Book Review: Bruce Chatwin Had a Fiendish Typewriter

“Have just walked 150 miles,” he wrote Ms. Chatwin in January 1975. “I have sung ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ in Welsh in a remote chapel on Christmas Day, have eaten lemon curd tartlets with an old Scot (who has never been to Scotland) but has made his own bagpipes and wears the kilt to dinner. … I have discussed the poetics of [Osip] Mandelstam with a Ukrainian doctor missing both legs.”

Where The Nomadic Alternative had been a dissection of an -ism, In Patagonia was a koan on restlessness. The book is a series of prose portraits of Patagonians and sideways jaunts into Patagonian history; but its stock plot, concealed in the vast distance between the narrator and his subjects, is the old tale of pursuing a strange beast across a foreign land. In addition to a poetic, seamless prose, Chatwin had discovered irony: The original title was A Piece of Brontosaurus, only the beast being pursued was a sloth that was, moreover, extinct; and it was not really the sloth that the narrator was hunting, or even its skin, but the cave where its skin was discovered by a relative whom Chatwin had never met. Any pretext at all was enough to call us to the horizon.

Chatwin’s reputation grew with the novels that followed, The Viceroy of Ouidah and On the Black Hill. It exploded in 1986 with The Songlines, a novelized account of two trips Chatwin made researching the Aboriginal song-maps that crisscross the outback. Chatwin was not an anthropologist, and his understanding of the songlines was not quite right–mere details. Going walkabout amounted to a sacrament for Aborigines, and in walking through the world and singing the myths of its creation, they kept it alive. In Aboriginal culture, wandering and existence were synonymous. Chatwin had finally found a hook on which to hang his theories about nomads.

“I have a card index of the old nomad book to plunder,” he wrote Ms. Chatwin in January 1983. A month later, he told her the form his book would take: “It would be another In Patagonia minus the poetic dimension.” The prose in The Songlines, like the outback, is spare and dazzling, and as in the previous book, Chatwin drifts along the surface of his obsession, though the distance between the heavily fictionalized “Bruce,” the capable, taciturn narrator, and the thinly disguised people who accompany and assist him is not quite as great. Two-thirds of the way in, The Songlines bursts like a watch with its backing pried off. Stalled by bad weather, the narrator suspends the story, opens his notebooks on nomadism and scatters the machinery of his imagination over the remainder of the book.

He made the decision to empty his notebooks out of desperation. As with The Nomadic Alternative, the grandiosity of Chatwin’s vision had become a fatal drag on progress. And he was growing sicker by the day, from what he never really accepted was AIDS. He feared he might die before finishing the book he’d first pitched in 1969. (In the end, he had another book in him, the novel Utz.)

“It does not take too much imagination to suppose that man, as a species, has suffered some tremendous ordeal in his evolutionary past,” Chatwin writes toward the end of The Songlines. “The fact that he scraped through is a measure of the magnitude of the threat. To prove this is another matter … [what] if, at some critical watershed, the Beast had been about to win?”

Reading this passage is like seeing a ghost; since Chatwin died, it has been shown by molecular genomics that humanity teetered on the verge of extinction in the distant, prehistoric past, and that our genomes are still reeling from the violent transition from nomadism to agriculture. It was probably not predation, as Chatwin speculated, that nearly did us in, but a germ or an environmental cataclysm. The humans who survived weren’t the strongest or the smartest, necessarily, but the most restless–the ones who upped sticks and left the trouble behind. We are their descendants. We carry the DNA that saved them.

Book Review: Bruce Chatwin Had a Fiendish Typewriter