Chatwins

Karl Miller

  • On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin
    Cape, 249 pp, £7.50, September 1982, ISBN 0 224 01980 5

There were reports in the papers two years ago concerning identical twins, Freda and Greta Chaplin, who had been had up at York for making a nuisance of themselves, and who seemed like creatures in a fable. Infatuation with a lorry-driver had turned to hostility, and Hansel and Gretel had been hitting him with their handbags. These siblings were eventually sent to jail for a month: the defence found them inexplicable, and the magistrate found that ‘there is no other way of dealing with you.’ In and out of court, they were given to speaking ‘in unison’: ‘We won’t go, we won’t be separated.’ The press dearly loves a twin, and Neil Lyndon did a good piece on the harassment for the Sunday Times, in which he let us know that the lorry-driver was no oil-painting.

This strange story can’t have escaped the sharp eye of Bruce Chatwin, who is an expert on strange places and strange people and on strange words, and who used to work for the Sunday Times. Chatwin is an admired writer who has now published three books. In Patagonia told of a trip to Latin America’s Ultima Thule. The Viceroy of Ouidah was no less exotic – a work of the imagination which was based on, and which supplanted, historical research on Dahomey in the era of the slave trade. His third theme is encoded in his surname. Chatwin’s twins are hill farmers from the wild Welsh Marches, Lewis and Benjamin Jones. They are identical, monozygotic, and are capable of telepathic communion: ‘He gave up washing for fear of reminding himself that – at that same moment – Lewis might be sharing someone else’s towel.’ They shrink from the world. They won’t be separated: Benjamin feels ‘inseparable – even in death’. They are victims. Unlike Freda and Greta, however, they are not hostile. They are a no less heavenly pair than Castor and Pollux, duly mentioned in the text, and a familiar pathos helps to make them so.

There is a knowledge of twins which purports to be scientific but which does not seem quite secure, and which can at times seem on fire to prove an outlandish symbiosis. The Sunday Times has carried accounts of research which describes what happens to twins who are reared apart from and in ignorance of each other: such people have been discovered to call their children by the same names, to have the same tastes and talents, to be linked in ways that elude the long arm of coincidence (which can be held to have conferred the name Chatwin on the author of this book). Then again there is a literature and fairy-tale of twins, and it is to this category that On the Black Hill belongs. In this catetory, too, as in the Chatwinshire of the novel itself, we meet with an outlandish mutuality.

The apocryphal Englishman who found that Ireland was a foreign country (‘I might as well have been in Yugoslavia’), and whom I have invented for this occasion, might need an interpreter on entering Chatwinshire. It is apt to look apocryphal, like some Kamchatka – Russia’s Patagonia, which figured, during the Romantic period, in the inventory of the remote, as part of the fairyland of the traveller’s tale. This exoticism is no accident, no coincidence. This is the strangeness of the traveller’s tale and of the fairy-tale, and of a mode of writing to which Mr Chatwin has always been drawn. In Patagonia, in and around pre-Falklands Comodoro Rivadavia, he lit on the wonders that travellers come home with and are charged with making up – the traveller in question being a self-effacing romantic singleton who would not be out of place in a short story by Denton Welch. Now we have the wonders of the near-at-hand, located in and around the Black Mountains of Radnor.

Mr Chatwin’s strange new place accommodates the lore of twinship in the manner of a romantic work which is also, in some degree, a religious one. An established theme is thereby embellished. With this novel, the long career of romantic duality proceeds into the future. The joint life of Lewis and Benjamin is a latterday example of that ‘double singleness’ of Charles Lamb and his sister which is discussed in the preceding article. And if Mary was Charles’s little lamb (names do have a strange and relentless relevance), Lewis, in much the same cruel world, is Benjamin’s. Benjamin must look after his more practical but more vulnerable brother, and stop him from getting hurt and from sleeping with anyone. The two are not, I take it, doubles. These halves of a harmless pair are alike rather than different. Such differences as they do exhibit are oppositional and complementary (Benjamin is effeminate and has a connubial feeling for his unserviced brother): but they do not evoke the suppressed or antagonistic other self which many have believed is symbolised by the traditional double. The traditional double need not be starkly different: but there is no real reason to think of the Joneses as doubles. Nevertheless, we do have to think of them as new blooms in the long literary cultivation of a double singleness.

Locked in a seclusion which they share with their well-born, kind mother and oafish father, the two simple-minded farmers are at the mercy of the Britain of modern times. They retire from it, and seldom venture beyond the confines of their farm, ‘The Vision’, named after a supernatural visitation of the distant past. A neighbouring farm is named ‘The Rock’; and the landscape has its holy innocents, ragged saints, Franciscan animal-lovers. One of these is Meg, and another her friend Theo. Such names, such circumstances, are no coincidence, and may make this a Christian romance – the exemplum without the sermon, so to speak. The Joneses have the interest – and no other – of the significance which can be read into their reclusiveness, and that significance may be as much religious as romantic. Had there been a sermon, it might have pointed to the Christianity of Romanticism. Romantic duality, dualistic twinship – whether of doubles or of twins – takes its meaning from a concern with isolation. To be two is to be apart, or to leave. The Joneses ‘steal’ away from the world in all directions, and the book reaches a blissful climax in flight. Lewis has a passion for the air (and for crashes), and the brothers’ 80th birthday is celebrated with a spin in a plane. The poor old souls are whirled into the sky and look down in wonder at ‘The Vision’.

‘You might have some difficulty with the words.’ Strange places deserve strange words, and Bruce Chatwin is keen on these. Here a minister is warning the hippy Theo that he may have trouble when he reads in Chapel from the Book of Revelation – where there are words like ‘chrysoprase’, ‘chalcedony’. Theo replies, ‘I know the stones of New Jerusalem,’ and reads word-perfect and superbly. Mr Chatwin seems to count on his readers to be Theos of the difficult word. Difficult words may be bricks to build a New Jerusalem. They are certainly exit visas from the here and now of modern Britain.

The Chatwin lexicon is large, and Dahomey enlarged it – a country whose fruit bats and ‘vague smell of guavas and stale urine’ are among its more mundane features: ‘Their skin cracked in the harmattan; then the rains came and tambourined on their caladiums and splashed dados of red mud up the walls of their houses.’ The Viceroy of Ouidah has a banquet which incorporates a word feast:

Pigs’ heads were anointed with gumbos and ginger. Black beans were frosted with cassava flour. Silver fish glittered in a sauce of malaguetta pepper. There was a ragout of guinea-fowl and seri-flowers, which were reputed to have aphrodisiac properties. There were mounds of fried cockscombs, salads of carrot and papaya, and pastes of shrimp, cashew nuts and coco-flesh.

 The names of Brazilian dishes were on everyone’s lips: xinxin de galinha, vatapa, sarapatel, muqueca, molocoto. There were phallic sweetmeats of tamarind and tapioca, ambrosias, bolos, babas and piles of golden patisseries.

This is like the jewelled prose of the upper-class English traveller, carried to the threshhold of burlesque – and maybe across it, to produce a variety of Camp.

On the Black Hill has its feasts too: ‘There were rolls of spiced beef, a cold roast turkey, polonies, brawns, pork pies and three Wye salmon, each one resting on its bed of lettuce hearts, with a glissando of cucumber slices running down its side.’ Humble fare is enchanted here, so far as Welsh larders will allow. On every page, moreover, old or odd words appear: ‘blennies’, ‘whinchat’, ‘costrel’,‘domett’. Some of them are enough to strain the dictionary. Perhaps ‘heliotrope’ is a rare word now: in this context, it looks like the living vernacular. Cornucopias of fruit and vegetables disgorge within a general herbaceousness. An ancient lady ‘yanked at some convolvulus that threatened to smother the phlox’. Indoors, ‘potted pelargoniums shed their yellowing leaves over the piles of pamphlets and Country Lifes. A budgie clawed at the bars of its cage; demijohns of home-made wine were busy fermenting under the console, while, dotted here and there over the carpet, were the urine stains of generations of incontinent pugs.’

In keeping with the prevailing purple of its verbal and vegetable life, the weather in the novel is weird and violent. It is as if human heads were in the clouds. Bits of sky detach themselves: ‘patches of blue flew low over their heads.’ A little earlier: ‘The wind was whipping the surface of the pond. Meg was indoors, up to her elbows in a bucket of dog-feed.’ Deaths, murders, squalors and derelictions are the order of the day, and Meg turns into a tramp and a tree-stump in the style of the Medieval Irish saint whose piety and frenzy drove him to roost in a thorn bush. But this is by no means the worst, and may be the best, of the human world which is disclosed. This world is contemptible. In possibly the strongest passage of the novel, Lewis is subjected to the tortures and persecutions which were practised by soldiers and patriots on malingerers and the simple during the Great War: its flags and feasts and hysteria are condemned. The landed gentry gets the worst of the Chatwin words; a one-legged privileged survivor of the war is shown to be lustful and weak. It all adds up to the poor look-out portrayed by romanticism: here is a world from which it is right to retire.

I may be wrong, and insufficiently rural, but I feel there is an absurdity which can’t be coincidental, but which can’t be altogether intentional, in this hectic vision of Chatwinshire or Kamchatka, and at least a fleeting trace of Cold Comfort Farm: ‘them do say as she’s a witch.’ And of Flann O’Brien. Convolvulus continually threatens to smother the phlox. Simpletons, saints and grotesques face a ubiquitous aggression and duplicity – and it is a welcome stroke when the worthless nephew to whom the brothers plan to bequeath their farm is revealed as less odious than the others who are battering at the gate. There are several funny scenes when hippies arrive, to prove for the most part crooks, together with a few middle-class cheats. Among these strangers is a vile antique-dealer who rooks the Joneses of their bric-à-brac, and an arty leggy lipsticked urban sophisticate, who brings to unlikely fulfilment what has been anxiously awaited throughout and relieves Lewis of his virginity, beneath an ancient pine. ‘Very romantic!’ she tells her husband. ‘Rather damp!’ For this relief neither Chatwin nor the twin is at all thankful to the urban sophisticate, who can’t be said to have caused Lewis to suffer, though it must indeed have been uncomfortable, and who could even be said to have been taking a kind of interest: she drops from the narrative like a stone which is neither chrysoprase nor chalcedony, or like a witch. Them do say as she came from Lunnon, and she and her husband had ‘kicked around the Mediterranean’, drinking gin. The country is better than the town, the novel seems to convey: but the country is terrible. Where, if not in Heaven, are we to live? This is a more accomplished and decorative book than it is an interesting one. It is a tour de force of doorstep exoticism which, so far as it can be accounted Meg-magical or Theo-centric, fails.