For Christmas, I treated myself with a first impression, first U.K. edition, of Bruce Chatwin’s cult book “In Patagonia”.
Published by Jonathan Cape, it is one of the initial 4000 hardcover, octavo-sized copies wrapped in that horrendous blue and violet dust cover that hit the bookstores on the 13th of October 1977. A true 1st edition, with the wrapper picturing the Perito Moreno glacier, the blue and white endpaper maps of Tierro Del Fuego, the black and white plates (taken out for the first American edition) and the black and white frontispiece map of Argentina it is still in a very good, tight and clean condition, with few flaws: the mildest foxing to the flaps, only very minor fading to the spine, but unfortunately price clipped and some pages tainted.
“In Patagonia” is a classic. It recounts the journey Bruce Chatwin made to the end of the world, to a lost cave in the southern-most part of Patagonia. This cave was special for Chatwin, because it was here that were found the bones and pieces of skin of a monster that had both attracted and haunted him in his childhood.
Bruce had, since a very early age, been fascinated by a “piece of Brontosaurus” which his grandmother had kept in her private curiosity cabinet, a glass framed Burgher closet. The leathery piece of skin, with red coarse hair still attached, was sent to her as a wedding gift by her brother Charles Milward. He had dug it up himself in a cave somewhere in Patagonia. The young bride must have been delighted with her present, but she knew her brother to be a strange one. He had been a well-to-do sea captain at the turn of the century but had, after some unsuccessful investments, spend the last years of his live in relative poverty in Patagonia. The piece of skin, which was actually from a 10.000 year old Mylodon, a kind of giant antediluvian sloth was lost when Chatwin’s grandmother’s belongings were moved after her dead.
Chatwin, still enchanted by that fantastic story, but also in search of a topic for a book, decided to travel to Patagonia in search of the lost beast, to the cave where Milward had found his Mylodon’s skin.
It was the seeing of a map of Patagonia hanging in the apartment of Eileen Gray, the famous Irish designer, that had reminded Chatwin of his interest for Patagonia. When he said “One day I’ll travel there”, she had replied “ Go there for us both”
I rather like to think that the Patagonian subject was embedded in Bruce mind and never ever left, since he read as a child, Joshua Slocum’s famous epic “Around the world with the Spray”.
“A storyteller is most influenced by the kind of stories he first thrills to” says Nicholas Shakespeare in his brilliant Chatwin biography and I can well picture young Chatwin mesmerized by the account of Slocum’s epic voyage through the strait of Magellan: The Patagonian Indians and some nasty half-breeds trying to attack the lonely captain lost in the meanders of Tierra del Fuego and only Slocum’s inventiveness and his Winchester rifle, keeping him out of the hands of the savages.
This reading and retracing of Slocum’s diary on the maps of the Times Atlas in the dusk of his Old Hall school library in Shropshire must have been the basis for Chatwin's fascination for that mysterious part of the world.