Chatwin and the Hippopotamus

Colin Thubron

  • What am I doing here by Bruce Chatwin
    Cape, 367 pp, £12.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 224 02634 8

It is hard to read this book dispassionately. Its gathering of stories, portraits, travelogues and fragments embodies such a rush and depth of enthusiasm – the stuff of many lives lived in a single too-short one – that the reader grows haunted by regret for everything Bruce Chatwin would have written had he not died so early.

The selection was made at his own request. It includes pieces written in 1988 as well as articles published as long as 17 years ago; had he been robuster at the end he would, I think, have deleted some of the slighter essays. But the bulk of these pieces is rich in the qualities which permeate his books: the obsessive quest for stories, the cool economy of style, the brilliant eidetic gift, the love-affairs with the bizarre. So they seem like sap at the roots of his books, rather than off-shoots or stray branches.

What am I doing here is characteristically hard to classify. There are chapters on friends; some fine travelogues on Russia, China and Afghanistan; an essay on nomad invasion which pre-dates The Songlines; a delicate and blackly humorous report as he follows Mrs Gandhi on an election tour; a substantial and sympathetic chapter on the plight of Algerians in France; some vignettes of the art world. The section devoted to ‘Encounters’ – with Nadezhda Mandelstam, André Malraux, Werner Herzog, the architect Konstantin Melnikov and the fashion-designer Madeleine Vionnet – is balanced by odder meetings: an investigation into an Indian ‘wolf-boy’, a report on a sinister-ludicrous Boston messiah, and on a Chinese geomancer.

Each essay is powered by a private passion. Chatwin became fascinated by something or somebody, then ran his subject to earth. His interest was aroused chiefly by what he believed original or sublimely eccentric, and it is the sheer diversity and intensity of his obsessions – rather than the distinction of any one article – which give this book its strength. What is the reader to make of a man who inhabited a cultural haut monde, yet penetrated into the harshest regions of every continent on earth; whose enthralment to pictures was jettisoned for an obsession with those to whom they are meaningless – nomads; a man who on impulse rushed from London to the Shetland Isles to view a single specimen of albatross?

He was an omnivore, and loved that hunger in others. ‘Malraux,’ he wrote, as if describing himself, ‘has an opportunist sense of timing ... he alone can tell you that Stalin considered Robinson Crusoe “the first Socialist novel”, and that Mao Tse-tung’s hand is “pink as if it had been boiled”, and that Trotsky’s “white skin and haunted eyes made him look like a Sumerian plaster idol”.’

Chatwin’s was a formidable and unlikely combination of gifts. His cinematographic sense (he experienced life as a train of visual images, he once said) was married to its apparent opposite – a questing abstract imagination. So, in historical pieces like ‘Heavenly Horses’ (on China’s aquisition of hot-blooded herds) or ‘Nomad Invasions’, he joins a glittering descriptive talent with the modern historian’s attention to social or geographic theory.

It was often through their visual style that Chatwin understood and was drawn to people. There are telling essays on an old friend, the English painter Howard Hodgkin, and the miniaturist Donald Evans. Chatwin understood the aesthete; and even the humbler inhabitants of What am I doing here may be pinioned by a description of dress, from the Chinese who ‘wore a blue silk Nina Ricci tie, a gold wristwatch with a crocodile strap, and an immaculate worsted grey suit’ to the immortalised functionary in London’s Afghan Embassy who ‘had cut off the lining of his jacket so that it hung, as a curtain, to hide the holes in the seat of his pants’.

A sense of the absurd is rarely far away. Chatwin exulted in it, and sought it out in others – whether in the unlikely shape of André Malraux, who ‘from under his melancholic mask occasionally allows a glimpse of his highly developed sense of the ridiculous’, or Mrs Gandhi (‘ “You’ve no idea how tiring it is to be a goddess” ’), or the extinct Nazca people of Peru, ‘well aware of the comic possibilities of life’. Comic possibilities are explored even in the blackest of his articles, an account (slightly fictionalised) of his imprisonment in Benin during an attempted revolution. The colonel who may decide on his execution, he writes,

wore an exquisitely-pressed pair of paratrooper fatigues, a red star on his cap, and another red star in his lapel. A roll of fat stood out around the back of his neck, his thick lips drooped at the corners. He looked, I thought, so like a sad hippopotamus. I told myself I mustn’t think he looks like a sad hippopotamus. Whatever happens, he mustn’t think I think he looks like a sad hippopotamus.

In Chatwin’s work this sense of the comic is a proportional thing, a part of the classicism which disciplines the innate romanticism beating up beneath. ‘My whole life,’ he writes, in a rare moment of self-revelation, ‘has been a search for the miraculous: yet at the first faint flavour of the uncanny, I tend to turn rational and scientific.’

Of course. And the counterpart of this exacting intellect was the camera-coolness of his eye. His descriptions are filled with outlandish and disquieting juxtapositions: the beautiful with the banal, the trivial with the fundamental. A favourite author of his, the botanist and Sinologist Joseph Rock, is the subject of one of the book’s finest pieces – a nostalgic pilgrimage to the remote part of the China which Rock had made his own. Chatwin quotes with delight from his deadpan prose:

A short distance beyond, at a tiny temple, the trail ascends the red hills covered with oaks, pines, Pinus Armandi, P. yunnanensis, Alnus, Castanopsis Delavayi, rhododendrons, roses, Berberis, etc, up over limestone mountains, through oak forest, to a pass with a few houses called Ch’ou-shui-ching (Stinking water well). At this place many hold-ups and murders were committed by the bandit hordes of Chang Chiepa. He strung up his victims by the thumbs to the branches of high trees, and tied rocks to their feet; lighting a fire beneath he left them to their fate. It was always a dreaded pass for caravans. At the summit there are large groves of oaks (Quercus Delavayi).

Chatwin read such passages – in which the practical and the cruel cohabit in cold equality – as a facing-up to truth, just as he could deploy his own prose, without judgment, as an objective record. That night in Benin ‘there were nine of us, all white, cooped up in a ramshackle office. The President’s picture hung aslant on a bright blue wall, and beside it were a broken guitar and a stuffed civet cat, nailed in mockery of the Crucifixion, with its tail and hindlegs together, and its forelegs splayed apart.’

If Chatwin had a model, it was Flaubert – the Flaubert of the Trois Contes, of the Notes de Voyage, and occasionally (and less happily) of Salammbo. Reviewers taxed him with heartlessness, and sometimes his instinct for pure recording could create a savage divorce between fact and feeling. One is reminded of Monet, at the deathbed of his young wife, irresistibly noting her skin colour – and horrified at the artist in him. In Chatwin, the unsparing clarity of vision and his feeling for the cruel and ambivalent were all of a piece. His prose walked a knife-edge. He respected the primitive – but the primitive of Thesiger, not of Van Der Post – and in What am I doing here it is his ‘A Lament for Afghanistan’ which elicits the most sustained passage of lyricism, an elegy for native dignity and uncontaminated wilderness.

People disclose themselves through those they admire, and the heroes whom Chatwin celebrates here, apart from Rock, include Robert Byron and Ernst Jünger. With Byron he shared a boyish romanticism sophisticated by intellect, a sense of the bizarre, and the gift of descriptive exactitude. In the chapter on Ernst Jünger’s Diaries (which he subtitles ‘An Aesthete at War’), he shows a deep affinity with the German polymath and soldier. Once again, he writes with contagious fascination about a subject close to him. Ernst Jünger came into his own as censor and intellectual ambassador in wartime Paris, a city Chatwin loved. ‘He writes a hard, lucid prose,’ says Chatwin. ‘Paris is full of strange encounters ... He meets Cocteau and Jean Marais, “a plebeian Antinous”, and Cocteau tells how Proust would receive visitors in bed, wearing yellow kid gloves to stop him from biting his nails, and how the dust lay, “like chinchillas”, on the commodes ... Madame Morand is a Rumanian aristocrat and keeps a grey stone Aztec goddess in her drawing-room: they wonder how many victims have fallen at its feet.’ But Jünger’s account of the execution of a German deserter is, notes Chatwin, ‘one of the nastiest passages in the literature of war – a firing-squad painted in the manner of early Monet: the clearing in the wood, the spring foliage glistening with rain ...’ But the coldness and the detail, he tacitly admits, make for effective reportage, and one is reminded of extremes to be met with in his own work.

Travel in the world’s bitter regions can make a person intolerant of gentility. And in Chatwin’s pieces on Asia or Africa the conjunction of the harsh with the beautiful or the everyday attains a fierce rightness. The pieces on Yunnan and Central Asia are very moving, full of delight in poetic wilderness:

We have been to Tiger Leaping Gorge and seen the cliff-line plummeting 11,000 feet into the Yangtze. We have watched the Nakhi women coming down from the Snow Range, with their bundles of pine and artemisia; and one old woman with a bamboo winnowing basket on her back, and the sun’s rays passing through it ... The wild pears are scarlet in the foothills, the larches like golden pagodas; the north slopes ‘blue-green with juniper’. The last of the gentians are in flower, and the flocks of black sheep brindle the plain.

There is a pungent account of a ten-day voyage down the Volga with a party of Germans, many of them ex-prisoners and war widows. Their landing at the massed war-memorials of old Stalingrad, and their encounter with the Soviet mourners there, is beautifully told:

The atmosphere was eerie, and religious: all too easy to scoff at; but the crowds, with their rapt and reverential expressions, were no scoffing matter. I followed a lame old woman into the Pantheon. Her down-at-heel shoes had been slit at the toes to relieve the pressure on her bunions. She shuffled forward, in a raincoat, on the arm of a younger companion. She had tried to make herself festive by wearing a red scarf shot with tinsel. Her cheeks were caked with white powder, and streaming with tears. As she crossed the Court of Sorrows, her raincoat flapped open – to show a white blouse covered in medals.

It was, in the end, the revelatory narrative which Chatwin most loved. In a comic personal fragment, he describes being drawn to his future wife by her way with a story, and his short piece ‘Chiloe’ becomes a charmingly blatant hunt for folk-tales. The weakest pieces here, together with some fine ones, were almost all written at his life’s end, and it is astonishing that he found the energy and motive – ill as he was – to write at all. Even the slightest of these fragments will be garnished, for his friends, by the memory of his two-octave peal of laughter, revelling in the strangeness, absurdity and beauty of things.