Bruce’s talent was to dig up extraordinary facts and link them. His imagination, oddly, faltered at pure invention. He could enlarge and color and improve his stories, often to the point where he was genuinely incapable of distinguishing fact from fantasy, but he could not make his stories up from scratch. His younger brother Hugh reckoned that in their childhood, 60 percent of the content of Bruce’s stories was true, the rest embellishment. Hugh says, “It was the story that counted, and Bruce was a ã witness to the story. ‘Come on, Bruce, surely it didn’t happen like that,’ we’d say. And it hadn’t. But something had happened. We would all look at each other and then coax him to continue. ‘Yes, and then . . .?’”
Bruce told his first stories as a child growing up in wartime Birmingham. He was the eldest son of a middle-class solicitor who specialized in family law. In many respects he could not have had a more normal childhood, but when he was 9 an event happened that colored his vision of the world. His uncle Humphrey, the favorite of the family, was murdered in West Africa. A few months later, Uncle Humphrey’s black trunk came home to Birmingham and was used by Bruce and his brother as their dressing-up box. From this date on, Bruce longed to visit West Africa. He began reading all he could about the continent, especially the 19th-century explorers with whom he would later be compared. One of his favorite authors was Richard Burton, who wrote of a visit to the slave coast in Dahomey, now Benin, where he had set eyes on a ferocious army of women soldiers. “They were mostly elderly and all of them hideous,” wrote Burton, whose book carried etchings of these warriors with Winchester rifles slung across their backs. “The officers were decidedly chosen for the size of their bottoms.”
Bruce remembered the etchings of these Amazons when he went to Benin in the 1970s. What happened there works for me as a paradigm for the way his adult imagination worked, showing how he escapes an uncomfortable situation by seizing on a piece of art and, as in a Borges story, incorporating himself into it. This is one of the stories that contributed to the myths about Bruce, of a supposed gang rape by soldiers in West Africa, where he had gone to research a book on a Brazilian slave trader who ran slave ships from Ouidah in Africa to Bahia in Brazil.
Chatwin’s original plan, to write a biography of the Brazilian slaver de Souza, was floundering in the absence of documentary material. In a bid to delve more history out of the slaving families, he crossed the border into Nigeria. He stayed a week in Ibadan with Keith Nicholson Price, who afterward wrote a memoir of Bruce’s visit. Price described a character bustling with energy: “His self-discipline, his inner tension and sense of hurry, his insensitivity and selfishness . . . were a kind of blinkering in his reactions to the outside world. He had work to do and perhaps he knew instinctively he would have very little time in which to do it.”
One day, when Bruce was out researching, Price heard a chant of “thief, thief” in the street and looked out to see a mob of “about a hundred” chasing a young girl who was being dragged along by two men. Apparently she had stolen a loaf of bread. Price wrote, “Her bodice had been ripped and from the look of her small exposed breasts she was no more than thirteen years old.”
Price watched her disappear into the police barracks opposite. He thought no more about the incident until the next morning, when he found Bruce up and about, reading and correcting his notes.
“What was that noise?” Bruce asked. “That screaming? I couldn’t sleep at all.” Price had heard nothing. Bruce’s bedroom window faced the police barracks. That evening, Bruce stormed out of his room and into Price’s sitting room.
“It’s started again.” He slumped in a chair and said, “Shit.”
“What’s started again?”
“That screaming. Can’t concentrate with that noise, it’s so distracting.”
Leaving Bruce in the house, Price walked across to the barracks, where he knew the lieutenant on duty. He asked what was going on. The policeman grinned. “A thief. Not been claimed. The boys are having some fun.”
Price had a writer staying, he told the policeman. The screaming was a distraction. He was hoping the mention of the close proximity of a writer might have some effect. The lieutenant was unimpressed.
“She’s young, a learner. You want her?” Price nodded, and the policeman tossed him a key.
The girl Price found was alone, half naked on the floor and seemingly asleep. “I lifted her and placed her outside the window. Her wrap fell off completely and I noticed blood on her thin legs.” Price, in a whisper, urged her to leave. After falling over, she crawled away.
When he returned, Bruce went white. “You’re mad.”