“It is only through ‘now’ that we can begin to make sense of our world” – The Novels (On the Black Hill, Utz & The Viceroy of Ouidah) by Bruce Chatwin

bctnIn the articles and pieces written since Bruce Chatwin’s death in 1989, the word that seems to recur more often than any to describe him, is ‘enigma’. Even W.G Sebald said it, who was hardly the most categorical of writers, and his premature death at the age of 48, only adds to the mysteriousness of Chatwin’s life and work. The difficulty to pin him down seems a transcendent aspect of him, like defining his prose which is precise but not sparse, and his ability to span place and time in brief periods, and not necessarily making him flighty or ephemeral. Does it all stem from a wanderer’s individualism? There’s no definitive answer, but a man who leaves his job at a leading British newspaper without apparent warning to go and travel, is likely to be perceived as nothing less than enigmatic.

Vintage have republished the three novels of Chatwin in one, near 600-page volume, with an accompanying introduction by Hanya Yanagihara. The novels enjoyed some success in their time with On the Black Hill (1982) winning the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and Utz (1988) longlisted for the Booker prize. It’s hard to say whether Chatwin would have appreciated them all collected (The Viceroy of Ouidah, pubchatwin1lished in 1980, being the other) into a hefty tome, but it certainly allows a more cohesive picture of a writer to emerge.

From what we know of Chatwin’s tendency to depart then, you might be surprised to see On the Black Hill set and hardly leaving rural Hereford. It hardly leaves the village either, as we focus on Benjamin and Lewis, two brothers who have slept in the same bed together for forty-two years, in this Hardy-esque setting. John Updike read Benjamin and Lewis’ relationship as a homosexual marriage, and indeed, there were questions about Chatwin’s sexuality, but this probably reflects more on Updike’s perception of marriage; their compelling relationship cannot be reduced to that bland metaphor:

“Often in the past, if either twin caught sight of himself – in a mirror, In a window, or even on the surface of the water – he mistook his own reflection from his other half. So now, when Benjamin poised his razor at the ready and glanced up at the glass, he had the sensation of slitting Lewis’ throat.”

Certainly there is something in that idea of hating in another what you see in yourself, but the marriage of two men could be read as just that – a composite of two men. We might think that it is Benjamin who is holding Lewis behind, the lame one who needs the flighty one to repress his desire, but as much as there is a question here of what the forces are that move people through the world, be it nomads, travellers, it’s also as much of a question as the forces that make people stay. Chatwin’s true examination lies in Benjamin here.

And so if there’s one thing that is constant through Chatwin’s work, it is the role of borders. In On the Black Hill, there is a strain of imagery composed around metal and machinery. Even though it operates as quite an extensive metaphor, it entwines with that great concern of borders, a concept he often lamented as force of repression. The question of who might be setting the borders gets asked in On the Black Hill, as Benjamin and Lewis’ father seems nothing more than functionalist machine, even willing to use physical, retributive means on his family. But look how Amos thinks about his future children, “he thought about nothing but his baby boy – and in his imagination pictured a brawny little fellow who would muck out the cowshed.”

This isn’t descending into anything Freudian because Chatwin’s true skill in this novel is that he isn’t necessarily concerned with the family unit; the perspective is outward rather than inward, despite it being an incredibly insular setting. What makes it so powerful though, is that it allows him to talk about the combination of forces, like in Amos’ fantasy, and like Benjamin and Lewis opposing one another – their pain and pleasure:

“Deliberately, as if reaching back to the innocence of early childhood, they turned away from the modern age; and though the neighbours invested in new farm machinery, they persuaded their father not to waste his money…Lewis only extravagance was a subscription to the News of the World, and after lunch on Sundays, he would riffle through its pages in case there was an air-crash to paste in his scrapbook.”

The scrapbook is important to Lewis; mechanisms, pieces, indeed scrap, forming, to make a picture of a life, perhaps similar to the Cubist paintings Chatwin likened his writing to. Mechanisms that are not just there for laborious movements and labour, but joy as well.  You’ll see it in Lewis’ relatively perverse pleasure to Benjamin’s revolt at the tractor they purchase. Perhaps it’s a deep rooted satisfaction that begs to be satiated, as much as it may seem perverse. Does it relate to some kind of border within? We’ve all heard of the traveller who gets the itch or the bug on their first outing and certainly there is an itch within Chatwin’s writing that’s begging to be scratched.

Whilst there might not be too much machinery in Utz, there is a big border called the ‘Iron Curtain’.chatwin2 There’s also some movement across borders that questions its own necessity that it seems, Chatwin himself was asking at the time of writing Utz: “As you go along you literally collect places. I’m fed up with going places. I shan’t go any more,” he said. A year later he would die. Yet, there is something in this novel about a Messien porcelain collector, described as the Emperor Rudolf II of his time, that questions the need to move between borders. Kaspar Joachim Utz isn’t collecting places, but he is collecting something. There’s an obscured aspect to it though as he seems to border on the obsessive.

“Finally, we passed from the monkeys to the rest of the menageries where there were wagtails, partridges, a bittern, a pair of sparrow-hawks, parrots and parakeets, orioles and roller birds, and peacocks displaying their tail feathers. I counted a camel, a chamois, an elephant, a crocodile, and a Lipzzaner led by a Negro.”

A writer is on commission to write about Utz and it is he who narrates the story. In the way that he lists all those objects, it questions if there would be any overarching theme apart from the person’s expedient desire to collect them. Utz has to keep crossing the border, literally to collect porcelain, but there’s another border he needs to keep crossing to keep up the satisfaction. Yet there seems to be a fear that something will happen if he stops. There’s a recurring debate in Utz around the nature and purpose of museums that points itself to this potentially asking if they are so benign? Do they provide the context we need or just a stale education? A suggestion of the real fate of a potential museum piece is wrought in the fate of a fly:

“A fly had landed on the table cloth…With a flick of the wrist, Orlík upturned a glass tumbler, and trapped the insect beneath it. He slid the glass to the edge of the table and transferred the fly to the killing-jar he took from his pocket. There was an angry buzzing, then silence.”

He calls it the ‘killing jar’, but he doesn’t say that the fly dies. Certainly it’s implied in its silence, but the idea of it being rendered silent suggests something much more powerful.

And this leads into the recurring question of the politics Chatwin asks probably most chatwin 4obvious in The Viceroy of Ouidah. This was his first novel (and the last in the collection and technically the worst, which is what maybe inspired the ordering of the collection). It has the signs of an early fiction writer; perhaps erring too much on the side of moralising than a depiction of the politics, and then the desire to fit the whole history in one work (Chatwin often tries to do this anyway, but he got noticeably better at it) which can lead to a glazed, plodding affect in the prose.

There is some real interest and quality though. It tells the real-life based story of Francisco Manoel da Silva, who becomes the most powerful slave trader in Ouidah, West Africa – an area we now know would cover Benin, Togo, and Ghana. As Bernadine Everisto wrote, The Viceroy of Ouidah “is Africa viewed from the outside; clammy, lethargic and filled with emotional torpor and inexplicable weirdness” which is one of the most concise renderings of that outsider’s perception of Africa . But like in Utz, there is death prevalent from the first pages:

“Fires tore through the country with a resinous cracking, leaving velvety stumps where once there had been trees….Rats ran down boy’s hammock strings and bit him as he slept. Rattlesnakes came into the yard, attracted by anything that still had life. When a column of driver-ants swept through the house, the woman had only the energy to save a saucepan of manioc flour and some strips of wind-dried beef.”

From here then, we see the story of da Silva, and although things connect in a narrative sense, what connects these first moments of death with the rest of the life? Is it death that ultimately unifies? Look how it attracts and connects in the passage above, like the rattlesnake attracted to ‘anything left with life’. It’s as if Chatwin works backward to move forward. The sense of plodding in the prose was consciously done by Chatwin in some capacity, always being made of the movement from one time and space to the next, even if it is overdone. But if this sounds banal, it’s because it almost becomes banal in the novel: no length of time is unaccounted for yet we know there is a definite passage. And so, if we’re to travel, where is the final destination? Is it the one on the first page of The Viceroy of Ouidah? Death, and perhaps the journey to it, holds a mercurial status for Chatwin. The tragic irony is that we are ourselves are reading and spectating  with the person no longer there.

Any Cop?: At his best, Chatwin is a writer who, whether it be fiction or fact, is trying to understand how the individual’s path lays alongside the many others that have been before him. There’s never a moralising message to take home or hang your hat on though, but simply, when it’s as powerful and realised as On the Black Hill, it’s quite an emotional thing to behold.   “Now was always the starting point”, he says in The Songlines. Chatwin realises that it is only through ‘now’ that we can begin to make sense of our world. A finite pathway that signals all of our limitations, but ultimately, all of our possibilities.


Liam Bishop


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