Monday, April 7, 2014

Bruce Chatwin: What am I Doing Here?

Image from the National Portrait Gallery

Published a year before Bruce Chatwin died in hospital in Nice at the age of forty-eight, this collection of vignettes is a gem. Reading his work creates a sense of re-entering lost places and lost time.

In Ghana, the eccentric filmmaker Werner Herzog is busy making a movie of Chatwin's Brazilian story, The Viceroy of Ouidah. Still weak from a recent unnamed illness, Chatwin fears he will not be strong enough to move around the set and asks Herzog to organize a wheelchair so he can visit the movie making operation.

Herzog's memorable offer, however, is not for anything as impractical as a wheelchair. Instead, he promises "four hammockeers and a sunshade bearer," a suggestion Chatwin finds irresistible.

From the cameos of such diverse characters as Andre Malraux, Indira Gandhi and Diana Vreeland, these marvellous essays stunned me with their virtuosity in range: from very close to very wide views. "Nomad invasions" was my favourite.

During the time I was reading Chatwin's book, I was also listening to a historical novel by Bernard Cornwell on CD in the car.  In his tales, set in the late first millennium, the "Angle'kin," Saxons, and Danes battle for territory and plunder, even as the three groups intermarry and their loyalties shift and change. Recalling Chatwin's comments gave me some Aha moments as I listened to Cornwell's stories of Danish horsemen raiding ancient settlements of Wessex and Mercia.

Twenty-five years have passed since the death of Chatwin, the nomadic author of  In Patagonia and The Songlines. The noted composer Kevin Volans created a string quartet titled The Songlines, and became a great personal friend of Bruce Chatwin and his wife Elizabeth. When Bruce died, the South African born music maker memorialized his friend with the composition "Cover him with Grass."

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