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December 13, 2017

Chasing Bruce Chatwin

On this day in 1940 Bruce Chatwin was born. Even leaving out the literary controversy and the personality cult, Chatwin's life has dramatic scope -- middle-class Birmingham teenager to Sotheby's clerk, to art-world star, to ultima thule by backpack, to a handful of best-sellers, a burst of fame, and death at forty-eight. Adding the debate over the books and the author back in might shift the drama closer to opera, but few since Hemingway have attracted such attention, or been credited with establishing "a new definition of the Writer as Hero."

The books can be a challenge to any dust-jacket writer, and a store clerk's worst nightmare. In Patagonia is a "fabulist travel narrative," The Viceroy of Ouidah is a "mock-historical tale," The Songlines is a "seething gallimaufry of a book" which reads as "part adventure-story, part novel-of-ideas, part satire on the follies of 'progress,' part spiritual autobiography, part...." This genre-bending has gained Chatwin a wide readership -- wider still when the two well-reviewed novels, On the Black Hill and Utz, are included -- but it has also made him a target. Many anthropologists scoff that the cultural theories which are overtly or covertly present in most of Chatwin's writing -- essentially, the idea that man was born to be a nomad -- are fiction. More personally, a number of individuals and groups who Chatwin happily trekked with or consulted for research have been horrified to find that, in their view, they have been trampled over in his books. Sometimes the quarrel is with Chatwin's airs in portraying himself as "sensitive, insightful and full of cosmic observations"; at other times the quarrel is more down to earth. Chatwin was terrified of snakes, and on one anxious night in the Outback he had to be tucked up safe and snake-free by the Aborigines, who then blithely bedded themselves on the ground. In The Songlines, this event is made over into one in which the Aborigines are afraid for their lives, Chatwin's guide is on the roof of the jeep, and the author is unfazed: "For myself, I rigged up a 'snake-proof' groundsheet to sleep on, tying each corner to a bush, so its edges were a foot from the ground. Then I began to cook supper."

If Chatwin is 'Writer as Hero,' he may be Joseph Campbell's 'The Hero With A Thousand Faces.' Nicholas Shakespeare's 1999 biography of Chatwin quotes many who saw him as a blue-eyed Apollo, able to charm all continents and genders with his good looks and his enthusiasm, able to cap any conversation: "I haven't swum across the Hellespont, but I have swum across the Bosphorus, which is a bit wider and the current a bit stronger.... [T]here was a very nice caique following me with three Turkish princesses." Others saw an Odysseus, as Chatwin seemed to: "I have never felt any real attachment to home ... except when travelling," says one journal entry. Less flattering portraits include that of a Narcissus, or a Harlequin (one of Shakespeare's chapter headings), or a shape-shifter hard-wired to keep moving in everything -- homes, ideas, people. Shakespeare notes mask after mask, and "a crowded address book where Jackie Onassis is listed next to an Oryx herder." He quotes one who diagnosed Chatwin as having a clinical disorder -- "a delirium of establishing connections." He quotes others who explain Chatwin's nomadism as wanderlust, and reduce the wanderlust to a confused bisexual's search for "some Afghan chieftain draped in a cartridge belt." To the very end, Chatwin would not admit that he was dying of AIDS, preferring the idea that he had picked up a deadly and mysterious fungus in China.

Salman Rushdie, a friend of Chatwin's and sometimes a fellow traveler, says that Chatwin's refusal to deal clearly with his sexuality is everybody's loss: "All this fantastic entertainment and language and originality and erudition and display is a kind of hedge against not letting in the truth. The writing might have become astonishing if he had." Susan Sontag, also a friend, puts the emphasis on what was accomplished: "Of all the English writers in the last 30 years, the only one I take down and re-read is Bruce."

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