If true, terrible. Yet a suspicion persists that the true rape victim was not Chatwin but a thin-legged, 13-year-old girl in Ibadan, whose screams he had heard from his bedroom.
Joan Didion has a marvelous line: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” — and I think this is truer for Chatwin than for most of us. He was always talking about the Beast, telling his stories to keep the Beast away. When I asked Salman Rushdie “What is this Beast that Bruce is trying to keep away?” he said perspicaciously, “The Beast is the truth about himself. The great truth he’s keeping away is who he is.”
It was not until his last months, when he became ill, that the truth crept out.
Ten years after his visit to West Africa, on the afternoon of September 12, 1986, Bruce was admitted to the emergency ward in Oxford’s Churchill Hospital. He was identified simply as “an HIV-positive 46-year-old travel writer.” From this day on, he would be forced to submit to the unsparing taxonomy of the medical profession.
Though he was not uncooperative, there was a piecemeal quality to the way Bruce offered up his medical history. Over the next two days, he told his doctor that he had traveled widely since 1962; that he had been “bisexual since youth”; that a possible contact for HIV was an Australian whom he had known between 1978 and 1981. There are in his answers traces of a man in despair, seeking an explanation for his illness. Finally, on September 14, he gave an alternative explanation. The record puts it: “Experienced ‘gang-rape’ in Benin (W. Africa) in 1978.”
In the months ahead, Bruce denied his HIV status to his closest relatives and most of his friends. He asked Elizabeth not to tell his parents. On September 15, his doctors had suspected the presence of Kaposi’s sarcoma, but subsequent biopsy reports failed to mention this again for another 17 months. Rather, efforts concentrated on diagnosing a rare fungus that had infiltrated his liver and bone marrow. On September 26, the culture was taken and sent to the Radcliffe laboratory where it was identified as Penicillium marneffei, a mold fungus that is a natural pathogen of the bamboo rat in South Asia. This fungus is now known to be an AIDS-defining illness, but in 1986, as his doctor wrote in his report, it “has previously only been reported in Thai and Chinese farmers.”
In November 1985, on his way to Nepal, Bruce and Elizabeth had visited Yunnan in southwest China. Near the Thai border, they had stayed in a village hut at 7,000 feet. He remembered, now, that he had become sick after eating a “black egg” at a peasant feast. A harvest was in progress; the air was dry and dusty, and he remembered the threshing of wheat. “He had probably breathed in the spore,” says his doctor. “It probably wouldn’t do you or me any harm, only if you’re immune-deficient.”
Needing to feel he suffered from something special and unwilling to address the fact that he had contracted a “homosexual” disease, Bruce latched on to the fungus as the sole cause of his illness.
“For Bruce, it was wonderful: He could make a story,” says Elizabeth. The fungus reinforced his sense of uniqueness: “An A1 medical curiosity,” he wrote to Murray Bail. Bruce told Matthew Spender, “My dear, it’s a very rare mushroom in the bone marrow which I got from eating slice of raw Cantonese whale.” He told Loulou de la Falaise he had eaten a rotten 1,000-year-old Chinese egg. “He told me his disease came from bat’s feces,” says George Ortiz. By describing and redescribing the Penicillium marneffei, he constructed an illness, particular to himself, that he could live with. On October 13, he wrote a letter to his mother-in-law. “Trust me to pick up a disease never recorded among Europeans. The fungus that has attacked my bone marrow has been recorded among ten Chinese peasants (China is presumably where I got it), a few Thais and a killer whale cast up on the shores of Arabia.”
Telling stories was how Bruce Chatwin gave of himself. Whatever else can be said of him, in this respect he was a giver. “Having him around was having extra oxygen in the air,” says the writer Sybille Bedford. Francis Wyndham, who in 1972 recruited him to the Sunday Timesof London, says, “He made you participate in what, in that moment, did not seem to be a fantasy. One was included in it, even though he did all the talking. But he made me feel he was talking because of me, which explained the sense of exhilaration. That was part of his charm: He made me feel pleased with myself.”
Bruce’s storytelling engaged all his faculties: his youthful looks, his savage mimicry, his peacock voice — both invigorating and crushing at the same time, and “always on the edge of mirth.” The performance was physical. As he watched his audience come forward on their chairs, affirming him, he grew and so did his stories. “He went straight into a performance,” says his friend Jonathan Hope. “He’d sit bolt upright, ramrod back, his eyes popping, and roar off in fourth gear on his idée fixe of that week or hour.” He reminded Hope of Danny Kaye, a Chatwin favorite, who was able to convince an audience entirely by phonetics that he was speaking in Hungarian. Hope could seldom follow Chatwin’s stories to their conclusion. “But he would conjure up incredible images. Evening in the Atlas Mountains, the sky an exquisite cerulean blue, the stars coming out one by one and the wonderful sang de boeufof the North African desert. Sometimes it would get so exhausting that I’d say, ‘Could you just show me a photograph?’”