Why Bruce Chatwin Pisses Me Off

I’ve never read In Patagonia.

In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever picked the book up to consider reading it. I don’t know very much about Bruce Chatwin, other than the little that I have gleaned in the gushing elegiacs I’ve read about him over the years when people talk about following his footsteps in Patagonia. This morning, sitting and considering my limited days left here in Patagonia, my stomach turned upon spying a celebration of the 40th anniversary of his book face first in a coffee table magazine.

Many people who decided to embark on their own Patagonian adventure look to his anecdotes, and even more look to recreate some of the magic moments he describes on his journey through this complicated, vast, inhospitable land. I decided to come here at a crucial junction in my life to deepen my understanding of a place that means a lot to me, not to dip into a fabled land with zero contextual knowledge of how to process what I’m seeing, and gird myself for unknown inspiration.

See, Chatwin knew absolutely nothing about Latin America, much less Argentina, Chile, or Patagonia, before he arrived to Buenos Aires. In fact, from what I gathered in the magazine he decided to head to Patagonia after seeing a friend’s map at her apartment in Paris, and ditched an assignment with the Times of London to scratch that itch. He didn’t speak Spanish, and he didn’t have any other lens with which to see his trip other than an adventurer with the background as a journalist. He has been called an embellisher and a fabulist by critics local and foreign. But his book has been, without any doubt, the most successful English-language story on Patagonia in history.

I can’t fault anyone for taking experiences from an epic trip and combining them into a novel that millions of people around the world in many languages have come to adore.  But I can fault a world where voices that are successful in other worlds of writing are just assumed to be successful storytellers in any discipline, and those who have deep knowledge and understanding struggle to break through editors with similarly limited understanding of the subject matter at hand.

I’ve spent a number of years trying to channel my deep love for Latin America into my professional life without any apparent success. I speak better Spanish than any non-native speaker I have ever met in my life (and Portuguese to a lesser extent) yet nobody ever seems to find that relevant or useful. I watch others with far more superficial cultural, historical, or linguistic knowledge of Latin America excel in business, journalism, and elsewhere because they tell others with even more superficial knowledge what they want to hear the way they want to hear it.

In my Patagonia, I have come to two dark conclusions that I am trying to grapple with as I re-enter into my life after this trip and pursue a career in journalism (admittedly not in the realm of writing about Latin America).

  1. That I’m not trying hard enough
  2. That I need to dumb down what I write to be interesting to a larger group of people

So here I am, after more than a month traveling around Patagonia, having met fourth-generation estancia builders, small business owners, miners, sheep herders, bus drivers, and ordinary Argentines and Chileans that invite me into their lives, wondering what to do with all this information that someone like Bruce Chatwin could never have picked up because he didn’t speak the language, and couldn’t contextualize the nuance.

I sit with locals who complain about their bosses, or their customers, or Mauricio Macri, or their lives in general, to me because they accept me as one of their own, rather than another foreigner to cater to. And yet I fear there’s absolutely nothing I can do with this information rather than file it away as a wonderful cultural experience that will serve the wider world no real purpose.

And I watch, and read grimacing, published reports from tales of travelers like the ones that respond “Oui” to questions from their innkeepers in small towns in Chile, or who ask me questions like “does palta mean pasta?” (it means avocado).

And yet Bruce Chatwin, someone who knew nothing about the place he visited and may not have painted an accurate picture of it for his book’s adoring fans, remains the guiding light for generations of tourists across a complicated, desolate, and infinitely fascinating land.

And my heart hurts. Sorry, Bruce.

One thought on “Why Bruce Chatwin Pisses Me Off

  1. I put off reading Chatwin for many years for similar reasons, one being my belief that there is a literary mafia out there, especially when it comes to British upper class and American 20thC male authors, which leaves many, probably far more deserving novelists and authors in the dark. As a personal remedy to this I have started to search out the best storytellers/books by country to find relatively unknown (to me) but writers and stories.
    Having said that, I loved ‘Patagonia’ when I did read it. I think even when we read very straightforward accounts of places we anyway tend to romanticize them in our heads, so I didn’t pretend that Chatwins account was anything more than that. Good luck with publishing your own novel on Patagonia… 🙂

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