He wanted to die the way he had lived—exotically, in the gray area of legend on the border of fact and fiction. So he seeded the ground with stories, each based in some truth, about the strange wasting disease he had and how he had contracted it. The disease was carried in bat feces, and he had picked it up while exploring a cave. He had gotten it from eating a slice of raw Cantonese whale, or from feasting on a thousand-year-old “black egg.” It had been found only in 10 Chinese peasants, a few Thai, a killer whale, and him.
Bruce Chatwin died of AIDS in France on January 18, 1989. After the cause was reported, his evasion was debated in the press, with the principle of respect for a sick person’s privacy weighed against the desire for candor about the “gay plague.” He was the first notable English arts figure to die of AIDS.
He was also a writer American readers were just discovering. His two odd travel books bracketed two novels (a third came later); and while the novels, The Viceroy of Ouidah and Utz, were meticulously researched, the travel books drew powerfully on the imagination—In Patagonia depicting Southern Argentina as a fantastical place at the end of the earth, and The Songlines interpreting the aboriginal “dreaming tracks” as an invisible map of Australia. Off the pages lay a life as interesting as the work—more so, if the legend could be believed.
Nicholas Shakespeare shows that Chatwin’s fanciful elaboration of his disease was in keeping with his lifelong practice of revising the facts. But this book is no “pathography” bent on exposing the gap between the subject’s version of events and what really happened. Shakespeare, who knew Chatwin, has written three novels; as he sees it, Chatwin’s impulse to stylize the facts in order to make a good story is the impulse of the artist, and in filling in the blanks in Chatwin’s too-short life and his slim books he means to rescue Chatwin from the Travel section and place him in Literature once and for all.
The book is not Chatwinesque. It is long, repetitive, and obvious. It makes a saint of Chatwin’s wife, Elizabeth, who tended sheep in the country while he traveled the world writing and having affairs. It lurches between the poles of Chatwin’s character: the tirelessly entertaining talker and the narcissist who opened his shirt at dinner parties to examine his chest hair; the nomad and the guest who set himself up in friends’ castles and wouldn’t leave; the companion of native peoples and the confrere of Robert Mapplethorpe; the ascetic whose London flat was shorn of possessions and who wanted to be a monk on Mount Athos, and the connoisseur who traveled with a hundred pounds of books and, near the end, losing his mind, had himself pushed in a wheelchair from one London gallery to the next, checkbook open, pointing at things he liked.
The book is slow getting going; but once Chatwin, age 34, sets off for Patagonia to write “something I have always wanted to write up,” it becomes a very good biography, because it really does make him seem as interesting as his books and his legend.
Legend surrounded him long before he put pen to paper, and his charm and good looks made others eager to add to it. After an unremarkable childhood in Birmingham, he got a job as a porter at Sotheby’s in London, where he was found to have “the eye,” the essential trait of an art dealer. By the time he was 25 he was a director of the firm; but after temporarily losing his sight from looking too hard at works of art, the legend has it he left Sotheby’s to study archaeology and then to travel and write, and “switched his ability to find antiques ‘to one of finding unusual characters.’ ”
In 1976 he brought out In Patagonia. It is a unique book—brief, harsh, devastating episodes about odd expatriates, written the way Hemingway might have written if he had fallen under the influence of Huysmans and not Gertrude Stein. The Patagonian expats have complained about the book ever since.
When he went to Patagonia, Chatwin had traveled widely. But what set him apart was his devotion to an idea—the notion
that in becoming human, man had acquired, together with his straight legs and striding walk, a migratory “drive” or instinct to walk long distances through the seasons; that this drive was inseparable from his central nervous system; and that, when warped in conditions of settlement, it found new outlets in violence, greed, status-seeking or a mania for the new.
Chatwin spent years trying to write a book based on his “nomad” theory, and he expounded upon it to anyone who would listen. Naturally, Shakespeare applies the theory to Chatwin himself. And he shows how Chatwin, aware he was dying, folded material from the nomad book into The Songlines, making its thesis a skeleton key to his work and his life.
Who was Bruce Chatwin? With his love of art, his wanderlust, his lust for legend, Chatwin has been compared to André Malraux, the French writer and adventurer. But as I read Shakespeare’s biography, a less likely comparison came to mind.
Bruce Chatwin and Raymond Carver both emerged as if out of nowhere in the same year, 1976. Each derived, from Hemingway, a style that embodied a world and a way of life, yet prompted envious imitation by other writers.
Each became a byword for a school of writing (Chatwinesque, Carveresque) and then died (Carver in August 1988, Chatwin six months later), leaving a devoted wife to manage the flow of unpublished works and testimonials. Each was dismissed as a phony by some critics. And though each was loved and looked after, each was essentially lonely. It can be said that Chatwin’s protagonist is a person who fled the boredom Carver depicted, or that Carver’s stories tell what happens to nomads who stay home.
Bruce Chatwin got away, though, and that brute fact, as much as his prose style or his eye for a story, is the key to his appeal. In the post-Cold War world of open borders and frequent-flyer miles, Chatwin embodies a powerful ideal: the compulsive traveler, who is unclear whether he is running away or running toward something. If he hadn’t lived the way he did, and written so well about it, the Lonely Planet people would have had to invent him.