Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Traveler and Writer Extraordinaire


"...In his view, the true heroes of this impossible situation were the people who wouldn't raise a murmur against the Party or State - yet who seemed to carry the sum of Western Civilization in their heads. 'With their silence...they inflict a final insult on the State, by pretending it does not exist."' p. 15

 Bruce Chatwin died on this day in 1989, aged forty-eight. However suspect Chatwin’s travel books may be as guides or historical records, they continue to be praised as writing. Chatwin's novel On the Black Hill won the 1982 James Tait Black Memorial Prize; however my favorite of all his works is Utz, a beautiful little novel I first read in a local book group.  
It was then that I first became enamored with the writing of Bruce Chatwin.  More recently Utz was included in a class I took at University of Chicago on the literature of Prague.  Fundamentally it is the story of Kaspar Utz, who lives in Prague and who is consumed by collecting figurines and living a quiet life under the communist system. Utz is painted as a prisoner to his dolls while he lives under a totalitarian regime, so when he leaves on his annual sabbatical to Vichy in France, he finds capitalist life not to his liking, even though he has an alleged fortune in Swiss banks enabling him to enjoy a nice standard of living abroad, he misses his figurines and wants to return back home.
But really, that isn’t him, he was a state collaborator acting on small tasks when he was abroad and he enjoyed living under the Soviet system as he was comfortable with his life there. This is highlighted by the way he keeps his figurines so that only he can enjoy them, not the state, and that in an era where drabness is the norm, he can stand out from the crowd and lure partners with his goods brought overseas and obtained locally on the black market. Chatwin creates a unique and believable world in this small jewel of a story.

Chatwin was especially noted for his travel writing and his many friendships and acquaintances in the literary and art worlds.  The following is from “Mrs. Mandelstam,” Chatwin’s account of his visit with the widow of the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, collected in What Am I Doing Here?, the last book he published before he died:
  "White metal fastenings glittered among the brown stumps of her teeth. A cigarette stuck to her lower lip. Her nose was a weapon. You knew for certain she was one of the most powerful women in the world, and knew she knew it…. She waved me to a chair and, as she waved, one of her breasts tumbled out of her nightie. "Tell me," she shoved it back, "are there any grand poets left in your country?"

Utz by Bruce Chatwin. Penguin Books. 1989 (1988)

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