Bruce Chatwin: One of the Last Great Explorers

The novels are a reminder too that fiction provides a kind of safety; it allows the writer to create outlandish stories and characters without fear (not reasonable fear, anyway) that they might be taken as representatives of an entire culture or ethnicity or race — indeed, in these books, Chatwin says more about colonialism, and tin-can monarchies and failed systems of government, than you find in either ‘‘The Songlines’’ or ‘‘In Patagonia.’’ They are also more relaxed, more revealing of obsessions from Chatwin’s own life, than his nonfiction: Behind the scrim of fiction, the writer is able to stop performing as an author and devote his energies to being a storyteller instead. Chatwin had a keen appreciation for objects, and all three novels are decorated with lovingly, precisely described material goods, evidence of his ability to conjure an entire history by noting the stuff of people’s lives. ‘‘Utz,’’ for example, is a sad, sweetly funny elegy for Mitteleuropa told through the story of a maniacally ­single-minded collector of Meissen porcelain, a collection that imprisons him in both Prague and, by extension, socialism itself. In ‘‘Ouidah,’’ the titular viceroy’s daughter hoards some of her father’s possessions — ‘‘. . . his silver-mounted cigar case; his pink opaline chamber pot; his ivory-handled slave-brand with the initials F.S.; his rosary of carnauba nuts; some scraps of paper covered with his handwriting; a lithograph of the Emperor Dom Pedro II; a picture of a Brazilian house, and a particularly bloodthirsty canvas of Judith hacking off the head of Holophernes’’ — a catalog that forms its own miniature portrait, a biography of a man found not in the people he sired or the land he conquered, but in the things he cherished.

But of all his books, it is perhaps ‘‘On the Black Hill’’ that displays Chatwin at his finest and most surprising. Certainly it is the most disciplined of his novels, the least dazzling in setting or circumstance, but told with an economy and elegance of language and, most strikingly, a deep tenderness. Here, the location is not some impossible land, but a farm in rural Wales. Here, the people are not eccentric collectors or sadistic potentates, but twin brothers, farmers and sons of a farmer, who, through first the Great War and then the next, never leave home for any significant period of time. The world moves…

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