Rather like General Rosas, Bruce after his death became a different creature from the person I had known. In life, he had been neither rich nor particularly well-known. In fact, what had struck me was his modesty. It hadn’t been just a question of persuading him to appear on television with Borges, but also my producer at the BBC, who, in 1983, had never heard of Bruce Chatwin. Nor did he sell many books. He wasn’t a best-seller until The Songlines, which was published 18 months before he died. Even then, the first print run was a mere 4,000 copies. After he died, he became the object of adulation on one side and vilification on the other.
Not long after beginning research on my biography of Bruce, I was alarmed to read a book by the English travel writer John Pilkington which suggested that Chatwin’s book about Patagonia had been a farrago of exaggeration and lies. This surprised me, but Pilkington articulated my greatest fears: that I would discover Bruce was a “whoppa merchant” who had made his most interesting things up, and that his dazzle and learning would prove to be only surface-deep. That summer I was due to pay my first visit to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where Chatwin in his will had lodged his famous moleskin notebooks, bought in Paris in a street near the king of Patagonia’s flat. His stipulation that the notebooks were not to be read by members of the public until the year 2010 had raised several eyebrows. Chatwin’s friend Redmond O’Hanlon wondered if the Chatwin journals might be too hot to handle and might, in fact, be like the Black Book of Roger Casement: a catalog of sexual conquest.
I opened the box containing the South American notebooks. They were written in tiny script — and it soon turned out that the more personal the entry, the smaller the handwriting — and there were hardly any of them. Chatwin’s diaries had the detachment of a ship’s log. “Hate confessional mode” is an entry from one. The first description I read was of a cloud formation; the second was of a bird’s coloring. And so on. Page after page of reading lists, recipes, telephone numbers, but in 85 journals only two references to sex.
For two months every summer, I sat in the Bodleian and transcribed the 85 notebooks. In between, I interviewed some 500 people who had known him. The literal journey in Chatwin’s footsteps would take me twice around the world. Under the desert sky near Alice Springs, I camped with Arkady, the central character in The Songlines. I walked with Bob Brain to the Swartkrans cave near Johannesburg, where on February 1, 1984, Bruce had been party to the discovery of the earliest use of fire. And in late 1992, for my first proper expedition, I returned to Pata- gonia, driving with Elizabeth Chatwin from Buenos Aires to the cave of the giant sloth near Puerto Natales.
To guide us on the journey south, I had brought transcriptions of his notebooks which detailed who, in 1974, he had met and stayed with. Although he changed names to protect people’s identities, he rarely tampered with what he found. He described himself as a literary Cartier-Bresson, taking a snapshot and moving on, and his prose had the effect of reducing people to the essentials of a black-and-white Cartier-Bresson portrait.
In the Welsh community of Gaiman, Bruce had not told people what he was up to. These were private and religious farmers whose ancestors had come to Patagonia expressly to get away from the kind of Englishman represented by a young man with a socking-great forehead and blue staring eyes who marched unannounced into their drawing rooms wearing green Bermuda shorts and introduced himself in a plummy voice as Bruce Chatwin. Not telling them that the camera was rolling, he caught them unawares and condensed their lives into a few vivid details. In the process, some felt, he had made off with their intimate moments and preserved them behind the glass of his prose for strangers to look at. Bruce had snatched the intimacy Borges writes of — “That kernel of myself that I have saved, somehow” — and he had turned it into stories.
In the course of three visits to Patagonia, I found errors of fact that, had Bruce known about, no doubt he would have corrected and that may be attributed to his poor Spanish. But I found strikingly few instances of mere invention. He told one Argentine critic that everything that is in the book happened, although, of course, in another order. And to writer Michael Ignatieff, he said, “I once made the experiment of counting up the lies in the book I wrote about Patagonia. It wasn’t, in fact, too bad. There weren’t too many.” The “lies” he admits to Ignatieff are examples of his romanticism, as when he describes an ordinary stainless-steel chair as being “by Mies van der Rohe” or makes a Ukrainian nurse in Rio Pico a devotee of his beloved Osip Mandelstam instead of Agatha Christie. These are tiny artistic devices. He was not writing a government report. Nor a tourist brochure. His structure was of a journey constantly interrupted, zigzagging among texts and through time. As a master fabulist he had absorbed the rules and contrived something original out of them. Generally speaking, he did not subtract from the truth so much as add to it. His achievement, as I see it, is not to depict Patagonia as it really is, but to create a landscape called Patagonia — a new way of looking, a new aspect of the world.