A Pom by the name of Bruce

John Lanchester

  • Utz by Bruce Chatwin
    Cape, 154 pp, £9.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 224 02608 9

The albatross which features in ‘The Ancient Mariner’ isn’t really an albatross – that’s to say it isn’t the albatross you first think of, the Great Wandering Albatross. It’s either the Sooty Albatross or the Black-Browed Albatross (both of which are much smaller and easier to hang round your neck if you feel guilty about having killed one). Butch Cassidy did not die in a gunfight in Bolivia in 1909, as portrayed in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: in 1925 he turned up at the family home in Circleville, Utah and ate blueberry pie. Hitler was a vegetarian.

Admirers of Bruce Chatwin’s writings will recognise these facts, which are gleaned from his books and reflect one of their pleasures. He has a talent for the offbeat and the out-of-the-way, a kind of archaeological talent for the excavation of interesting data. In Patagonia (1977), Chatwin’s first book, was built out of that kind of data – built out of facts and encounters and stories. It is a kind of cubist travel book, to which the reader comes expecting the familiar exoticism of travel writing and instead finds a bleaker and more melancholy foreignness, which constantly feeds back into English literary and cultural history: Coleridge’s albatross; the influence of Weddell’s Voyage towards the South Pole on Poe and on Darwin; the fact that Caliban ‘has a good claim to Patagonian ancestry’. Chatwin’s prose is pared-down, effective and syntactically uncomplicated: it concedes nothing to the standard-issue ‘colourfulness’ of the genre’s attempts at evocation. (My favourite sentence from In Patagonia: ‘The beach was grey and littered with dead penguins.’)

One of the most haunting stories in the book is that of the Tierra del Fuegian boy kidnapped by Captain Robert Fitzroy, Chief Officer of HMS Beagle, in 1830. The boy was given a name by the crew – Jemmy Button – and taken to London, where he ‘saw a stone lion on the steps of Northumberland House, and settled down to a boarding-school at Walthamstow’. On the Beagle’s return voyage to Tierra del Fuego, Jemmy Button was accompanied by Darwin, who was appalled by the Fuegians; he ‘confessed he could hardly make himself believe they were “fellow creatures and inhabitants of the same world”.’ Meeting them ‘helped trigger off the theory that Man had evolved from an ape-like species.’ In November 1869 Jemmy led a mob of Fuegians who attacked an Anglican congregation at Wulaia. The eight white worshippers were clubbed and stoned to death. In the belief-system of Jemmy’s tribe, ‘the outside world was Hell and its people no better than beasts. Perhaps, that November, Jemmy Button mistook the missionaries as envoys of the Power of Darkness. Perhaps, when he later showed remorse, he remembered that pink men also were human.’ Bald summary makes the moral of the story – which resides in the close similarity of Darwin’s belief and Jemmy’s – much more obvious than it is in Chatwin’s telling. There is a Flaubertian quality to Chatwin’s recountings; nowhere does he editorialise or draw conclusions. ‘Jemmy lived into the 1870s to see a proper mission established at Ushuaia and see the first of his people die of epidemics.’

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