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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Critiques and Reviews
Bruce Chatwin: New Lyric Messiah for Money Culture Dropouts
by John Verlenden
Author's Links

Book titles and years of publication refer to original British publication by Jonathan Cape:
In Patagonia
The Viceroy of Ouidah
On the Black Hill
The Songlines
What Am I Doing Here
(1989) (miscellaneous writings)
Photographs and Notebooks
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 century.
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 1998.
     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 dropouts.
      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 AIDS.
     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:

      The 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 storyline.
     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 readers.
     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 rooms?
     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 other books.
     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 shining leaves.
      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 wonderful shearer.

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 one's life.

      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.

      It 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 himself.
     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, not forever.
     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.

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