Chatwin

An essay on The Anatomy of Restlessness, by Bruce Chatwin

Published in The Harvard Advocate, Fall 1996

FEW WRITERS HAVE CAPTURED READERS’ imaginations as consistently, and effortlessly, as Bruce Chatwin. From the time he first appeared with In Patagonia in 1977, to his final offering while alive, Utz, in 1988, everything Chatwin did, it seemed, was touched by the charmed hand of literary success. His first book, a lyrical and epical re-invention of the travel novel, was praised by critics and readers for its originality and beauty. His next, The Viceroy of Ouidah, an intended travel book turned novel, was unanimously hailed as “dazzling” and a “masterpiece.” Two books later, his magnum opus, The Songlines, achieved the improbable status of a literary bestseller. Equally improbably, two of his highly stylized and literary books were turned into full-scale movies.

Behind it all was the enigmatic and strikingly handsome man whose photo &emdash; always the same one, it seemed: with the piercing, knowing eyes, the tousled, fair hair, the lines on the forehead &emdash; adorned book jackets, promotional packages, and magazine articles. The photo tells the story of a life that is impossible to disentangle from the prose: Purposeful, erudite, aesthetically pleasing, enigmatic. In life, as in death, Chatwin has become one of those writers whose personas loom larger than their works. It is hard to read In Patagonia without imagining the youthful, clear-eyed Englishman who, much like the gangsters and outlaws he describes in the book, announced his departure from the world of men with only an abrupt telegram to his employers at The Sunday Times: “HAVE GONE TO PATAGONIA.” It is harder still to read The Songlines without picturing the “white nomad,” as Nicholas Murray calls him, whose lifelong quest is distilled in the notebook entries that make up the middle section of the book. Wherever the reader turns, it seems, there is first the man, and then, decipherable only as if seen through the palimpsest of Chatwin’s remarkable life, the text.

OR WAS IT THE OTHER WAY AROUND? Chatwin was a notoriously enigmatic figure, one who cultivated his public persona in his prose as assiduously as he did the refined prose itself. The result, at times, is a sense of vacancy. Where there should be a man, there is a character. Where there should be a life, there is a life-mission&emdash;intellectualized, theorized, written about. But who was Chatwin? Who was the man beneath the almost superhuman longings to escape the structures (strictures, as he saw them) of civilization, to undo that catastrophic mistake of humanity, settlement. Chatwin, it often seems, was little more than his writing. In a somewhat bitter article in Esquire, David Plante, an author and friend of Chatwin’s, writes that “Bruce almost seemed to lack a self at times, no matter how impressive he was, because he became a reflection of so many personalities.” Even his death, at the age of 48, was shrouded in legend-building mystery. Chatwin claimed that he had contracted a rare Chinese fungus of the bone-marrow, known only to have afflicted&emdash;and killed&emdash;ten Chinese and one killer-whale. The more popular explanation was AIDS; another rumor had his illness as malaria.

TAKEN TOGETHER, Chatwin’s books are like a distillation of his “various personalities” into one overarching Myth of Chatwin. The Myth says that Chatwin is impulsive and detached from the world of men. He awoke one morning, “half blind” from looking at too much art, and quit his job as the youngest-ever director at Sotheby’s; later, he “congratulat[ed] [him]self on [his] escape from the ‘mania of owning things.’” He saw a map of Patagonia and left, stopping only to cable news of his departure to this “country of black fogs and whirlwinds at the end of the habited earth.” This second story, in particular, has become central to the Myth of Chatwin. It tells of an ordinary man, living an ordinary life, whose eyes were finally opened to the folly of that all-too-human existence; once opened, there was no returning to the common life. Everything Chatwin did, even the way he died, had to be extraordinary, different.

As with most stories, there is a bit of truth, and a bit of embellishment, to the Myth of Chatwin. It appears that Chatwin did take off from the Times rather abruptly, but no one working there at the time can remember a telegram. He may have had few possessions, but his attitude to objects seems to have been less anti-materialist than highly selective. “Bruce was both mad and a snob about objects,” said his close friend, the painter Howard Hodgkin. While Chatwin embraced unpeopled and distant lands, he was a fixture on the London literary cocktail circuit. As the posthumous What Am I Doing Here suggests, Chatwin was not above a little name-dropping: The essay titles read something like a list of Chatwin’s famous acquaintances.

LIKE HIS MYTHICAL SELF, Chatwin’s books tread a fine line between fact and fiction. In Patagonia was resented by many of the people it portrayed for Chatwin’s distortions and exaggerations. At Chatwin’s insistence, The Songlines, a unique combination of anthropology, science, memoir, history, and travel novel, was marketed as fiction, but it too was accused of misrepresentation; one woman, incensed over her portrayal as a greedy art trader, considered suing. Even his overt works of fiction had some basis in reality. The Viceroy of Ouidah began as the biography of a slaver, but ended as a thoroughly fictionalized bit of historical imagination. Likewise, many residents of the Welsh border country in which On the Black Hill is set recognized themselves in the novel. Chatwin himself acknowledged that he had “always written very close to the line” between fact and fiction. He added that he didn’t know where that line was. In his introduction to What am I doing here, Chatwin has this to say about his stories: “The word ‘story’ is intended to alert the reader to the fact that, however closely the narrative may fit the facts, the fictional process has been at work.”

THE PHOTO IS BIGGER THAN EVER on Chatwin’s latest book, Anatomy of Restlessness. Like the photo, the title is meant to stand for Chatwin, so that image and quest replace the man. The book is clearly a marketing gimmick, a fact that belies the ascetic connotations of its title. The book is, to say the least, a disappointment. It is Chatwin’s second posthumous collection. By now, his publishers are scraping the bottom of the barrel to come up with “previously neglected or unpublished pieces,” as the editors put it in a foreword. They present Anatomy of Restlessness as “a ‘sourcebook’ of material offering invaluable insight into the author’s life and work.”

The seventeen pieces are divided into five sections. There are essays, stories, reviews, and art criticism. Many of the pieces are re-published from magazines or newspapers. Some of the anecdotes and encounters can be found, in a slightly different form, in the notebook entries of The Songlines. The stories are generally undeveloped, with the possible exception of the bizarre “The Estate of Maximilian Tod,” about the death&emdash;or rather murder, as the narrator reveals to us in a kitschy Roald Dahl-type ending&emdash;of a Harvard glaciologist.

Perhaps the only essay worthy of Chatwin is the first one, “I always wanted to go to Patagonia,” an autobiographical sketch republished from the New York Times Book Review. Over fifteen densely-packed episodes, Chatwin retraces “the making of a writer,” as the essay is subtitled. The essay also affords a rare insight into Chatwin’s middle-class English background, which he spent his life trying to escape in his travels.

CHATWIN WAS, OF COURSE, much more than a traveler. Above all, he was a writer. Sometimes he wrote about worlds he had seen; and sometimes, often with the same stroke of the pen, he wrote about the worlds he imagined. But real or imagined, one is tempted to say, all that counts is Chatwin’s writing; all his embellishments, his white lies, even his outright fabrications &emdash; all forgiven for the beauty of his prose.

And of beauty there is plenty. Chatwin’s clean, fastidious prose gives the impression of a world stripped of all surplus. Various words have been used to describe his writing, among them “economic”, “laconic”, “Camp”, “elliptical”, and “heartless.” This last one is presumably a reference to the detached, emotionless quality of his writing. It is true only if beauty fails to stir your heart.

Chatwin’s writing is so devoid of flourish that it seems at times to depict a different reality altogether. He had a miniaturist’s eye for the banal, for the small, seemingly irrelevant, detail that gets lost in the overall picture. Put together, these details add up to more than the overall picture which they comprise. The result is a most aestheticized and poeticized world. Chatwin’s stripped-down narratives contain more of life’s poignant beauty than does life itself. The opening pages of The Songlines show Chatwin’s remarkable ability to build mood and scene from detail:

In Alice Springs &emdash; a grid of scorching streets where men in long white socks were forever getting in and out of Land Cruisers &emdash; I met a Russian who was mapping the sacred sites of the aboriginals.

His name was Arkady Volchok. He was an Australian citizen. He was thirty-three years old.

His father, Ivan Volchok, was a Cossack from a village near Rostov-on-Don, who, in 1942, was arrested and sent with a trainload of other Ostarbeiter to work in a German factory. One night, somewhere in the Ukraine, he jumped from the cattle-car into a field of sunflowers. Soldiers in grey uniforms hunted him up and down the long lines of sunflowers, but he gave them the slip. Somewhere else, lost between the murdering armies, he met a girl from Kiev and married her. Together they drifted to a forgetful Adelaide suburb, where he rigged up a vodka still and fathered three sturdy sons.

The youngest of these was Arkady.

Nothing in Arkady’s temperament predisposed him to live in the hugger-mugger of Anglo-Saxon suburbia or take a conventional job. He had a flattish face and a gentle smile, and he moved through the bright Australian spaces with the ease of his footloose forbears.

His hair was thick and straight, the colour of straw. His lips had cracked in the heat. He did not have the draw-in lips of so many white Australians in the Outback; nor did he swallow his words. He rolled his r’s in a very Russian way. Only when you came up close did you realise how big his bones were.

He had married, he told me, and had a daughter of six. Yet, preferring solitude to domestic chaos, he no longer lived with his wife. He had few possessions apart from a harpsichord and a shelf of books.

Unfortunately, this latest collection has few samples of such prose; the sole exception is the first piece, and an occasional run in some of the stories. The first piece is also interesting because it confirms what any reader of Chatwin’s would have already suspected: that his writing is more in the lineage of his fellow-authors across the Atlantic than those at home. An aunt, he tells us, informed him that Americans wrote “better, cleaner English than the English themselves.” The first time he heard the name Ernest Hemingway was when the same aunt exclaimed: “What a wonderful word ‘arse’ is!” From such experiences, Chatwin writes, he developed a taste &emdash; and a flair &emdash; for “yankee plain style.”

SO ONE IS TEMPTED, for the sake of such style, to ask why a writer of Chatwin’s talent should be beholden to the world of facts at all. The answer, inconvenient as it may seem in the case of such a singular voice, is that even beautiful words can be placed in context, and even such genre-defying works as The Songlines can be placed in a tradition. Chatwin rejected the notion that he was a travel writer, refusing to be pigeonholed as one more Englishman abroad in the empire. He very consciously reworked the genre, exorcising such staples as the brave, noble European, the simple (often humorous) native, and the mandatory encounter with distant barbarism. He said he wrote On the Black Hill, in which the two main characters hardly venture out of their rooms, to counter those who called him a travel writer. But, On the Black Hill’s Welsh country setting notwithstanding, Chatwin was well aware that he was seen as the inheritor of a long tradition of British writing about the exotic other. In the public mind &emdash; and indeed in his own, for he counted these figures among his inspirations &emdash; Chatwin was the literary descendant of such authors as Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Malcolm Lowry, and Robert Byron.

And he must have been aware, too, of the political and social baggage carried by the tradition of which he had become the standard-bearer. British travel writing has been notoriously linked, by Edward Said in Orientalism among others, to the colonial project, and so too have many fictionalized travel works, such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Chatwin would no doubt have bristled at the suggestion that his own problematic relationship to reality bore a parallel to those earlier, more egregious, rewritings of the world. According to Salman Rushdie, who traveled with him while he was researching The Songlines, Chatwin’s “politics could be, to put it politely, a little innocent.” At times, the innocence borders on an insensitivity that justifies the parallel. The Viceroy of Ouidah, which has been called Chatwin’s Heart of Darkness, is a macabre aestheticization of the slave trade in the African kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin). Likewise, Chatwin’s insistent romanticization of nomadic life, his repeated use of Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic proverbs to make his case for the wandering life &emdash; all these suggest a reason to read Chatwin’s fictions with caution. Beautiful, yes. But a troublesome beauty.

CHATWIN’S ONTOLOGICAL LIBERTIES COINCIDE with a more general breakdown of boundaries in the world. In a recent interview, Pico Iyer&emdash;himself a travel writer whose work treads a fine line between fiction and non-fiction&emdash;pointed out that the literary classification system is giving away at much the same time as national and cultural borders are disappearing. “Post-national” writing, he suggests, is notable for its “ventriloquism”: Writers who claim several&emdash;or no single&emdash;country as home, tend to speak in many voices at once. He points to authors such as Salman Rushdie, Caryl Phillips, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Bharati Mukherjee, whose works bear the unmistakable stamp of their creators’ rootlessness. The point, I think, is that writers who are not grounded in a single locality manage in their works to bring several cultural realities into dialogue. In the process, they form novel combinations; new realities, as it were, whose sums are greater than their parts.

In Chatwin’s case, the dialogue is less between several localities than between place and placelessness. There is a constant tension in his work between his middle-class English background (with all its connotations, literary and otherwise) and a rejection of that background. Unlike some other uprooted writers (V.S. Naipaul and T.S. Eliot, for instance), Chatwin seeks no replacement for the home he rejects; he appears to be on a single-minded quest for homelessness. When he goes to Australia, Chatwin brings with him his very British romanticization of life in the outback. But he also brings his nomadic appreciation for the “Walkabout.” And it is precisely this second perspective that allows him to formulate his stunning&emdash;and stunningly beautiful&emdash;hypothesis about the songlines: That all of Australia, perhaps even the world, can be seen as one interconnected map of songs; that the world, quite literally, was sung into existence by our ancestors.

THERE IS A PROFOUND SENSE IN WHICH CHATWIN’S dialogue between place and placelessness is writing from a deeper condition of today’s world. The shrinking planet is no mere cliché; nor are the emerging forms of hybrid culture that are neither of here, nor of there. Globalization calls into question virtually every foundation of the travel writing genre. Gone, now, is the dark interior into which the intrepid adventurer-writer ventures. Gone, too, are the long and difficult journeys that only the most fortified of men&emdash;always men&emdash;can endure. Airplanes fly over mountains, and satellites broadcast through storms. To get to Magadan, Siberia in this post-Cold War era, one has only to catch a flight from Anchorage, Alaska. To get to Ulan Bator, one needs only $1500 (and the stomach to brave Air China). Barring Antartica, those parts of the world that remain inaccessible&emdash;North Korea, Iraq, Tibet, East Berlin, until recently&emdash;are so not because of geography, but because of politics. “Lonely places,” as Iyer calls them in Falling off the Map, are far away only because they fence themselves off.

In such a world, the very notion of travel may become something of an anachronism. CNN and video conferences dispense with the need to actually “go there.” Global homogenization gradually effaces the charm of the exotic: Skyscrapers dot the skyline in Kuala Lumpur; Bangalore is famous for its software manufacturers. The primary role of travel writing, speaking across cultures, is now redundant. The west and the rest are so hopelessly entangled that they can hardly tell each other apart. Two summers ago, on the steps of an ancient fort in India, I came across a hookah-puffing beggar proudly displaying his picture on the cover of an Insight travel guide: the exotic packaged, then exported as a slick western product back to the exotic, where it is used by the exoticized to make money off western tourists. A touching encounter in The Songlines (repeated in one of the stories in the new book) appears increasingly unlikely in such a world of instant cultural exchanges. The encounter has a Moor asking Chatwin if India is a village. “No,” replies Chatwin. “It’s one of the greatest countries in the world.” “Tiens!” replies the Moor. “I always thought it was a village.”

CHATWIN IS SOMETIMES CREDITED with resurrecting the travel novel, and it is not difficult, given today’s hyper-post-everything world, to see why this would have been no mean task. Chatwin’s strategy was simple: He reinvented the genre. Of course others have done much the same, notably the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, whose reportages of war and revolution resemble nothing so much as poetic evocations of the chaotic politics that now characterize&emdash;and divide&emdash;the world. But few modern-day travel writers have gained such widespread admiration (or readership) as Chatwin.

Ironically, given his abhorrence of things, Chatwin’s traveler goes from explorer to collector; from a brave mapper of alien customs and traditions, to an inspired gatherer of ordinary people’s stories. Since the world has been charted, what remains is detail, those quirks that maps don’t pick up. Inevitably, Chatwin does indulge in is fair share of cultural generalizations, but these seem almost an afterthought when set beside the tiny, precise, usually bizarre, traits that mark out single individuals. So deep does this tendency towards meticulous collection run that it permeates even to the structure of Chatwin’s two most famous travel books. In Patagonia is a collection of ninety-seven vignettes, some of which are only a paragraph long, and none of which extend over more than three pages. About half of The Songlines consists of Chatwin’s aphoristic diary entries. Though Chatwin would have been horrified to hear this, his travel writing is like aestheticized tourism: The collection of beautiful souvenirs.

ONE READS CHATWIN, AS DAVID RIEFF has so rightly observed, “with fascination, but finally with growing moral discomfort.” No reader in her right mind could doubt the sheer poetry of Chatwin’s project, but there is much to doubt in his vision of the world.

Chatwin’s world is a simple place indeed, where the good and the beautiful wander, and the bad and the ugly stay at home. Just as The Songlines is an attempt to set the nomadic life to song, so too does Chatwin’s entire project appear to be an aestheticization of the migratory impulse. In the notebook entries of The Songlines, travel is the cure for every affliction. “Solvitur ambulando,” he writes. “‘It is solved by walking.’”

This is a brutally reductionistic vision of the world. It reduces, for instance, “the whole of the Bible [to a] fantastic drama, a great dilemma [between] whether it is right to settle or whether it is right to move.” “God,” writes Chatwin, “is on the side of the Nomads.” Once the choice between staying at home or going on the road assumes biblical significance, it is, of course, easy to moralize. But such examples reveal the lack of subtlety that characterizes Chatwin’s theorizing, and they also reveal a tendency to read the world in his image. Chatwin saw his life’s mission as travel; so, it seems, did he see the driving force of humankind as the urge to migrate. The result, in the form of psycho-sociological explanations, is frankly embarrassing, as when he suggests, in the new book, that “there is a case for supposing that all the transcendental religions are stratagems for peoples whose lives were wrecked by settlement”; or when he reduces all of evolutionary biology to the nomadic impulse:

The argument [of a book he had long been planning to write, but never did], roughly, was as follows: In becoming human, man had acquired, together with his straight legs and striding walk, a migratory ‘drive’ or instinct to walk long distances through the seasons; that this ‘drive’ was inseparable from his central nervous system; and that, when warped in conditions of settlement, it found outlets in violence, greed, status-seeking or a mania for the new.

I USED TO THINK I ENVIED THE LIFE Chatwin had lived. On days when the world was heavy and difficult, I imagined a life free from the stifling demands of location. Familiarity breeds contempt; freedom is never to know, nor to be known by, place.

Now I know I only envied the life I thought he lived. Chatwin’s was not, as I supposed, an existence of perambulatory serenity, but, as it now seems to me, an all-too-common tale of unsatiated desire and escapism. One can perhaps accept that the “mania for things” is a less than ideal condition, but Chatwin’s own relentless urge to wander and collect is simply another version of the same drive for more more more. He argues that the art collection is a “desperate stratagem against a failure, a personal ritual to cure loneliness,” but acknowledges that travel&emdash;even his own travel&emdash;is a form of escapism. Everyone, in other words, needs a crutch. The desire for money, the urge to collect objects, the unceasing search for new places &emdash; all manifestations of the same disease. Nomadism may seem most poetic, but what matters is being good, not beautiful. Plenty of men and women live good lives in the world Chatwin so hated. For many of them, home represents the culmination of a life’s mission. The living room is where they feel most comfortable, happiest. And, indeed, why shouldn’t they?

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