“Of course people remember Chatwin,” says Waldo. “He was always in shorts. We had never seen a grown man in shorts before.”
Waldo Williams is the Director of Tourism in Gaiman and, like most people in this part of Patagonia’s Chubut province, he’s a descendant of the old Welsh families who settled here in 1865. Today he is showing me the places Chatwin described In Patagonia.
It is a seminal book I count as my literary and life influences.
In my second foray in South America twenty years ago, I made sure I visited the museum in Punta Arenas which holds the mylodon skin that so inspired Chatwin and the mylodon cave itself.
“This is Plas y Coed, the oldest tea house in Gaiman,” Waldo whispers to impress me.
Plas y coed means wooden house, but what I see in front of me is a one-storey brick building with Georgian sash windows.
We pass through a gate under a sign proclaiming “since 1944” into a healthy English-looking rose garden, though past this season’s bloom.
Ana Rees, short, sprightly and jovial is waiting for us at the door.
She looks very Welsh, I remark.
She replies with a smile to light up the darkest Patagonian tempest.
“I come from Welsh stock but my mother was Spanish, so I never learned Welsh as a child; that usually gets transmitted through the mother. She was the one alone in the house talking to the children in her own tongue, switching to Spanish when the husband came home. Still, I never called my grandmother abuela. I called her nain.”
So what about Chatwin?
“Ah yes. My great-grandmother was Mrs Jones in Chapter 10. Chatwin changed the name.” She laughs. “He describes my uncle sharply: ‘her grandson ate too much cake for his own good’. Chatwin is being polite: my uncle was very fat and never went out, only hung around the house.”
“My great-grandmother wanted to return to see Wales again. First she had no money and then she became very ill. She never made it.”
Two houses associated with Chatwin still remain. Draigoch House “owned by Italians who played Neapolitan songs on the jukebox late at night” was the hosteria where he stayed, at Avenida Eugenio Tello 103.
It still functions as a small hotel, now the Dyffryn Gwyrdd .
The plain house opposite at Eugenio Tello 156-174 is what became known as the Casa del Pianista. The pianist was Anselmo – half German, half Italian and is a major protagonist In Patagonia.
The house remained in the same family until around 2012-13 when it was sold to today’s owners. I wonder if they know the story behind it.
Anselmo, “a thin, nervous boy with a drained face and eyes that watered to the wind” had an affair with Chatwin, although you’d never know from In Patagonia. His editor, Susannah Clapp, spilled the beans well after his death.
Like Chatwin, Anselmo also died of AIDS, Waldo tells me. I make a mental calculation: a coincidence. When they met in 1974, the HIV virus had not yet made its catastrophic arrival.
During his wanderings in Gaiman, Chatwin popped in to see the Powell family (real name Griffiths) in Chapter 11. We drive to their cottage.
Afterwards they had an asado (Argentinian barbecue) and a siesta in the annex. The room where he stayed is now a storage room.
Chatwin and Anselmo spent Christmas 1974 with the “Davies” family, cousins of the “Powells”.
Their farmhouse is conveniently built opposite all Bryn Crwn chapel so they all celebrated Christmas mass there.
There is no one in the farmhouse, but Waldo has the keys and we still enter. I am a bit apprehensive.
“Don’t be”, says Waldo. “This is my grandfather’s house.”
The Davies family were in reality called Williams, for Chatwin always changed the names of his characters (and taught me to do so in my books, as well).
We walk into a house with wooden floors older than both of us and bookshelves from solid pine. I have a feeling of deja vu. The living room is exactly as Chatwin visited. “The two Sheffield plate trays – they were wedding presents – were on the mantlepiece, and the two pottery pug dogs.” He notes that the wedding took place in 1913.
The only difference is that the tinted photographs of the Williams’ ancestors described in the book are joined by a faded picture of Chatwin himself taken on the day he spent there. Chatwin also took one of the family and published it.
I don’t think they have ever been published together for comparison. You can tell that one photograph followed another.
Waldo is keen to correct Chatwin in one respect. “Waldo’s grandmother was not Italian but the granddaughter of Italians. Chatwin said her parents were from Genoa. No! Her grandparents were from Genoa.”
In Gaiman being a daughter of the soil matters.
Waldo has 4 editions of in Patagonia. Different editions have different pictures of his grandfather’s house.
It only merits one chapter in Patagonia, but it’s an immortality of sorts.