In Patagonia was published in 1977. Is it dated? I have to disagree with Dalrymple. Chatwin’s writes carefully pared prose about roughshod characters and peculiar places vividly painted from a unique perspective. Dangerous and intriguing encounters in foreign landscapes, brought to life from the pen of a gifted writer, will surely never become dated.
The first chapter is a real cracker. Chatwin, the child, becomes obsessed with an old leathery bit of skin stuck onto a card with a rusty pin – his granny’s possession. She tells him it was from a brontosaurus. He goes on to tell the story of how this alleged Patagonian brontosaurus fell into a glacier, and was trapped in a ‘prison of blue ice’, until it was discovered by his granny’s cousin Charley, who shipped the skin to her house. Chatwin never took possession of the much desired treasure. After granny’s death his mom carelessly threw it out. But his fascination with Patagonia kept growing when the first tremours of the Cold War were felt and he figured Patagonia as the safest place on earth. And so it all begins.
The book is divided into short chapters. Obviously they’re all linked to make one travelogue, but you may isolate one or two and read them as a short, short story: just a few pages opening with a meeting of an odd character, or a glimpse into the life of one drought-stricken family desperate to elk out a living, whom he meets on his travels. “At every place I came to it wasn’t a question of hunting for the story, it was a question of the story coming at you,” writes Chatwin. Ingenious, dangerous, capricious, daring, heroic and desperate: you get to discover Patagonia through the people he meets along his journey.
One of my favourite characters is the adventurer and self-styled sheriff, Martin Sheffield. Rumoured to look a bit like Hemmingway, Sheffield suffered from gold-fever, womanising, and general drunkenness. He went to Patagonia with only a white mare and an Alsatian for company – ‘Poor as Job’. He would do anything to find his personal Klondike: most of it illegal. “He shot trout from the rivers, a cigarette packet from the police commissioner’s mouth; and had the habit of picking off ladies’ high-heels”, writes Chatwin.
Yes, maybe Dalrymple is right after all, they don’t make them like Sheffield, or Chatwin, anymore.