Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, page 23
A few memories of my travels with Bruce in Central Australia in early 1984:
We are driving down a wide red-dirt road when a dingo emerges from nowhere and stands by the roadside, staring. We stop the car and stare back. The dingo is unperturbed. Bruce starts telling it sick dingo jokes. ‘What’s a baby in a pram next to a dingo?—Meals on wheels.’ The dingo, disgusted, lopes off. (I discover later that sick dingo jokes infect all visitors to Alice Springs. The producers of the recent film about the Lindy Chamberlain case had trouble settling on a title for the movie. Among the titles they considered were ‘Foetal Attraction’ and ‘Full Matinée Jacket’.)
The idea of the ‘dreaming tracks’ or ‘songlines’ captivates me as much as it does Bruce. How could writers fail to love a world which has been mapped by stories? I find myself envying him his subject. He talks about it constantly and we go in for long arcane passages of supposition. What happens when two songlines cross? Do the songs acquire common lines? Or does one line ‘burrow’ while another ‘flies’? The London Underground map appears in my mind. I keep nagging away at the idea of junctions: the Piccadilly Circuses and King’s Crosses of these strange, walking poems. But so many of the songlines are lost, their people exterminated by white settlers, that it’s impossible to rebuild the whole map.
Each aboriginal tribesperson ‘owns’ a piece of the local song. Bruce and I get stuck into another futile discussion: which came first, the urge to narrate or the urge to own? Imagination or possession? Chicken or egg? I listen, Bruce talks. I am a fairly garrulous person myself, but in Bruce’s company I don’t manage more than a few interruptions. I start becoming rather proud of these.
Bruce talks about everything under the sun. I remember a long disquisition about the writer Eça de Queiroz. I remember many etymological snippets. ‘The word bugger comes originally from the pejorative French verb, bougrir—to make love like a Bulgarian.’
At this stage, Bruce thought his book would be called Arkady, and would take the simple form of a Platonic dialogue. Two men sitting under a tree in Alice Springs, letting their talk range across time and space. In our four-wheel-drive Toyota, he is, I realize, using me to help him have a kind of rough draft of this talk.
Later, after the book is published, Bruce tells someone that ‘of course’ I am Arkady. This isn’t true. I know one person in Alice Springs, like Arkady an Australian of Russian descent, also highly knowledgeable about aboriginal religion, who is a much more obvious model. Nor do I recognize a single line of our conversation in The Songlines. The truth is, ‘of course’, that Bruce is Arkady as well as the character he calls Bruce. He is both sides of the dialogue.
An impressive fact. Bruce made a great many telephone calls from various motels. In his famous moleskin notebooks he seemed to have the phone numbers of everyone on the planet. When he called someone he invariably said simply, ‘Bruce here’. Amazingly, in that country stuffed with Bruces, I never heard anybody ask: ‘Bruce who?’ No other Bruce ever sounded quite like Bruce.
Bruce takes me to meet a Lutheran pastor who looks like a cowboy; weatherbeaten face, wrinkled eyes. This man offers us tea and cakes and begins to chat with gentle craziness about the genetic differences that make aboriginal peoples unable to hold their liquor. ‘Their intestines are not like ours.’ Apparently no white Australians ever get drunk. Bruce treats the man like an old friend. When we leave I ask him why. ‘He knows a vast amount of stuff.’ Later I discover that many of the young white radicals I meet in Alice Springs, people working as lawyers for the Land Rights movement, or people working with the various tribes ‘out bush’, distrust Bruce for his apparent political conservatism and his ‘anthropological’ orientation. Bruce is untroubled, walking through the minefield of black Australian politics with unconcern. (When I read The Songlines I said, ‘You realize many of the sort of people you’ve written about will be pretty cross about some of this?’ He said he knew, but what could one do? You had to tell it as you saw it.)
At Glen Helen we hear the story of the crooked pub owner who filled the hollow tubes of his car’s roofrack with sweet sherry and made a fortune driving around the bush selling the stuff to ‘the boongs’. Again, the stories of genetic inferiority recur.
At Hermannsburg, a Lutheran mission settlement for aboriginal peoples, we go out beyond the township’s limits to meet a man running a car mechanics’ workshop with a wholly aboriginal workforce. Out here cars are endlessly cannibalized to make other equally ancient cars run. When the mechanic sees us coming he yells, ‘Look! It’s the bookies!’ We have brought copies of our books as presents. When his wife is offered these, she adopts a wide-eyed, reverential expression, caresses the Picador paperbacks and says, ‘You mean we can have them to look at for a bit?’ ‘No,’ says Bruce, ‘please keep them, they’re gifts.’ She can’t believe it, and then, as if handling sacred objects, wraps In Patagonia and Midnight’s Children in a bit of cloth and puts them up on a high shelf.
At the Inland Motel near Ayers Rock we hear about the truck-driver, Douglas Crabbe, who was thrown out of the pub one night and went outside and reversed his truck into the bar, killing and maiming a number of people. The locals rebuilt the pub even though they knew the whole motel was going to be demolished a year later anyway.
Later we are in Alice Springs and hear that Crabbe’s trial is under way and he is in the witness-box. Bruce and I grab our notepads and go off to play court reporter. Crabbe is softly spoken, dapper, with a little brown moustache and button-down blue shirt with dark blue knotted tie. While giving evidence he keeps his eyes cast down. His line is that he didn’t know what he was doing, he has no memory of it: a temporary insanity plea, I suppose. He says repeatedly that he’s not the sort of man to commit such a crime. When pressed about this, he says: ‘I’ve been driving trucks now for four and a half years, and treating them as if they were my own.’ (He doesn’t quite add ‘children’.) ‘So for me to half destroy a truck is completely against my personality.’ I look at the jury and see them all begin to sort of hiss and grind their teeth and decide to send him away and throw away the key. Afterwards I say to Bruce, ‘Wasn’t that an amazing piece of self-destruction?’ Bruce is genuinely puzzled, betraying an unexpected innocence. ‘I don’t see what was so wrong with that. He was actually telling the whole truth about himself. He was being honest.’
I come to think of Bruce’s unwritten book as the burden he’s been carrying all his writing life. Once he’s done this, I think, he’ll be free, he’ll be able to take flight in all sorts of directions.
The thing I find saddest about Utz is that is suggests to me that Bruce was indeed beginning that new, light-spirited phase of flight. Utz is all we have of what had become possible for him once his Australian odyssey helped him express the ideas which he’d carried about for so many years.
There is in the centre of Alice Springs a brave woman trying to run a proper literary bookshop. After I left Bruce in the Alice, this lady persuaded him to do a lunchtime signing session. She said Alice Springs was full of fans of his, and she would advertise, and so forth. Out of friendship and admiration for her, Bruce agreed. The advertisement appeared in the small-ads section of the paper, next to notices about animal provender and camel rearing. Bruce went to the bookshop with his Mont Blanc pen at the appointed hour.
Not a single person came into the shop.
What happened in Australia was that Bruce and I became friends. If you spend that much time talking that much with another person, locked up inside a Toyota station wagon and a succession of motel rooms, you find out a great deal about each other. At the end of such a journey you either hate each other passionately or you discover you’re in love.
Speaking for myself, I fell in love.
Bruce Chatwin and I drove around Central Australia in a four-wheel-drive station wagon, a vehicle which, we were repeatedly informed, ‘must be Toyota’s Answer to the Little Subaru.’ Bruce puzzle
To be with Bruce Chatwin was, usually, to be his willing audience. His conversation would soar up Mount Everest (we were halfway up Ayers Rock, and I was half dead and turning purple, when he mentioned that he’d recently made it to the Everest base camp), and just as swiftly plummet to a discussion of the diseases one might contract from divers European and African whores. He was a magnificent raconteur of Scheherazadean inexhaustibility, a gilt-edged name-dropper, a voracious reader of esoteric texts, a scholargypsy, a mimic—his Mrs Gandhi was perfect—and a giggler of international class. He was as talkative as he was curious, and he was curious about everything, from the origins of evil to the question asked by the Little Subaru. His words about the ex-Chamberlain of King Zog of Albania are truer of himself: ‘People of his kind will never come again.’ What a voice we lost when his fell silent! How much he still had to say.
What Am I Doing Here (could the fastidious Chatwin really have agreed to the omission of the question mark?) is what we have left. His last book, a ‘personal selection’ of essays, portraits, meditations, travel writing and other, unclassifiable, Chatwinian forms of prose, was put together during his final, terrible year of wasting away, and it is inevitably a little patchy in places; but one of its chief delights is that it contains so many of its author’s best anecdotes, his choicest performances.
Here is Bruce’s ‘snake story’, as told to him by the cleaning lady from Palermo, and Assunta’s monologue is really Bruce ‘doing’ Assunta, all waving arms and flashing eyes, a figure not from life but from a comic opera. And here is Bruce’s encounter with the footprints of the Yeti, and Bruce’s visit to a Mansonesque hippy family in Boston. His campier performances are here, too: a delicious snatch of Diana Vreeland, and my own favourite Chatwin story, the one about his meeting with Noel Coward, who told him: ‘I have very much enjoyed meeting you, but unfortunately, we will never meet again, because very shortly I will be dead. But if you’ll take one parting word of advice, “Never let anything artistic stand in your way.”’
There are, it should swiftly be said, many more substantial pleasures to be had from this collection. Bruce Chatwin was often at his best when furthest afield, and What Am I Doing Here contains some superb pieces from Russia—an unforgettable Nadezhda Mandelstam, carelessly stuffing her errant breasts back into her blouse; a concise, brilliant account of the decline of the Leftist Movement in post-revolutionary Russian art, and of its excavation and preservation by the collector George Costakis; a trip down the Volga that is a classic of ‘travel writing’. Bruce was planning a large-scale Russian novel when he died; he might have proved to be a kind of Nabokov in reverse. We’ll never know.
Africa, in which that ‘desert mutation’, homo sapiens, the nomad, the walker, first evolved, is the setting for some equally fine pieces: the account of the coup Chatwin stumbled into in Benin while researching The Viceroy of Ouidah, and the very different (comic rather than scary) account of how Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski set about filming Viceroy (re-titled Cobra Verde) some years later, in Ghana. In this latter essay, Bruce has untypically, and kindly, censored himself, omitting the no doubt libellous accounts of sexual shenanigans on location, and also his less than complimentary view of the finished film, both of which were included with relish in the oral version of the tale.
Bruce’s politics could be, to put it politely, a little innocent. He could bang on about how things were really getting a lot better in South Africa, and he could fail to understand why Nadine Gordimer was irritated by his insistence on referring to Namibia as ‘South West Africa’. But he could also get things magnificently right, and the essay in this collection entitled ‘The Very Sad Story of Salah Bourguine’, which uses the inter-racial murder in Marseilles as a way of opening up the unsavoury subject of French colonialism in North Africa, is one of the most vivid things ever written on this difficult topic.
Bruce was much attracted (and attractive) to formidable ladies of a certain age, and this volume offers us quite a gallery of them: the aforesaid Nadezhda Mandelstam and Diana Vreeland, but also Madeleine Vionnet, ‘the Architect of Couture’, who designed her clothes on a doll because she didn’t dare tell her father the extent of her business (he worried, as a result, that she might be retarded); and Maria Reiche, spending her life trying to decode the mystery of the lines and patterns on the Peruvian pampa. And the piece on Mrs Gandhi is as wonderful in writing as it was when he told it aloud. “‘How that woman wants to be PM!” Mrs G. says of Mrs Thatcher. “I felt like telling her, if you want to be PM that badly, you’ll never make it.”’ Which just goes to show that even Mother Indira could be wrong.
What Am I Doing Here is indeed, as the blurb suggests, a sort of autobiography, but it is an autobiography of the mind. In this book, as in life, Bruce Chatwin is secretive about the workings of his heart. I wish it were not so, for he was a man of great heart and deep feeling, but he rarely let it into his prose. Exceptions here are a moving vignette of his father; and an elegy for the Afghanistan known to Robert Byron and trampled by Russian troops, that will read, to Bruce Chatwin’s many admirers, like a lament for what we have lost through his untimely death:
We will not sleep in the nomad tent, or scale the Minaret of Jam. And we shall lose the tastes—the hot, coarse, bitter bread; the green tea flavoured with cardamoms … Nor shall we get back the smell of the beanfields, … or the whiff of a snow leopard at 14,000 feet.
A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, by Julian Barnes, is not a history but a fiction about what history might be: ‘just voices echoing in the dark; images that bum for a few centuries then fade; stories, old stories that sometimes seem to overlap; strange links, impertinent connections.’ Overlapping stories, strangely linked, is what we’re given: a post-modern, post-Christian series of variations on the theme of Noah’s Ark. Barnes is in his Flaubert’s Parrot mode, only more so. In this vein he’s like a worldly, secular reincarnation of a medieval gloss-writer on sacred texts, and what he offers us is the novel as footnote to history, as subversion of the given, as brilliant, elaborate doodle around the margins of what we know we think about what we think we know. This is fiction as critique, which is its limitation as well as its strength, because for all its high intelligence and formal elegance it proceeds (except for one brief, redeeming parenthesis) from the brain rather than the heart.
There’s no denying the ingenuity, though, and at its best Barnes’s History offers much high and some low comedy as well. The quality of the early episodes makes one anticipate a feast of inventiveness. There’s a woodworm’s-eye-view of the Ark story, featuring a drunken Noah who thinks of his menagerie as a ‘floating cafeteria’ and eats many species into extinction, and a God described as an ‘oppressive role model’ who drove poor Noah to drink. The playful irreverence of this chapter would make instructive and no doubt shocking reading for some of today’s hardline religionists. (Sorry, Julian.) The woodworms crop up again in the hilarious proceedings of a medieval French court; this time they’re the accused in a surreal trial, charged with eating a church until it fell down.
A church, being a ship of souls, is also a sort of ark. And the Titanic was an ark, and so, for Jonah, was the Whale, and so was the raft of the survivors of the Medusa that Géricault painted. And just as Noah ate his animals, so the Medusa’s survivors turned to cannibalism; and there are woodworm, it is suggested, in the Géricault picture’s frame … the stories proliferate and cross-connect and Noah’s tub becomes an ever more protean image. We are all, it seems, riders of Barnes’s lost ark.
Not all the stories convince, however. In particular, ‘Upstream’, the epistolary account of the making of a film something like The Mission, told by a notably
The key to this strange, ambitious novel lies in that ‘Parenthesis’ I mentioned, the ½ of its 10½ chapters. Here the author gazes at us directly, like El Greco staring out of his masterpiece The Burial of Count Orgaz, and talks to us about love. Barnes’s view of history (voices echoing in the dark, etc.: near meaninglessness upon which we try to impose meanings) is, finally, what lets this book down; it’s just too thin to support the whole fabric; but his view of love almost saves the day. His beautiful idea is that history ‘is ridiculous without love’; that ‘love teaches us to stand up to history,’ to reject its stupid, martial terms. Love, too, is a kind of ark, he says, on which two people might just be saved. I don’t know if he’s right, if this is true, any truer than Auden’s ‘We must love one another or die,’ any truer than history, but the idea that the opposite of history is love is worth hanging on to, like a lifebelt, like a raft.
But even here one wishes that Barnes the essayist had stepped aside for Barnes the full-blooded novelist; that instead of a disquisition on love, we could have been given the thing itself. ‘Don’t talk of love,’ as Eliza Doolittle sang, ‘show me.’
Julian Barnes has written a book that is frequently brilliant, funny, thoughtful, inventive, daring, iconoclastic, original, and a delight to read. What more, he might legitimately inquire, could anybody ask for? I can only reply that, for me, the bits of A History of the World in 10½ Chapters didn’t quite add up; that, although they possess in abundance the high literary virtue of lightness, they fail to acquire, by cumulation, the necessary weight: it being the paradox of literature that you need the pair of them on the voyage, weight and lightness, and, as with lovers and animals, you can’t afford to leave half the couple off your ark.
Other author's books:
- Midnight's ChildrenThe Satanic VersesShameJoseph Anton: A MemoirLuka and the Fire of LifeStep Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002The Enchantress of FlorenceEast, West: Stories
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