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Going too far : travel lying in Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and The Songlines Travers, Nicholas

Abstract

This thesis looks at two travel books by Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia (1977) and The Songlines (1987). Both occupy an ambiguous generic ground between fiction and non-fiction, yet critics have tended to oversimplify this key issue when discussing Chatwin's work. Responses to Chatwin's narratives have been unproductively polarized: some critics sweepingly accuse the author of "lying"; others over-intellectualize Chatwin's narrative strategies and celebrate the artistic achievement of his boundary-crossing "fictions." These two perspectives unsatisfactorily limit the debate about Chatwin's lies, and about travel writing generally. This thesis takes a middle ground, refusing the premise that Chatwin is a neo-colonial liar, and the proposition that he is an artist fictionalizing his experience to better express its complex truth. By attempting to understand Chatwin's lying/fictions more broadly, the thesis reads Chatwin's two major tracts closely - The Songlines in Chapter One and In Patagonia in Chapter Two - with an eye for narrative techniques and the author's preoccupations. Drawing on the biographical work of Nicholas Shakespeare, Susannah Clapp, and Nicholas Murray, travel literature theory and criticism, autobiography theory, ethnography, historiography, interviews, and memoirs, this thesis demonstrates that a single theoretical perspective cannot account for Chatwin's lies, but that a different kind of reading strategy will do so. Successive questions ask: What does Chatwin's lying consist of? What motivates those lies? What are the implications of his lies? This mode of critical reading acknowledges the problematics of lying within a non-fictional framework; it also elucidates the way Chatwin's fictionalizing contributes to a larger narrative design. The thesis concludes by addressing Chatwin's belated position in the history of European travel writing. A balanced critical approach, that seeks and interrogates the motivations underpinning Chatwin's lies, reveals him to be unwilling to move beyond a neo-colonialist practice of imposing fantasies upon foreign cultures. Unlike other belated travellers, Chatwin, through his self-representation as well as his representations of other characters and places, claims possession of his experience by exuberantly heightening its features. To a large extent Chatwin does not conceal his pleasure in fictionalizing, but rather displays a Camp delight in excess. Ultimately, however, Chatwin's overt playfulness cannot disguise his desire to conform characters to a naive fantasy of finding freedom elsewhere.

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