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.’
It would have been easy for In Patagonia to have been less than the sum of its parts. When I’d finished the book I found that I couldn’t square my memory of what was in it – lots of lively local detail, lots of good stories – with my memory of its effect, which was deeper and more complicated. The Songlines (1987), Chatwin’s fourth book, made clearer what had given In Patagonia its coherence and odd, unsettling aftertaste. The narrator of The Songlines, a novel about the tracks of song which mark out Aboriginal routes across Australia, is ‘a Pom by the name of Bruce’. During his childhood he was told that ‘our surname had once been “Chettwynde”, which meant “the winding path” in Anglo-Saxon; and the suggestion took root in my head that poetry, my name and the road were, all three, mysteriously connected.’ Writing about travel and distant places often gains its force from the mixture of motives on the part of the traveller, the blend of self-extinction and self-discovery which is brought on by immersion in alien surroundings. Like the people in his books, the people whose stories he has travelled to tell, Chatwin is a wanderer and an obsessive: it’s this which sets up the resonance between the upper-middle-class Englishman and the Patagonians, Australians and nomads whose company he keeps. If he wasn’t the narrator of his books he could easily be one of the people the narrator meets. Consider the way he began his travels:
When I was in my twenties ... I had a job as an ‘expert’ on modern painting with a well-known firm of art auctioneers. We had sale-rooms in London and New York. I was one of the bright boys. People said I had a great career, if only I would play my cards right. One morning, I woke up blind.
During the course of the day, the sight returned to the left eye, but the right one stayed sluggish and clouded. The eye specialist who examined me said there was nothing wrong organically, and diagnosed the nature of the trouble.
‘You’ve been looking too closely at pictures,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you swap them for some long horizons?’
‘Why not?’ I said.
‘Where would you like to go?’
In the Sudan, Chatwin met his first nomads, and became fascinated by people ‘whose journeys, unlike my own, had neither beginning nor end’. He left his job and spent the next ten years or so trying to write a big book about nomads – the book which was eventually to become The Songlines.
This life-story has an unlikely quality to it, the kind of unlikeliness which occurs in real life but which tends to get left out of fiction, where it would seem a bit too.... well, too unlikely. (As Walter Nash has recently remarked in these pages, fiction will always prefer a plausible impossibility to an implausible possibility.) Chatwin is committed to the anomalous and the improbable, and though his writing blends fact and fiction (‘I once made the experiment of counting up the lies in the book I wrote about Patagonia. It wasn’t, in fact, too bad’), the fiction is present less for its own sake than as a way of organising and shaping the factual material. Chatwin’s second book, The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), extends and explores this technique. The two books he wrote after In Patagonia could not be more different from it, or from each other: The Viceroy of Ouidah tells the life-story of a low-caste 19th-century Brazilian who enriched himself as a slave trader and befriended the King of Dahomey in the process; On the Black Hill (1982) tells the life-story of a pair of identical twins in a Radnorshire farmhouse. Both books have a basis in fact, though the second has the label ‘novel’ attached to it; both books reflect Chatwin’s interest in the anomalous and the one-off.
In The Viceroy of Ouidah, it’s as if the exoticism Chatwin repressed to such effect in In Patagonia all at once erupts. Francisco Manuclo da Silva’s life embraced sensual extremes – ‘the taste of armadillo meat roasted in clay; the shock of aguardiente on the tongue’ – and much spectacular violence, from the time his father was found hanging from a tree, choked to death on his own hat cords in a freak riding accident, to the time when he himself goes to see the King of Dahomey. ‘At one village there were heads on poles: at another, women pointed up a tree to where a crucified man croaked for water in a library of sleeping fruit bats.’ Chatwin, as already mentioned, is something of a Flaubertian: The Viceroy of Ouidah is his Salammbo, objective and detached in the midst of the lurid cruelty it chronicles. At no point in the book is there any comment on the morality of the slave trade, though the hypocrisy of some of slavery’s respectable beneficiaries is effectively exposed.
On the Black Hill is about one of nature’s anomalies. Identical twins, Benjamin and Lewis Jones, spend their whole lives in the farmhouse on the Welsh border in which they were born in 1900. Apart from Benjamin’s military service in World War One – which he spends being treated sadistically in Hereford barracks – neither twin ever goes anywhere. (‘It’s always irritated me to be called a travel writer. So I decided to write something about people who never went out.’) The story conveys very well the texture of ordinary rural life – Hardy and Lawrence were mentioned by reviewers – and there is more humour in On the Black Hill than in the book which preceded it: the Radnorshire people prefer the Old Testament to the New ‘because in the Old Testament there were many more stories about sheep-farming’. But On the Black Hill and The Viceroy of Ouidah are alike in that they both sustain a close and vivid focus on a particular set of historical circumstances. Neither book opens out suggestively in the manner of In Patagonia or The Songlines, which causes some people to like them more, and some less, than Chatwin’s other two books. (The effect of adopting a Flaubertian ‘cinematic’ technique is perhaps apparent in the fact that both books have been made into successful films.) For myself, I like On the Black Hill very much, while not thinking that it is where Chatwin’s originality is best demonstrated, and I like The Viceroy of Ouidah too – but then, I’m a fan of Salammbo, which certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of aguardiente.
The reader who is starting to get wise to Chatwin, and particularly to the way each book of his seems to set out to contradict the expectations aroused by its immediate precursor, could construct an idea of Chatwin’s new novel by reversing the postulates of his last one, The Songlines. That book discussed Aboriginal creation myths, which ‘tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path – birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes – and so singing the world into existence’. Aborigine children are given a stretch of land – a stretch of songline – as their birthright; travelling down the songlines, and using them as instruments of trade and of totemic kinship, structures the entire Aboriginal consciousness and way of life. The Songlines takes off from these facts into hypothesis about the metaphysics of walking and of song, the inherently nomadic nature of humanity, and suggests that man’s apparently fratricidal aggressive instincts have their origin in a prehistoric African conflict between man and Dinofelis, a sabre-tooth-tiger-like ‘specialist killer of primates’ ... Chatwin has an unfashionable and very refreshing confidence in the innate goodness of man: an early encounter with nomads had led him ‘to reject out of hand all arguments for the nastiness of human nature’. It’s this confidence which fuels his interest in noble-savage figures, and which propels him into his wonderfully batty speculations about Man v. Dinofelis. This optimism contributes heavily to the 18th-century flavour of The Songlines: it’s a book Diderot would have enjoyed hugely. Extrapolating negatively, then, we can guess that Chatwin’s new novel is unsprawling and unmetaphysical, un-18th-century in tone and in technique, set in the Old World and with a central theme which has something to do with not being a nomad.
And so it proves. The Utz of the novel’s title is a fanatical collector of Meissen porcelain whose tiny flat, overlooking the Jewish Cemetery in Prague, contains over a thousand high-quality pieces; another two hundred-odd are in a Swiss bank vault. Utz is seen from many different perspectives during the book, which is written in Chatwin’s leanest and most pared-down manner. At one point we are told that Utz is impotent, at another that in fact he is a tremendous Don Juan, specialising in opera stars; at one point apparently given over to aestheticism (‘ “Wars, pogroms and revolutions,” he used to say, “offer excellent opportunities for the collector” ’), it turns out that he has risked his life hiding Jews from the Nazis, and given the Nazis information about the whereabouts of sought-after objects for Goering’s collection: ‘What, after all, was the value of a Titian or Tiepolo if one human life could be saved?’ The multiplicity of viewpoints, and the conflicting evidence, generate an uncertainty which is added to by a narrator who is not identified by name, and who may well be Chatwin himself. Although he isn’t quite the full-blooded Unreliable Narrator beloved of Post-Modernism, he comes close: ‘Did he have a moustache? I forget. Add a moustache, subtract a moustache ...’
He meets Utz in Prague in 1967, in the course of a visit undertaken ‘to write an article on the Emperor Rudolf’s passion for collecting exotica: a passion which, in his later years, was his only cure for depression. I intended it to be part of a longer work on the psychology – or psychopathology – of the compulsive collector.’ He is given an introduction to Utz, on the basis that Utz ‘is the Rudolf of our day’ – the first of the many views we glean of the novel’s hero. Utz is, in terms of Chatwin’s work, a hybrid. It has a close focus on one person’s life, but at the same time it opens up questions and throws off ideas with cheerful abandon. You are provoked to wonder about collecting and about the consequences of a life-choice like Utz’s, and you are also regaled with a lot of theories and a lot of facts about porcelain. The best story concerns Augustus the Strong of Saxony and Frederick William of Prussia, whose respective obsessions were porcelain and giants: on one occasion 127 pieces of Chinese porcelain were swapped for 600 giants ‘collected in the eastern provinces’. The novel gives the reader the sense that Chatwin, like his narrator, is a little bit puzzled by Utz, a little unsure quite how to sum him up. It’s as if, to the primordial opposition of Abel and Cain, nomad and settler, of which Chatwin has written so often, a new category has been added: the collector.
Utz has had opportunities to defect to the West, but hasn’t liked what he has seen of it – he takes an annual holiday in Vichy, which would put anyone off – and prefers to stay in Prague, with his porcelain. He is one of a class of Czech intellectuals who ‘inflict a final insult on the state, by pretending that it does not exist.’ Prague is a city where the man who clips your tram ticket is a scholar of the Elizabethan stage, and the street sweeper has written ‘a philosophical commentary on the Anaximander fragment’. Czech intellectuals everywhere pursue their interests outwith the state: the fact is familiar, but the light which Utz casts on it is not. This is not a rehashing of the Cold War account of life in the East. The version of Prague life recounted in Utz is rough hewn, plausible and funny. Before Utz’s funeral – the event with which the novel starts – his best friend is waiting outside the church. Dr Orlik is himself an obsessive, an ex-palaeontologist (specialising in mammoths) who has switched from large, extinct animals to small, very-much-alive ones and is now dedicating his life to the common housefly.
While Orlik waited, he was approached by a man with a curtain of grey hair that fell below the collar of his raincoat.
‘Do you play the organ?’ the man asked in a catarrhal voice.
‘I fear not,’ said Orlik.
‘Nor do I,’ he said and shuffled off down a side street.
The man turns out to be the janitor; he plays the organ at the funeral service, which only two people attend, by repeating the same pair of chords over and over again.
Prague life is built up out of this kind of incongruity, which highlights the oddness of the human beings who populate the city, or populate Chatwin’s version of it. When the narrator first meets Utz, they and Dr Orlik go to lunch at the Restaurant Pstruth – ‘Trout’. Unfortunately the only trout on the premises have been requisitioned by four fat party members, and eels, the second choice, are also off. The only fish available is carp – and on the English-language section of the menu, the ‘a’ and ‘r’ of ‘carp’ have been transposed. The narrator explains the mistake to his companions: the fastidious Utz is embarrassed, while Orlik thinks it is the funniest thing he has ever heard. ‘ “And to begin?” asked the waiter. “Nothing,” said Orlik. “Only the crap!” ’