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The Beast 

Bruce Chatwin and the stories he told

Wednesday, Mar 1 2000
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Photo by John Kasmin

In 1977, Bruce Chatwin burst upon the literary scene with his Argentine travel book In Patagonia. There followed a number of books based on his travels and interviews, including his exploration of Australia’s aboriginal outback, The Songlines, and the novel On the Black Hill. With each new book he seemed to reinvent himself, and his fame grew. But so did charges of infidelity to the truth, and reckless disregard for the people whose stories inspired him. Following Chatwin’s death in 1989, Nicholas Shakespeare, himself an award-winning novelist (The Vision of Elena Silves, The High Flyer and The Dancer Upstairs), set out to discover the truths about Chatwin. The result is Bruce Chatwin: A Biography, newly published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. The following is adapted from a talk Shakespeare gave at the Harbourfront International Festival of Authors in Toronto.

I first met Bruce Chatwin in London in 1982. I was 24, recently returned from the southern tip of South America, and there I had read his first book, In Patagonia. Back in London, I sought him out. I was making a documentary about royalty in exile, and I wanted the telephone number of the Frenchman who would be king of Patagonia.

In those days I kept a diary. On January 19 I wrote: “The morning with Bruce Chatwin, after eventually locating his Eaton Place bedsit: a bicycle against the wall and Flaubert on the floor. He was younger than I imagined, rather like a Polish refugee: baggy trousered, emaciated, gray blond and blue-eyed, sharp-featured and razor-worded. He has just delivered a manuscript — a novel about a square mile near Clyro where two families fight, without exposure to the modern world, through two world wars. He talks like a bird, very funny, very boyish and very well read. ‘Isn’t it extraordinary how the most fraudulent people often have a very good eye for the genuine article?’”

I laugh to think of the image I had of the author before I met him. I imagined a silent man whose longest sentence was “I see.” Only afterward did I meet the lady in Patagonia who confessed, “Don Bruce, he talked a lot, bastante.” Or, in Alice Springs, another woman, who said, “He murdered people with talk.” He didn’t stop yakking from the moment I entered his tiny attic flat. Within minutes, he had provided a telephone number for the king of Patagonia, a pipe smoker who ran the free faculty of law in the Faubourg Poissonière in Paris. Chatwin also gave me numbers for the king of Crete, the heir to the Aztec throne — and a guitarist in Boston who believed he was God.

In return he wanted to know about Argentina, where I’d grown up. I told him a story I had picked up in Salta, about a figure called Guemes, a hero of Argentina’s independence who had lent his colors to the famous gaucho poncho: black for the death of Guemes, red for the blood of his soldiers. Guemes, I had learned, was a Hispanicization of the Scottish Wemyss: The colors were those of a Wemyss tartan. Chatwin’s eyes widened, and speaking in italics with his hands waving, he explained how he was at that moment at work on a theory about the color red. Did I know that Garibaldi, while fighting for neighboring Uruguay’s independence, had filched a consignment of these ponchos from a warehouse in Montevideo and on the ship back to Italy had tailored them into the uniforms for his “red shirts” — and so inspired the red flags flying over the barricades of revolutionary Europe and ultimately the Kremlin? That day I left Chatwin’s flat taking seriously the link between a Scots tartan and the red flag of socialism. As his first editor, Susannah Clapp, says, “He made people look at things differently, and he made them look at different things.”

Before I left that morning, Bruce promised to take me on a pilgrimage to Southampton to see the tomb of the Argentine dictator General Rosas, who had died in exile as a milk farmer in Hampshire — but who, in power, had worn Guemes’ red poncho as a uniform for his colorados, a terrifying gaucho cavalry.

We met two or three times a year after that. Our pilgrimage to Rosas’ tomb always cropped up in conversation, but Southampton was just down the road — it could wait. Meanwhile, Bruce was off to Australia, India, China. I felt glad to be able to pin him down just once, to appear on a TV program on South American literature with Mario Vargas Llosa and Jorge Luis Borges. He disliked giving interviews, and it would be one of his few television appearances. As I waited to escort the blind Borges into the studio, Bruce started enthusing, “He’s just a genius: You can’t go anywhere without taking your Borges. It’s like packing your toothbrush.” To which Borges said, “How unhygienic.”

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