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 into modernity but Lewis and Benjamin largely remain behind, sometimes scrabbling forward to catch it, but mostly just clinging to its tail, being dragged reluctantly forward. Though they too are Chatwinesque oddities, their lives are not sources of irony, but instead of wonder.
The book is also a reminder of how lovely Chatwin’s language could be, how years of seeing had given him the power to describe in terms both startling and true: a ‘‘pewter sun’’ hangs low over the cold Black Hill, the rooks’ ‘‘wingtips glinting like flakes of ice.’’ An Afro-Brazilian boy in ‘‘Ouidah’’ is notable for his ‘‘wad of blond hair’’; and in ‘‘The Songlines,’’ a prized possession of childhood, a conch shell from the West Indies that Chatwin named Mona, is rendered as a ‘‘sheeny pink vulva’’ in which he heard the sea’s shushing slush. Such instances are testament to how Chatwin could isolate the most revealing detail from the people and places and situations he observed: He may have been writing about himself, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t watching everything around him. A writer, like a traveler, is a thief. He waits and waits, and at the moment of divulgence — which inevitably arrives, should he be able to wait long enough — he seizes the secret or confession he came for, magpie-like, and flits away, a glossy black shadow. Someone else’s story becomes his own, and his to tell and share. And when there were no appropriate words for a tale, when English provided no exact match? Well, then, Chatwin simply invented the language he needed, sometimes so evocatively, with such charm and precision — the flies on a hot day in June ‘‘zooming and zizzing’’ around the twins’ barn — that one forgets that one is encountering them for the first time here, that they are Chatwin’s own creations or resurrections. (Resourcefulness: another of the traveler’s necessary qualities. When something doesn’t exist, be it shelter or friends or words, one learns to make them with whatever’s available.)
It is never quite a satisfying exercise — and at any rate, a rather insulting one — to try to excavate from a work of fiction evidence of the author’s regrets and misgivings about his own life. But ‘‘On the Black Hill’’ makes it nearly impossible not to indulge. By the time the novel was published, Chatwin had been a professional peripatetic for a decade; seven years later, at the age of 48, he would be dead of an AIDS-related illness. One cannot help but wonder if in Lewis, an armchair traveler and geography lover who is never quite able to venture far from home, Chatwin was writing himself an alternative narrative. For this is a book about the difficult work of standing still; it is a book that suggests that although (maybe?) the ideal human state may in fact be movement, the more challenging one is remaining exactly where you were born, that accepting that the earth may not be yours to occupy is its own kind of nobility. ‘‘The planet was now full of bickering little countries with unpronounceable names,’’ Lewis comforts himself. ‘‘Real journeys only existed in the imagination.’’ But for Chatwin, the journeys were both real and imaginary: Fact became fiction, and fiction fact, and the terra incognita he traveled between them was where the true adventure lay.
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