Bruce Chatwin

bruce-chatwinIn preparing for an upcoming book group that will look at the theme of travel, I decided it was time to get acquainted with Bruce Chatwin. I’m glad I did. He’s a fascinating subject.

An English writer and adventurer, Chatwin got his start as an art expert at Sotheby’s, but work-related eye problems sent him on a trip to east Africa. He moved from art to archaeology but found academia didn’t suit his restless nature. In the early 1970s, he became a journalist, reporting on art and architecture for the Sunday Times, a job that expanded his travels to places around the world. That would eventually lead to his first book, In Patagonia, a travel classic that remains in print to this

In Patagonia has a timeless quality, much like the place it describes. Chatwin narrates the tale, but remains mostly faceless. Driven by his childhood  interest in a hairy piece of skin that he had been told belonged to a dinosaur (it was actually from a giant sloth), he travels to the southern end of South America, visiting locations throughout Chilean and Argentinean Patagonia. In a way, this is an odd travel book. There isn’t much description of place, and what there is reinforces the impression that Patagonia is a barren place, the kind of place that invites strange souls and odd behavior. But there lies Chatwin’s main point: this is a country of odd characters involved in events that sometimes feel real, but just as often seem like tall tales. Chatwin roams the landscape, encountering these strange folk and collecting their tales (nearly 100 in all) in an episodic but vastly entertaining book. His characters are wanderers–very few are native to the area–and through them, he captures the spirit of restless travelers and uncertain immigrants like himself, not native people. Chatwin also roams in time, collecting tales of early settlers like the Frenchman who proclaimed himself King of Patagonia, a hereditary title that continued to be passed under-the-sundown by a court kept in Europe (after the original King’s return to his “land” was blocked). Another Patagonian traveler was the Sundance Kid, who spent time hiding here before his controversial death soon afterward in Bolivia. Chatwin’s stories brim with literary references as well, finding unusual connections to Shakespeare, Dante, Poe, Conan Doyle, Coleridge, and Charles Darwin among others.

Chatwin would write more travel narratives, such as The Songlines, and novels such as Utz, The Viceroy of Ouidah, and On the Black Hill in his short twelve-year publishing career before succumbing to AIDS-related illness in 1989. Although married, Chatwin was a socialite who had many affairs with both men and women, and was one of the first well known Brits to succumb to the disease. His 48-year life is fascinating, and any book group that takes up his work should explore its many events along with whichever of his works they choose to read. Nicholas Shakespeare wrote a recommended biography, Bruce Chatwin, but that work is out-of-print and long, so instead of assigning it to every reader in your group, ask one biography fan to track down a copy and report back. Chatwin’s letters also make a good chronicle of his life, and they’ve recently been published as Under the Sun: the Letters of Bruce Chatwin.



About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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