallen in love with. I read the thick book I had brought, chosen through a calculation of quality versus space efficiency, and messaged people at home. I ate another foil-wrapped alfajor and dreamt of some non-specific, clear-tasting Japanese food. I thought about when I’d next need to withdraw cash. I had mild gingivitis. I was pleased with a shirt I had bought second-hand and imagined wearing it at home and thinking of the far-off, improbable place I had picked it up.
Punta Arenas is advertised everywhere as the ‘end of the world’. Hotels, bars, and corner shops are all portentously named ‘fin del mundo’. You can feel the aura of finality at the cemetery, an undulating lot of white tombs which faces out to the Strait of Magellan and the last scraps of land before the sea stretches out to Antarctica. This is where the Chilean poet Enrique Lihn described ‘a peace struggling to shatter itself’. Chatwin’s Uncle Charley is buried here, and we found his grave with the help of an attendant who was smoking in the drizzle. Close by was another man, Donald McLeod, who had been born in Stornoway and died in Punta Arenas: a life mapping 58 degrees north to 53 degrees south.
The real exhilaration of finding yourself in a place like Punta Arenas is not, however, to feel yourself in some abstracted idea of place like the world’s end. It’s the feeling that crept up on me in the cemetery, at the Rio Gallegos bus depot, at a closed-down fairground in Esquel, and at a handful other random, precise moments in the preceding months: the awareness of being in a place where people live and die and work and write poems and go for dinner on a Thursday night. It is an awareness not of being at the end of the world so much as the start of it, despite and in tension with your own personal geography.
This is the real kick of travel, I suspect: not a transcendent experience of history or nature or philosophy – the kind a certain type of self-respecting travel book might reach for – but a stark, sticky immanence with the world. If that does entail finding yourself, as the wisdom goes, it would be finding yourself somewhere. You encounter and rediscover yourself by experiencing foreignness as the relational thing it is: this place is foreign (to me); these people are strange (to me). That whispering ‘to me’ is what is missed or evaded in plenty of declarative, domineering travel narratives, not to mention the fabricated objectivity of colonisers’ accounts of vacancy and primitiveness. It is what I sense, possibly unintentionally, behind the hide-like surface of Chatwin’s book.
Similarly, our self sits invisible and necessary behind each photograph we might bring back from our travels. Like a text from which the ‘reaction shots’ are assiduously cut, a stack of photos nonetheless attests to an eye (to an I). The Chatwin that emerges from his biography is an exuberant, sly, tragic character, constantly flitting out of view behind new schemes and performances. He makes a good subject because of this elusiveness. In the end, I find his densely wrought self-construction in writing – teetering thrillingly on the point of collapse – the most indicative expression of his character there is. As in D. W. Winnicott’s description of artists, he is ‘driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide’.
The film we didn’t make would have been an evasive and expressive surface of its own, a parallel narrative that would have sat alongside the unruliness of several months on the road, casting them into relief and ascribing them purpose. As it is, we have footage sitting on hard drives, stacks of printed photographs, pages of notes, negatives, and various other souvenirs. I have a stack of six-by-four prints here, from the shop in La Lucila where I got my films developed. One of them reminds me of Chatwin’s photos: the sallow front of a corrugated iron house in Puerto Natales. It’s unremarkable, but I like the flat dazzle of its surface, reticent yet revealing, making me wonder about the person who took it. From the dense surfaces of Chatwin’s writing, I hear a similar, unexpected insistence, like a peace struggling to shatter itself: real things happened, and a real person saw them, each maintained all the more persistently by being kept out of reach.
Photograph © Louis Rogers