Bruce Almighty

En­chant­ing Bruce Chatwin told ‘the truth and a half ’ in daz­zling style. He died 30 years ago, at 48, be­fore reach­ing his prime, says his biog­ra­pher, Ni­cholas Shake­speare

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In­ter­viewed in Aus­tralia, 12 years after his death at the age of 48, I was asked by a puz­zled young jour­nal­ist: ‘Who was Bruce Chatwin?’ It was a re­minder of how few things in life are more per­ish­able than lit­er­ary fame. Only a short while be­fore, this English writer had been a cult fig­ure, and not merely in Aus­tralia.

‘You would sup­pose Lord By­ron had died,’ wrote James Lees-milne on read­ing Chatwin’s obit­u­ar­ies in Jan­uary 1989. Many peo­ple had felt a sense of loss out of all pro­por­tion to their ex­pec­ta­tion.

Pub­lished posthu­mously, Chatwin’s col­lected jour­nal­ism, What Am I Do­ing Here, topped the Sun­day Times best­sellers list. A book­shop call­ing it­self Song­lines, after his most fa­mous book, opened in Ber­lin. In Genoa, an an­nual travel fes­ti­val/prize was es­tab­lished in his name, with street-wide ban­ners ad­ver­tis­ing the Premio Chatwin. Try to imag­ine this recog­ni­tion be­ing ac­corded, say, to Martin Amis, or any con­tem­po­rary English writer, come to that. It’s hard.

The Ger­man an­thro­pol­o­gist Michael Op­pitz had known Chatwin in Nepal, and reck­oned that, through his life, Chatwin had given a new def­i­ni­tion of the Writer as Hero. An icon of the back­packer, Chatwin in­spired a myr­iad young peo­ple to set off and live in Cal­cutta or Patag­o­nia – ‘and then come back with a di­ary that no one pub­lishes’. To­day, Chatwin’s sig­na­ture black Mole­sk­ine note­books – which he pur­chased from a sin­gle sta­tioner’s in Paris – are on sale in al­most ev­ery ma­jor city.

For all this, the au­thor who pop­u­larised them has be­come oddly erased. ‘Does any­one read Bruce Chatwin these days?’ mused Blake Mor­ri­son, re­view­ing his col­lected let­ters in 2010.

He was, of course, ev­ery­thing the English dis­trust. Stylish. Pas­sion­ate. Good-look­ing. ‘There are few peo­ple in this world who have the kind of looks which en­chant and en­thrall,’ said Su­san Son­tag. ‘And Bruce had it. It isn’t just a beauty; it’s a glow – some­thing in the eyes. And it works on both sexes.’ And a charmer – ‘He was out to se­duce ev­ery­one,’ said Mi­randa Roth­schild, who once went to bed with him. ‘It doesn’t mat­ter if you are male, fe­male, an ocelot or a tea cosy.’

But he was a lover of the­ory and of the French; and ob­ses­sive, which we dis­like in par­tic­u­lar.

Per­haps that’s why it has taken a poly­mathic Euro­pean like Werner Herzog to con­tinue to see Chatwin’s

point. Herzog’s new fea­ture-length doc­u­men­tary on Bruce will be part of the BBC’S re-minted Arena this year. For Herzog, Chatwin’s sig­nif­i­cance re­mains undi­min­ished.

‘When I think of Bruce Chatwin now,’ he told me, ‘I think of the ul­ti­mate sto­ry­teller. It’s the res­o­nance of the voice and the depth of his vi­sion that makes him one of the truly great writ­ers of our time.’

You have to reach back to Joseph Con­rad, Herzog be­lieves, to find a com­pa­ra­ble fig­ure.

To his friends, Bruce was more than a writer. ‘He was one of the two fun­ni­est

peo­ple I’ve known,’ says Sal­man Rushdie (the other be­ing Christo­pher Hitchens). ‘He was so colos­sally funny you’d be on the floor with pain. When his sto­ries hit their stroke, they could sim­ply de­stroy you.’

Bruce told Colin Thubron, ‘I’ve al­ways loved telling sto­ries. It’s telling [rather than writ­ing] sto­ries, for what it’s worth.’

To an un­usual de­gree, Bruce’s sto­ries in­volved their lis­tener. ‘He made you par­tic­i­pate in what, in that mo­ment, did not seem to be a fan­tasy,’ said Fran­cis Wyn­d­ham, who in 1972 had re­cruited him to the Sun­day Times. ‘One was in­cluded in it, even though he did all the talk­ing. But he made me feel he was talk­ing be­cause of me, which ex­plained the sense of ex­hil­a­ra­tion.’

This cer­tainly de­scribed my ex­pe­ri­ence. I was 24, re­cently re­turned from the south­ern tip of South Amer­ica, where I had read his first book, In Patag­o­nia. Back in Lon­don, I sought him out.

In those days, I kept a di­ary. On 19th Jan­uary 1982, I wrote, ‘The morn­ing with Bruce Chatwin, after even­tu­ally lo­cat­ing his Ea­ton Place bed­sit: a bi­cy­cle against the wall and Flaubert on the floor. He was younger than I imag­ined, rather like a Pol­ish refugee: baggy-trousered, ema­ci­ated, grey-blonde and blue-eyed, sharp-fea­tured and ra­zor-worded.

‘He has just de­liv­ered a man­u­script – a novel about a square mile near Clyro where two fam­i­lies fight, with­out ex­po­sure to the mod­ern world, through two world wars. He talks like a bird, very funny, very boy­ish and very well-read. He said to me, “Isn’t it ex­tra­or­di­nary how the most fraud­u­lent peo­ple of­ten have a very good eye for the gen­uine ar­ti­cle?’’ ’

I laugh to think of the im­age I had of the au­thor be­fore I met him. From In Patag­o­nia, I con­structed a silent ob­server whose long­est sen­tence was ‘I see’. In fact, he told me later, ‘I’m at my hap­pi­est hav­ing a good old yakking con­ver­sa­tion.’

Only af­ter­wards did I meet the lady in Patag­o­nia who con­fessed, ‘Don Bruce, he talked a lot, bas­tante [too much].’

Or, in Al­ice Springs, a woman who com­plained: ‘He mur­dered peo­ple with talk.’

He didn’t stop yakking from the mo­ment I en­tered his tiny at­tic flat. Within min­utes, he had pro­vided a tele­phone num­ber for the King of Patag­o­nia, a pipe-smoker who ran the free fac­ulty of law in the Faubourg Pois­son­nière. As well, he gave me num­bers for the King of Crete, the heir to the Aztec throne, and a gui­tarist in Bos­ton who be­lieved he was God.

In re­turn, he wanted to know about Ar­gentina. Flat­tered, I told him a story I’d picked up in Salta, about a fig­ure called Güemes, a hero of Ar­gentina’s in­de­pen­dence who had lent his colours to the fa­mous gau­cho pon­cho: black for the death of Güemes, red for the blood of his sol­diers. Güemes, I’d learnt, was an his­pani­ci­sa­tion of the Scot­tish We­myss: the colours were those of a We­myss tar­tan.

At this, Bruce’s eyes widened and, speak­ing in ital­ics, with his hands wav­ing, he ex­plained how he was at that mo­ment at work on a the­ory about the colour red.

Did I know that Garibaldi, while fight­ing for neigh­bour­ing Uruguay’s in­de­pen­dence, had filched a con­sign­ment of these pon­chos from a ware­house in Mon­te­v­ideo and, on the ship back to Italy, had tai­lored them into the uni­forms for his ‘red­shirts’ – and so in­spired the red flags fly­ing over the bar­ri­cades of rev­o­lu­tion­ary Europe and ul­ti­mately the Krem­lin?

Bruce had a tal­ent for mak­ing oth­ers see the world through his eyes. That day, I left his flat tak­ing rea­son­ably se­ri­ously the link be­tween a Scots tar­tan and the red flag of So­cial­ism.

In our sub­se­quent meet­ings, I swiftly re­alised that telling sto­ries was how he gave of him­self.

‘He was look­ing for sto­ries the world could give him and that he could em­bel­lish,’ says Rushdie, who trav­elled with him through cen­tral

Aus­tralia. ‘He didn’t give a damn whether they were true or not; only whether they were good.’

To Bruce, who was very the­atri­cal but also deeply se­ri­ous, a good story was a true story. His sto­ry­telling en­gaged all his fac­ul­ties, his youth­ful looks, his sav­age mimicry, his pea­cock voice... I still re­mem­ber his pierc­ing screech, dur­ing a walk near his house in

Ox­ford­shire, after he came up with a ti­tle for a well-known con­tem­po­rary’s next novel: Kiss­ing the Wrist.

He found the English lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment as­phyx­i­at­ing (‘Boy, you know when you’ve been pa­tro­n­ised by X’), in large mea­sure be­cause he had not been to univer­sity. He was 26 when he be­came a ma­ture ar­chae­ol­ogy stu­dent at Ed­in­burgh, and he didn’t last the course.

Ed­u­cated in the auc­tion room at Sotheby’s, and then on long trav­els in pur­suit of no­madic tribes in the Su­dan, Afghanistan and West Africa, he was an au­to­di­dact who grav­i­tated to­wards other au­to­di­dacts – such as Paddy Leigh Fer­mor, with whom he stayed in the Mani in Greece (where Chatwin’s ashes were scat­tered) while writ­ing The Song­lines, and the Aus­tralian nov­el­ist Mur­ray Bail, his trav­el­ling com­pan­ion in In­dia. He would have agreed that pre­cisely what qual­i­fies these and other of our best travel writ­ers – Robert By­ron, Nor­man Lewis, Colin Thubron – is the lack of a univer­sity de­gree.

More than most au­thors, and re­flect­ing the in­se­cure im­pulse of the self-taught, Bruce felt the need to eye­ball the peo­ple he wrote about, go to the places and read the books (of­ten in the orig­i­nal San­skrit or French).

Para­dox­i­cally, for some­one of­ten un­justly ac­cused of be­ing a ‘whop­per mer­chant’, he did not have an in­ven­tive imag­i­na­tion. He had the imag­i­na­tion to tell sto­ries – to con­nect them, to en­large, colour and im­prove them – but not to in­vent.

‘His art of ar­rang­ing, com­pos­ing and en­spir­it­ing the ma­te­rial was, though, more like a nov­el­ist’s than a jour­nal­ist’s,’ says his Amer­i­can ed­i­tor, Elis­a­beth Sifton.

That, for my money, is why his work stands to last. At his best, he is less eco­nom­i­cal with the truth than spend­thrift. He tells not a half-truth, but a truth and a half. As Sifton puts it, ‘Bruce was an artist, not a liar.’

Hans Mag­nus Enzens­berger was an­other Euro­pean poly­math who ‘got’ Bruce. ‘In psy­cho­log­i­cal terms, Chatwin suf­fers from Beziehungswahn –a delir­ium of es­tab­lish­ing con­nec­tions.’

In that sense, as I told the Aus­tralian in­ter­viewer who had never heard of him, Bruce was a pre­cur­sor of the in­ter­net, a con­nec­tive su­per­high­way with­out bound­aries, and with in­stant ac­cess to dif­fer­ent cul­tures. A sto­ry­teller of brac­ing prose, at once glass-clear and dense, he of­fered a brand-new way of rep­re­sent­ing trav­el­ling. And he held out in his six books the pos­si­bil­ity of some­thing won­der­ful and uni­fy­ing, in­un­dat­ing us with in­for­ma­tion but also with the prom­ise that we will one day get to the root of it.

‘He posed ques­tions that we all want an­swered,’ said Robyn David­son, an­other of his in­nu­mer­able friends, ‘and per­haps gave the il­lu­sion that they were an­swer­able.’

When Chatwin died 30 years ago of AIDS (prob­a­bly con­tracted from his Aus­tralian lover, Don­ald Richards) on 18th Jan­uary 1989, he brought down the drapes on an era; soon after, the Iron Cur­tain fell, re­placed by the world­wide web. What Bruce, who hated com­put­ers, would have made of the in­ter­net age, is hard to say.

He might have grown to re­sem­ble his de­scrip­tion of Herzog’s favourite ac­tor, Klaus Kin­ski, play­ing the Viceroy of Ouidah: ‘a sex­a­ge­nar­ian ado­les­cent all in white with a mane of yel­low hair’. He might have be­come a bor­ing An­cient Mariner like Sa­muel Tay­lor Co­leridge. Or he might, as I like to think, have ful­filled his po­ten­tial as one of the finest English writ­ers of the past cen­tury.

Rushdie put it best: ‘Bruce had just be­gun. We didn’t have his de­vel­oped books, the books that might have come out of fall­ing in love with his wife [El­iz­abeth Chan­ler, whom he mar­ried in 1965 and re­mained mar­ried to un­til his death]. We saw only the first act.’

‘A sto­ry­teller of brac­ing prose, at once glass-clear and dense’

Chatwin and St Ni­cholas Church in the Mani, where his ashes were scat­tered

An auc­tion-house ed­u­ca­tion: Bruce Chatwin, 20, work­ing at Sotheby’s, 1960

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