Book titles and years of publication refer to original British publication
by Jonathan Cape:
In Patagonia (1977)
The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980)
On the Black Hill (1982)
The Songlines (1987)
What Am I Doing Here (1989) (miscellaneous writings)
Photographs and Notebooks (1993)
by Viking Penguin:
Anatomy of Restlessness (1996) (miscellaneous writings)
about Bruce Chatwin:
With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer, by Susannah Clapp (Knopf 1998)
Bruce Chatwin: A Biography, by Nicholas Shakespeare (Doubleday March 2000)
Last autumn I lived in Irbid, Jordan. Just north of Irbid, at Umm Qais,
you could sit among the Roman ruins, sip tea and gaze upon Lake Tiberias
to the left, upon the Golan Heights to the right. At the foot of the mountain
is a crocodile pit run by Israelis. Here with all its tension, its disputed
natural resources, and its relentless will to do business lies the twenty-first
Scattered south of Irbid, on the plain, were tents made of woolen walls
dyed black or gray. The local people called these nomads Arab gypsies.
Kurdish nomads, it turned out. Like other nomads of the region, their
old migration routes had ceased to be possible as soon as the French and
English carved up national boundaries after WWI. As our harsh months clicked
by in Irbid, it was increasingly hard not to feel drawn toward the Kurds,
the jangling costumes on the women who stood with face veils on the edge
of the highway. I'd felt the same way in Egypt's Sinai, among the Bedouin.
Book by book, then within his essays, I
found that it was Bruce Chatwin who raised these mysterious people to
a level of significance I'd not discovered in standard ethnographic studies
or in photographic albums. Like a dimwit too far from home, I thought
I was one of a relatively few readers of Chatwin until I came back to
the United States, read Nicholas Shakespeare's biography, and learned
that almost a million Chatwin books were sold in Great Britain during
Had all these readers rubbed shoulders with
nomads as I had? If they hadn't seen the tents, felt the desert underfoot,
if they hadn't contemplated the vast blocks of time in which peoples had
continually tramped as a means of existence, then what was making them
hang onto this writer's oeuvre? And in spite of money culture's seeming
domination of world ethic and aesthetic, how could such an author's sales
continue to grow-this, almost a decade after his death?
In researching his books, I discovered the
obvious: Chatwin had used the nomad's lifestyle as a matrix for constructing
a lyrical mythos. This mythos combines anti-materialism with the idea
of wandering to produce a potent metaphor for the better life. What separates
Chatwin from his Romantic forebears is that he managed to present in his
short but various collection of books a continuous roadmap of emblematic
experiences, tacitly freighted values, and, above all, a unified sensibility.
Served up in an understated, yet preternaturally glittering style, this
roadmap gives hints as to how readers might live the superior life of
the nomad while remaining in thoroughly contemporary circumstances. The
whole of Chatwin is a How-to book for disgruntled, would-be money culture
Tough trick to pull off? Consider the man.
Lacking diploma, fixed sexual identity, and home (nominally though he
owned one), he barged first into the world of art, where he became the
youngest curator in Sotheby's history. Next, without benefit of literary
training, he turned a hack feature-writing job into a group of stunning
self-advertisements. Finally, without notice, he disappeared into a mythical
South American backwoods known, if at all, as Patagonia and wrote the
book that led to his twelve year writing career. Despite Chatwin's efforts
to obscure the cause of his death, the world now knows that he died of
The life done, the legend effectively whittled
down by one memoir and one full biography already, still we have these
book sales to explain away.
A closer look at the books, along with a
few of his seminal articles, clearly shows how Chatwin wrought his accomplishment.
Once the elements of his work are properly strung together-that is, the
books considered as a single body-the riddle of Chatwin's popularity reveals
itself like a puzzle ring having hit the floor.
Chatwin's first feat is to become the protagonist
in all his books even when he is not a character. Only a strong stylist
can pull off such a trick. It's no surprise that Flaubert and Hemingway
were Chatwin's models.
Consider this typical paragraph from In
Patagonia, his first book:
Hotel in Rio Pico was painted a pale turquoise and run by a Jewish family
who lacked even the most elementary notions of profit. The rooms shambled
around a courtyard with a water-tower and flower-beds edged with upturned
bottles and full of fierce orange lilies. The owner was a brave and sorrowful
woman in black, with heavy-lidded eyes, mourning with a Jewish mother's
passion the death of her first-born son. He had been a saxophonist. He
had gone to Comodoro Rivadavia and died there, of stomach cancer. She
picked her teeth with a thorn and laughed at the futility of existence.
Within this paragraph are the seemingly
complete stories of two persons, three painted pictures (the hotel, the
courtyard, the proprietress), and at least two anti-stereotypical turns
(a Jew oblivious to profit, a man becoming a saxophonist in a countryside
of ranchers and miners).
You can almost anticipate the rope of spare
dialogue that follows between Chatwin and the hotel's owner. In fact,
this template covers all of his books: precise physical description, non-stereotypical
characters, pithy dialogue. That the world might contain mundane characters
or rambling conversation seem to have been mistaken observations on our
parts. More to the point, if we are living in such worlds, should we not
abandon them right away? Look and listen, Chatwin is saying. Let the world
surprise you with its particularity. 'And if such a prospect frightens
you, don't worry. I will be the sensibility, the persona, at the center
of all this newness. You may live the experience through me.'
But more than style or an author's implicit
contract with his readers holds these books together. From story to story,
similar situations crop up. For instance, we know the terrain will be
extreme-the scrub of Chile, the outback of the Australian desert, the
steam and ill health of Western Africa, the familiar yet demanding farm
hills of Wales, even the tiny apartment of the paranoid collector Utz.
As well, certain thematic motifs become
Chatwinesque-honorable living versus dishonorable living, good faith versus
treachery. Above all, there's an insistence on the aleatoric quality of
life. By aleatoric, I mean that Chatwin posits human behavior not so much
as a consequence of psychological motivation but of trope, or inborn pattern-making.
That each book's protagonist discovers this pattern through accident,
or chance, gives the reader a shared sense of drama, especially when moving
from one Chatwin title to the next. Eventually, readers get the overpowering
feeling that trope and chance must be secretly at work on their own seemingly
dull, trapped lives. For many people such a suspicion is tantamount to
gaining religious hope.
Religious hope depends upon the continuous
revelation of pattern, and Chatwin provides several. For one thing, one
book's subject matter often seems like the logical corollary of another
book's web of premises and conclusions, of characters and conflicts. For
instance, the meanness of human character-driving men to unusual deeds,
if awful ends-is a sub-plot in Patagonia but takes center stage
in Viceroy. A quiet, benevolent exploitation of the land serves
as a leitmotif in his third book, On the Black Hill, then recurs
in primeval, plot-centralizing guise in The Songlines, his fourth
book. Both the element of human meanness and the debate over land use
spiral into a whole in Songlines making that book his masterpiece
(despite its enormous formal 'flaw'). Indeed, Songlines, for all its success
and bitter criticisms, seems to prove that Chatwin is all of a piece.
What kind of protagonist is Chatwin? For one, evasive. Complaining about
In Patagonia, Paul Theroux centered on Chatwin's inability to present
himself fully on the page. Since Theroux is commonly praised, even by
his detractors, for exposing himself--wretched fears, insatiable appetites,
outright fantasies and all--it follows that Chatwin closes the curtain
on any personal characteristics. His continent-spanning sexual adventures,
for instance, would have certainly diverted readers from his dominant
True as Theroux's critique might be, we
do get a lot about Chatwin from subtextual readings, and it's hard to
believe that Chatwin didn't know how much he was exposing-or creating,
as the case may be. For one thing, no matter where he goes in Argentina,
or Chile, or Brazil, he is taken in as a valued guest. He is given things-a
horse to ride for a lengthy distance, celebratory meals such as the Argentine
asado, an outdoor searing of beefsteaks in his honor. Without letters
of introduction nor without the need to prove himself through experience,
Chatwin is magically cut into the inner circle of people's lives. He is
The Honored Guest. For many he also becomes the confidant.
Chatwin's stylish good looks-never referred
to in any book, anyway--cannot sufficiently explain this aura of inclusion.
Among the rugged countryside of Patagonia, for instance, the brawny, sometimes
cruelly masculine men would not likely have seen Chatwin's prettiness
as especially attractive. Such unweathered good looks are the trademark
of a greenhorn, a dandy. In fact, Chatwin lets us know, admittedly in
small sections, that he is a complete dandy. In one episode, he is thrown
from his horse and cuts his hand to the bone. The men who witness this
accident roar with laughter. Chatwin neither damns them, nor defends his
pain. He stoically offers no comment at all. But then, in the wake of
the accident, yet another unlikely character opens himself up to Chatwin,
again without the least prologue. Has Chatwin proved himself to be a hardy
through his silence? For the attentive reader, such a lesson is certainly
there to contemplate. It's as if Chatwin gives models of the behavior
required to shed one's civilized identity. He is saying, you must be tough,
you must not complain, you must stand your ground. To complete the image,
Chatwin also allows himself to be sensitive, educated, capable. The men
and women he meets in In Patagonia choose to tell him their
stories. They seem to recognize him as the heroic messenger, the person
who might understand, might possibly give these revelations their proper
significance. That Shakespeare's biography punches holes in this persona
makes little difference to the readers of Chatwin's books. By indirection
and understatement, Chatwin introduces himself as a heroic adventurer
with a vaguely defined, yet crucial, role to play in the lives of his
In Patagonia was praised as "
A travel book to stand on the shelf with Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham,
and Paul Theroux" (New York Times Book Review). Chatwin loathed
being called a travel writer. He resolved to write a novel for his second
book. However, the theme of travel, of near-aimless wandering occupies
a central niche in its conception and in its plotline. The book began
as a nonfiction project. While traveling in Benin (formerly Dahomey) investigating
the life of a Brazilian slave trader, Chatwin was arrested, brutalized,
held for summary execution for his supposed role in a mercenary-led coup
attempt. At the last moment on something of a fluke, he was released (see
his piece in Granta #10 for a gallows-irony report of these events).
As a result, he never wanted to visit Benin again. Giving up his research,
he used the material as background information for The Viceroy of Ouidah.
The trajectory of this book is grimly unlike the hearty trek taken among
the stoic sheep farmers of Patagonia. In slave-trading Dahomey, a small
country between Nigeria and Togo, Chatwin imagined a life of exemplary
excess, of toxic human values, of missed opportunities for men to treat
one another with lasting honor. As a chronicle of simple unblunted cruelty,
the novel dismayed many fans of his first book. But Chatwin had made his
case. His writing was not to be about travel, but about a larger journey,
a less certain migration into uncharted territories of sensibility.
In his Granta interview with Chatwin,
Michael Ignatieff refers to Chatwin's prose as 'lapidarian.' Lapidarian
means 'relating to the cutting, polishing, and engraving of gems 'marked
by conciseness, precision, or refinement of expression.' To say Chatwin's
style in Viceroy is lapidarian is not to be lapidarian enough.
Lapidary connotes cold precision, whereas Chatwin's prose is glowingly
ornamental, selected with a connoisseur's eye. Chatwin always possessed
this eye, and it was the basis of his career at Sotheby's. In Viceroy,
this critical eye is trained upon the selection of words. In the process,
Chatwin becomes an Adamic namer, deploying nouns as precisely as a decorator
might place a group of Queen Anne cabinets in a baronial mansion. In one
forty-page stretch of Viceroy, I compiled a list of no less than
fifty-one words that would challenge the average, Master's degree-holding
reader. Nineteen words apply to features of the natural landscape, architecture
(a big area with Chatwin), church interiors and priestly vestments. There
are special terms for period clothing, and because the book concerns a
lot of sailing between Brazil and Dahomey, we get plenty of nautical terms
like: ''mizzen topgallant by its tack and clews'," words which, in
context, are not much more intelligible than when they are dragged to
the page in isolation.
Some sample words: 'catafalque, Catamite,
withers, bast, macassar, sedges, oratory (in its less-used designation
of the chapel area of a church); and quirt.' Dense with such words, the
155-page American edition of the book packs the intellectual heft of a
much longer text. Separate worlds are invoked by words that also belong
to jewelers or fashion designers. Portuguese, Spanish, French, and German
terms lie in the text like holes in which histories and cultures are condensed,
waiting. Then there's the lengthy list of Indian and African surnames
and place names.
Reading Viceroy becomes a process
of figuring out a puzzle, or multiple puzzles, posed by diction alone.
Involvement can be quite high if one stays with the task, but such prose
is not the benchmark of a million-seller. What then are the payoffs? For
one, by grappling with these special terms, readers feel as if they are
accompanying a knowledgeable, prestigious companion as he guides them
through the more precious rooms of life-the very rooms that most of us
find neither time nor expertise to enter. What is it we find in these
In one respect, The Viceroy of Ouidah
has a simple story line. Da Silva, the slave trader who wants to become
a member of the respected upper classes, has his dream denied. Instead,
he becomes the king of vice. Da Silva's straightforward story is bookended
by the wretchedly lengthy life of Eugenia, his daughter. But Eugenia,
who was jilted in her bloom by a red-haired English sailor, gives the
story its moral key. When the story opens, she is dying. Conveniently,
a Da Silva family reunion is taking place at the same time, there in present-day
Benin. If my calculations are correct, that is, if her life has actually
overlapped with the life of Da Silva, one of the last slave traders from
the Western hemisphere, then she is about 115-120 years old. In a state
of unreachable delusion and self-neglect, she is a symbol of the story's
repulsive subject matter, its legacy in modern times. But Eugenia captures
a grain of dignity for herself when she chooses to live the rest of her
life in one prolonged squalor of heartache. Chatwin makes her a Hemingwayish
code hero. Although she has known the brutality of Dahomey/Benin, she
also knows that only love could have redeemed her life. She did not receive
it. Nor did she pursue it again. She refuses to grovel. She stands-or
rather lies down-in the face of her life's stark truth. Her trope has
run its course.
So, what we get in Chatwin's specialistic
language in the rest of the story is nothing more or less than a journey
through many rooms, many special worlds, in order to see which of his
readers would be worthy to attend to the special world that he, as author,
is busily constructing. Seen in this light, Viceroy is one long
initiation rite. The story is a prop for a steep descent into a cosmos
of dimly outlined values-the values that Chatwin will illuminate in his
Viceroy is about unworthy ambition
and dispossession. The slaves, of course, often lose their lives as well
as their futures as they are captured and shipped to Brazil. Thinking
he can gain a favorable place in the world by sponsoring such activity,
Da Silva instead extends the loses that he experienced early in life.
As a child he loses his father, his mother, and his stepson-like relationship
with his mother's single true lover, another drifter like himself. At
the end of his life, he has lost his fortune, his only friend in arms
(a curious character, the rebellious son of the local chief), and, lastly,
his way back home. A lot of people trapped in jobs within the money market
culture feel the tug of similarly unworthy ambitions, along with similar
and growing suspicions that things might not pan out in the end.
Morality does not figure into Viceroy
as much as obsession does--or, as it seems at times, a botanical-like
tropism, or bent of character which stamps the person in the same way
that a particular style stamps the works of highly individualized artists.
In Chatwin's prose, face and body types are not detailed. Impersonal ideas
and features of the environment replace emotional detailing.
In March the time came round for the harvest. The hills and valleys flashed
silver with the beards of sugar cane and, from the house, they could see
lines of black backs and the glint of machetes. The blacks hacked at the
wall of yellow stalks twice the height of themselves. The leaves slashed
their skin and, by afternoon, the blood had mixed with the sweat and cane-juice
and attracted swarms of flies.
This is not to say that Chatwin's work bears no sentiment. It is, however,
to say that predictable novelistic sentimentality is often turned on its
ear, to be replaced by a more exotic sentimentality than the novel usually
freights. Chatwin understands the psychology of choice-of the individual
having a nose for what is personally suitable, and what is not. His world
excludes the confused, the groping-in other words, characters who traditionally
fill the novel. Such people may be sympathetic in a democratic application
of that emotion. But Chatwin finds them uninteresting, unworthy. Raymond
Carver's characters, for instance, need not apply. Martin Amis's characters
or those of Julian Barnes--we recognize ourselves in them to one extent
or another. But Chatwin's characters are specialistic-a term that does
not necessarily equate with elitist. If the reader recognizes him or herself
in a Chatwin character, then what is recognized is a character who knows
that he or she belongs to a special group of human beings. All of these
trope-ic creations are, necessarily, code heroes in the Hemingway sense
of the word. All accept death, are prepared for the rest of the world
to show its weaknesses in a thousand different ways-cruelty and stupidity
chief among them. Is this not increasingly the educated, postmodern posture--without,
however, the sarcasm? It's important to note that Chatwin is all sincerity.
He is a deliverer, not merely a debunker.
After immersion in Chatwin's cosmos, readers
begin to look upon themselves as unfixed by psychology, but rather by
primal circumstance or by unique genetic tendencies. As they continue
reading about such characters, whether tragic or otherwise, they begin
to feel that they themselves are accumulating individual prestige and
hope. Finally, they come to believe that they mean something unreportable
in any textbook or in any other human being's life story.
"'catafalque, Catamite; bast; macassar,
quirt, and (church) oratory'" Such impersonal but absolutely precise
words connote not just a physical world but a metaphysical given: no one
thing (or human) is truly like another. It doesn't eventually matter whether
Da Silva or his never-dying, eternally-suffering daughter Eugenia lose
everything; the larger message is that each simply existed, that such
uniqueness is what life, upon close inspection, admits. Such an approach
is not lapidary, it is particle theory. Otherwise, the tale, from a traditional
reader's point of view, comes off flat, with a moral conviction that is
troublingly upended by the intrusion of fate, of an undeniable trope.
As readers, we walk through Chatwin's galleries
of human oddity. Since such oddities cannot possibly change, the cultivation
of sensibility in the gallery visitor becomes all important, just as it
was crucial for our Guide to possess the 'eye' when living among unique
artifacts of wildly differing value-some of them even fake. What kind
of sensibility does the Chatwin reader eventually get?.
In On the Black Hill Chatwin experimented
with ways to make his sensibility known without having to move around
the globe, fictionally or otherwise. In this third book, a novel, the
only element that moves is time-most of the twentieth century. Pinned
to their farm, and content with their lives, is a set of isolated Welsh
twins. They avoid all movement, including the draft for WWI, also the
pull of marriage when it drifts into their tight orbit. Not until the
end do the travelers appear, a group of nomadic young people, children
of the Sixties. They wander onto the landscape firmly snapping the reader
out of a misty-eyed look at a thoroughly sedentary life. This decisive,
some might say unhappy, break in the brothers' settled landscape presages
the break of narrative continuity in The Songlines. In each case
Chatwin seems unable to stay away from the notion that sooner or later,
the individual will have a revelatory perspective shed upon his or her
activities. In the twins' lives, this perspective is partly welcome-one
of the brothers manages to fly, a lifelong dream-but also there's the
end of an era to deal with. Not to mention, the end of a life.
The curiously satisfying flight near the
end of the novel is foreshadowed earlier when another country dweller,
Rosie Fifield, is given a pair of binoculars by her son. She uses this
unusual gift to observe the new phenomenon of hang gliders. These daring
young people use the Black Hill for a take-off site. She sees, "'a
stream of tiny pin-men, airborne on coloured wings, swooping, soaring
in the upthrust, and then spiralling like ash-keys to the ground...Already
this year she [had] witnessed a fatal accident."
The passage reads like a coda for everyone
in the novel. Everyone does have their moment of exhilarating flight and
also their moment of spiralling down to the ground. The novel's poignancy
resides in Chatwin having shown us those moments in the lives not only
of twins Lewis and Benjamin Jones, but also in the lives of their parents,
Amos and Mary. As well, we're given glimpses into the life of their sister
Rebecca (whose grandson Kevin receives The Vision and other properties
added to it over the years, on his 21st birthday). Then there is also
the Bickerton family, a noble line brought to ruin by corruption, crime,
World War I (the novel's defining event), and state taxes. Bit by bit,
as in a traditional novel, the reader becomes intimate with a dozen other
characters. In fact, the novel is traditional in every way and comes as
yet another shock to all those readers whose sensibilities had flared
out to include Viceroy's easy extremes of cruelty. It's as if Chatwin
were saying, And don't forget this world, it's also part of what we
must hold important, even if it seems to be dying today:
In the afternoon, she scrubbed the kitchen
floor and, sprinkling some bed-sheets with lavender-water, tacked them
to the picture rail, so that they hung in folds over the frames. She fetched
a branch or two of laurel from the garden, and made a frieze from the
The weather continued hot and muggy: the
twins went on with the shearing. Five of the neighbours had come to help,
clipping all day in competition for the prize of a costrel of cider.
"I'll put my money on Benjamin,"
said old Dai Morgan, as Benjamin dragged another ewe from the pen. He
was five beasts ahead of Lewis. He had strong, agile hands, and was a
Pastoral, idyllic. Black Hill supplies the oldest antidote to a
world that would be too much with us: nature, simple living, the business
of animals and planting.
Nevertheless, the book is also testament
to a lost world. So too were the books on the timeless migrant farming
that went on in Patagonia, and the fated trajectories of Da Silva and
his daughter Eugenia in, and after, a world of slavery. After such worlds
collapse-or, as in Patagonia, whenever they do finally collapse-we
will have a newer world, though not especially one that is more noble
or more sober or more responsive to the land's need for stewardship. It's
hardly surprising that Chatwin went in search of another endangered world
in his fourth book, The Songlines. What, however, was he trying
to tell us with this book?
One of Chatwin's most personally illuminating
essays is "The Morality of Things," first given as a talk on
the occasion of a Red Cross charitable art auction in 1973. In this brightly
written, vituperative upheaval of traditional expectations, Chatwin argues
against ownership, because of the eventual drag exerted by objects upon
The acquisition of an object in itself becomes a Grail Quest-the chase,
the recognition of the quarry, the decision to purchase, the sacrifice
and fear of financial ruin, the Dark Cloud of Unknowing ('Is it fake?'),
the wrapping, the journey home, the ecstasy of undressing the package,
the object of the quest unveiled, the night one didn't go to bed with
anyone, but kept vigil, gazing, stroking, adoring the new fetish-the companion,
the lover, but very shortly the bore, to be kicked out or sold off while
another more desirable thing supplants itself in our affections. I have
often noticed that in the really great collections the best objects congregate
like a host of guardian angels around the bed, and the bed itself is pitifully
narrow. The true collector houses a corps of inanimate lovers to shore
up the wreckage of a life.
would seem that his time among the vaults of Sotheby's taught Chatwin
a lesson, or lessons, to be more accurate. First, as evidenced by his
precise word for every article under the sun, Chatwin does love things.
In fact, his love is more intense than that of the ordinary person. So
he becomes our expert on the physical world, whether natural or manmade.
He has knowledge, passion, and, after all, objects seem to have been his
trope. But his deeper instinct-the nomadic instinct-is to travel light.
Nevertheless, Chatwin knows that possession of something is axiomatic
to the human formula. What he gives his readers is the possession of a
skill: the capacity to appreciate. In this fuller appreciation of things,
of life itself, we are allowed to have access to the thing for a while,
to experience and appreciate its beauty intensely, then to pass it along.
This sensibility reflects a mindset highly attractive to readers whose
lives are increasingly filled up with things and whose next choice is
what new things will jostle for space alongside older things. Appreciation
is intangible. It takes up no space. You can travel with it. It goes where
you go. If Chatwin is nothing else, he is the Appreciator par excellence.
In Songlines he makes the case that he is one of a handful of Westerners
who, by dent of hard work and inductive reasoning, manage to unravel the
mystery of Aboriginal mythology. His reward is the capacity to empathize
with a people who sing the world into existence.
As readers, we share second fire with this
discovery: singing the world into existence. Can crunching numbers compare?
Chatwin's way is far more attractive. It blends the nomadic with the urban,
or civilized; it promises freedom to get up and move, metaphorically,
amid a plethora of ads, goods, and entire (though incomplete) lives built
around their suffocating overabundance. Ownership negates appreciation.
And if one negates appreciation, then life's promise is lost.
First dubbed nonfiction, later becoming
a novel though no words were rewritten, Songlines seems to many
readers to be maddeningly incomplete. Just as its novelistic movement
(this, though we are fully aware that a true story is being told) reaches
a crisis, thereby logically preceding and presaging the climax that novel
readers are addicted to, the text metamorphoses into a pastiche of ideas
and impressions drawn from Chatwin's journals. These brief items all concern
nomadism and the values of its world. The aboriginals, of course, were
nomadic. They drove their stock around their given plots of land following
rigidly constructed topographic surveys composed of songs. Instead of
being honored for coming up with a system of aesthetic and mathematically
sophisticated world-knowledge, they were marginalized. Amazed by what
he'd encountered in Australia, a veritable manifestation of all his theories,
Chatwin gave up novelizing and began tutoring like a Zen master. The effect
is like finding another flavor of milkshake beneath the top two-thirds.
It's possible to dislike its discovery quite a bit. It is an act of logos
interruptus. While emotion and drama depart, suddenly we're plunged
into an open-ended discussion of the entire Nomadic Alternative. This
section of the book recapitulates Chatwin's intellectual career-certainly
the first Nomad article published in 1970, as well as the first book manuscript
he ever wrote, a mass of writings on Nomadism, pieced together without
structure, rejected by both publisher and author.
The journal entries retrace the reasons
why Chatwin has ended up in Australia, the reason he set out on a mission
to plumb the seemingly incomprehensible mindset behind the Aboriginal
worldview. The more immediate concern in Songlines is that the
white colonizers, in their ignorance of the land, will crash the entire
system of meaning that buttresses the Aboriginals' subsistent, though
sufficient lifestyle. Once this lifestyle is eradicated, it will be replaced
by the never-sufficient life of the consumer-culture colonists. In the
book's catalog of characters, there is a near-Manichaean separation of
those who understand this quiet tragedy in the making, and those who don't,
namely the rednecks, as well as certain government officials.
This feeling that the world is divided into
the Elect and the un-elect is the last chink in the Chatwin sensibility.
The un-elect are those persons who mean well but who, by dent of their
ignorance (their terminal un-electness) are just as likely to destroy
as to build or maintain. The entire standoff is metaphoric for a collision
of worlds: the cyclic, minimalistic, ascetic culture of the nomad with
its meaning invested in the earth versus the linear ('no end in
sight'), maximalist, consumer culture with its meaning invested in goods
obtained by the utilization of limited resources, such as petroleum, and
entailing problems of waste storage, such as with nuclear power production.
Here is are some journal entries that figure
in this dualism:
Solvitur Ambulando. 'It is solved by walking.'
[i.e., not by shopping or by some other means of instant gratification]
This afternoon I followed a wizened old
crone who was picking over the garbage dump in search of a blue rag [we
are in Mauritania where, Chatwin tells us, 'The Moors have a passion for
blue.']. She picked up one piece. She picked up another. She compared
them. She chucked the first piece away. At last she found a scrap which
was exactly the shade she was looking for -- and she went away singing.
(quoting Rimbaud, Une Saison en enfer):
For a long time I prided myself I would possess every possible country
[i.e., an entity that can only be possessed on foot, as an appreciator].
Quoting a lament on the destruction of Ur: My possessions fly away from
me. Like locusts they are on the wing, flying'
Ninety-three continuous pages, fully one-third of Songlines, pass
in this fashion. Some of the entries are as short as the ones above, though
some run on for a page or two. Regardless, they are aplot, acharacter,
sometimes even athematic, except when one applies them to the life
of travel, of movement. One can read them as digressions or as brightly
polished gems-- the treasures of a life spent in the service of the cyclic,
minimalistic, ascetic lifestyle carved out by history and noted down by
literature's rogue list of writer-appreciators. The list includes Chatwin
The Songlines continues to
sell well, thereby proving that for every disgruntled novel reader, there
were more of the omnivorous, less formally fastidious readers who had
no trouble 'getting it.' The New York Times Book Review said that
the book was Chatwin's 'bravest work yet' and (lying, I'm afraid) 'No
one will put it down unmoved.' Many have put the book down unmoved. Many
readers don't appreciate Chatwin at all. But the Times' reviewer's
first word of praise, regarding bravery, speaks for his other readers.
For them, Chatwin is a forerunner, a courageous adventurer not unlike
Gilgamesh or Beowulf. Even Chatwin's bisexual attractiveness-yet another
trope for him-plays into the formation of an identity that spills over
the edges of his book pages forming that rich interplay between life and
literature that readers dream will be the case.
In Songlines, Chatwin places his
program, his universe, his basic matrix of the world's most crucial conflict
right out in the open. Its publication made larger sense of his three
preceding books. In his last book, the novel Utz, he extended his
program by one more exemplary tale.
A dried-walnut of a novel, Utz concerns
a collector who maintains a small fortune in Meissen porcelain. Meissen
porcelain are kitschy figurines produced in limited quantities, greedily
bought then housed by the most fortunate families of Europe and Russia.
The figurines are precious, elite, and aesthetically worthless. The book's
twist is that Utz, a man shriveled by Soviet control of his country and
his life, keeps a deeper love disguised in the form of his house maid,
Marta, whom he finally marries. She, in fact, is the novel's heroine,
in lieu of Utz's unheroic preoccupation with his porcelain. In his various
failed attempts to control the destiny of this collection, he wastes his
energy. But this waste seems to have been required. Such is Utz's fate,
his trope in life. The novel is like a dramatization of the themes set
forward in "The Morality of Things," making explicit that essay's
implications for the life which ignores its wisdom-in Utz's life, luckily,
That Chatwin worked in the face of money
culture with such condensed, muscular style, with such finesse of sensibility
and largeness of vision has opened options for other writers. At least
three new books last summer boasted that here was 'the new Chatwin.' It
seems that Chatwin succeeded in constructing an alternative persona for
his readers: that of the unpossessive appreciator. Such persons may never
have smelled the thick reek of sheep within a Bedouin's tent on a desert
night. But I imagine they are ceaselessly traveling in a mythic world
assigning values with the precision of Chatwin himself. They feel themselves
to be one-of-a-kind entities, tied to a fate that has not yet played its
hand, in a world whose own fate is not yet known.