This signed copy of Bruce Chatwin’s first book, In Patagonia, brings together three very different, fascinating, and historically important people. The book is inscribed by Chatwin, an inimitable writer and character, credited with reinvigorating travel writing in the 20th century, to Eve Arnold, a highly talented and celebrated photojournalist, whilst the pair were working together on an assignment for The Sunday Times which saw them travelling through India with Indira Gandhi, India’s only female prime minister, on her election campaign (an account of which, “On the Road with Mrs G,” was later published in Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here? (1989)).
Chatwin’s books, which the editor of In Patagonia, Susannah Clapp, described as being “almost violently successful” in their first years of publication, breathed new life into a stagnating genre and turning it into something fresh and desirable. His sparkling, experimental writing style and his own, arguably self-cultivated, image itself (the charming, young, lightly foppish Englishman turned nomadic, carefree explorer) became what could only be described as cool. The appeal of this stylish, evocative persona endures even today, with articles about him being written in popular men’s fashion magazines such as Mr Porter and Another Man.
He disliked being described as a journalist, preferring to think of himself as a storyteller, and indeed, he was not shy of amplifying or bending elements of the truth to create a more impactful or engaging story. Salman Rushdie, a close friend of Chatwin’s said that “he was looking for stories the world could give him and that he could embellish. He didn’t give a damn whether they were true or not; only whether they were good”. A well known anecdote from his time with Indira Gandhi in which she turns to him and says “Bruce, you have no idea how tiring it is to be a goddess … do get me some more of those cashew nuts” is almost universally believed to be fabricated, yet nobody denies that it makes one hell of a good story, or even that it evokes something of Ghandi’s energy and the dynamics of her relationships both with Chatwin and the people of India. Eve Arnold affectionately disclosed that Chatwin had a tendency to make himself the protagonist in his writing, citing an anecdote that Chatwin describes Ghandi as telling to him, which was actually told to Arnold while Chatwin was far away in another part of the country. Arnold said that “he absorbed everything around him and transmuted it into something all his own. He just found it made a better story if he was number one”.
Eve Arnold, born in 1912 in Phillidelphia, first found recognition for her photography with her series that documented the vibrant Harlem fashion scene in 1950. She took this along with a photo essay on migrant labourers in Long Island to the prestigious Magnum photographic co-operative in 1951 and was accepted as a stringer, and a few years later as a full member. She was the first female photographer to do this.
Arnold’s photojournalism straddled a strange combination of glamorous Hollywood stars and the stark, everyday realities of the poor, both in the US and around the world. She attempted and certainly succeeded to, in her own words, “take the mundane and try to show how special it is” with her shots of normal people in their daily lives, but also conversely was able to expose humanity and mundanity in the lives of the rich and famous. Some of her most memorable and celebrated photographs are those that she took of Marilyn Monroe, particularly those on the set of the 1961 film The Misfits. Arnold developed a long friendship and working relationship with Monroe, as she did with many of her famous subjects, which allowed her to capture more natural, warm, and vulnerable images of them. Besides her photographs of celebrities, she worked all over the world (such as her trip with Chatwin and Gandhi), and created incredible series on subjects such as the Black Power movement and the then still very taboo topic of birth.
The Sunday Times assignment involved Arnold and Chatwin accompanying Gandhi for a month while she was on her election campaign. Gandhi was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, who had become India’s first prime minister after the country gained independence in 1947. Educated with only mild success across various schools in England, Switzerland, and India, and often sickly as a child, the young Gandhi was popularly characterised as unintellectual, meek and compliant, a perception that only continued as she matured and began acting as something of an assistant and hostess to her father and his colleagues. However, Indira broke expectations when she became Prime Minister 1966 and proved herself to be a hugely forceful, often controversial leader, who rose to a near dizzying level of popularity after guiding India to victory over Pakistan in the Bangladesh war, and later used instances of unrest and political upheaval to grant herself even more power. Arnold and Chatwin’s visit to her tour came a year after she lost a general election after eleven years in office, and she was already regaining popularity. She would be re-elected in 1980. The personal insecurity observed in her early years may have ended up becoming her biggest downfall as a leader, as it appeared to develop into an almost paranoid clinging to control the longer she stayed in power. After resorting to drastically violent means, her attempted suppression of a Sikh separatist movement resulted in great and widespread bloodshed, and she was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards in 1984.
And so this book, an important and enthralling text in its own right, becomes a rather curious and unexpected but also historically staggering artefact capturing a brief moment in time in which three hugely significant, wildly different figures; the irrepressible, rakish explorer-cum-writer; the sensitive, insightful photojournalist; and the shockingly powerful, steely, yet troubled political leader; became travelling companions.