What am I Doing Here by Bruce Chatwin - review by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel

To Be a Nomad

What am I Doing Here

By

Jonathan Cape 378pp £12.95
 

‘My whole life has been a search for the miraculous,’ Bruce Chatwin says. Each of these essays, fragments and sketches written between 1972 and the author’s recent death are way-stations in the search. Chatwin is unclassifiable. Certainly he is one of the practitioners who have enlarged, liberated and dignified the notion of travel writing. He is also a novelist and a cultural historian, a man of cosmopolitan outlook, capacious imagination, formidable erudition and fertile eccentricity.

‘Bizarre’ is an overused adjective now. But read these pages and you will see some bizarrerie. He meets, in Cameroon, a travelling salesman from Hong Kong who has recently contracted syphilis. In Moscow he finds Nadezhda Mandelstam, an ugly woman repining on a rumpled bed, engaged in a quest for ‘grandeur’ in art. In Ghana he sees an establishment called The Ayatollah Drinks Bar. In Ghana also, in temperatures of 113°F, he assists in the filming of his book The Viceroy of Ouidah. The director is his friend Werner Herzog, and amongst the cast is Klaus Kinski, a mutinous army of extras drafted in to play ‘Amazons’, and His Highness Nana Agyefi Kwame II, Omanhene of Nsein. Horrors lie in wait for the author: vile diseases, military policemen, coups d’état and extremes of climate. A man with a narrower heart would draw bitter conclusions. Chatwin comments little, and in the best pieces moralises not at all; his observation is informed by his belief that ‘man is “naturally good” in Rousseau’s sense … there is no place for evil in evolution.’

We find the author making himself at home in the Arbat, or cruising down the Volga with a boatload of Germans, and visiting the house where Lenin grew up. He reflects, in a piece weighted with nostalgia and melancholy, on the journey to Afghanistan he undertook in 1962, in the footsteps of his hero Robert Byron, author of The Road to Oxiana. We find him in Nepal in the foothills of Everest, in search of the Yeti, accompanied by 3 dzoms – animals which are a cross between a yak and a cow, and which, conveniently, are encouraged forward with cries of DZOM! DZOM! He does not meet the monster, but sees its tracks, and hears the tale of a certain Yeti who, like an upland Caliban, was tamed by a llama and would fetch wood and water for him. He chases up anthropological marginalia with unsparing energy and undiminished optimism. In India he sets off eagerly in pursuit of a ‘wolf-boy’ he has heard of – conscious, certainly, of how many others have been down the same delusive trail, but convinced that ‘the discovery of an authentic wolf-child would be of immense importance to students of human and animal behaviour.’ Through his travels runs one justificatory refrain: ‘Man’s real home is not a house, but the Road, and life itself is a journey to be walked on foot.’

Again and again, in different quarters of the globe, Chatwin broods over the notions he formulated in Songlines. His views on the necessity of nomadism are seemingly shared with Werner Herzog, some Australian aborigines and no one else, and there is something of the Victorian schoolbook in the broad assertive sweep of his argument about the origins of civilisation. The delicacies of speculation give way to the thump of moral conviction; it must be so, for it fits his world-picture. Elsewhere, bold and incisive thinking carries the reader along. His Russian essays are full of interest, particularly his account of the debate between materialists and leftwing Futurists in post-revolutionary art; he analyses the ‘image breaking streak’ in Russian cultural history and traces its roots in Islam. Another essay, The Very Sad Story of Salah Bougrine, is a graceful example of how Chatwin amplifies his themes. He takes as his central incident the apparently motiveless murder of a bus driver by an Algerian in Marseilles; from this he develops his disquisition on the pieds noirs, the FLN, the place of the immigrants in the French economy (an old French word for strike-breaker, he says, is bedouin) and on the nature of French colonialism. He describes the squalor, reminiscent of Calcutta, in which immigrants were living when the incident took place, and in the course of an informative, atmospheric and moving narrative builds up a picture of the world which gave birth to the crime. Then there are incidental pieces and sketches, vignettes of the art world. In his portraits of fellow thinkers, collectors, musicians and travellers there is a common thread, a certain perception of the artist – the misunderstood child, the miserable adolescent, making an early decision in favour of his talent; and sudden intuitions are common amongst his friends, as are chance events and fortuitous encounters which change the course of their lives.

There is a sense in which everything here is travel writing. Everything is a quest, a pursuit, and commonly in travel writing there are two tendencies: to make the mundane exotic, and to make the exotic mundane. Some writers hold these opposites in an exquisite tension; Chatwin’s method is different. His life and writing is a flight into exoticism, and occasionally the more earth-bound reader may find himself muttering ‘Oh yes, and I suppose their heads were green and their hands were blue and they went to sea in a sieve.’ It is a matter of temperament; Chatwin is a romantic, and a dazzling romanticism runs through his work. It is interesting to compare his writing on Australia with Shiva Naipaul’s sardonic observations in An Unfinished Journey. In Chatwin’s work everything is more than it seems, nothing is ever less; he builds up, he never demolishes, never deflates. He has nothing of a debunking sensibility. It is as if the notion of pretension in people, in ideas – has never crossed his mind, and frequently his work is innocent of irony where others would employ it. His tone is optimistic and curious; his prose is without affectation or fakery and is often of a lapidary beauty. One would like some of these sentences for a monument. In the ‘rainy, rotten-fruit Africa’ of the west coast, his eye craves the long horizons of the savannah country to the north: ‘For whenever I went back to Africa, and saw a camel caravan, a view of white tents, or a single blue turban far off in the heat haze, I knew that, no matter what the Persians said, Paradise was never a garden but a waste of white thorns.’

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