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The Beast

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.”

 

Sadly, Bruce died before we could make it to Rosas’ tomb. Soon afterward, Rosas’ bones were transported with great fanfare back to Buenos Aires and reburied in the Recoleta cemetery. In 1992, I visited the new grave with Chatwin’s wife, Elizabeth, before setting off to drive once again through Patagonia. I thought Bruce would have enjoyed the latest story to circulate about Rosas, that his original grave in Southampton had been bombed in the blitz, killing a few stray cattle. The bones in the extravagant Buenos Aires tomb belonged most likely to an unfortunate Hampshire cow.

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.

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.”

“I agree. But she got away and now you can write.”

“You shouldn’t have interfered,” said Bruce.

Depressed at having found no new information in Nigeria, Bruce crossed back into Benin to meet Sebastian de Souza, a descendant of the slaver. On January 14, his research was cut short in a dramatic fashion by a coup d’état.

Bruce’s experience of the coup grew in the retelling. The first version bears little resemblance to the last, published seven years later in Granta as a “story” — a word, wrote Bruce, “intended to alert the reader to the fact that however closely the narrative may fit the facts, the fictional process has been at work.” In the gap between the two versions is found the clue to Bruce’s storytelling process. The inflations, distortions, confabulations are all there.

His initial account is written in his diary. It starts in Porto Novo: “Sunday morning began with me under the mosquito net in the bedroom in Sebastian de Souza’s yard.” Sebastian appears, dressed in brown, elegant for a football match in Togo. The two of them walk to the autogare in Porto Novo and squash into the back of a crowded Peugeot 405. On the coast road to Cotonou, they notice people waving from cars. “C’est la guerre à Cotonou,” they are told.

They about-turn and drive back to Porto Novo, rejoining Sebastian’s anxious wife. They sit down on her leatherette chairs and listen to President Kérékou broadcasting on the radio. Mercenaries have landed at Cotonou airport in a DC8. “L’heure est grave.” All citizens are invited to block the roads and go with guns to secure the airport.

Bruce waits a short time before “gingerly” stepping outside.

In the street, a waving crowd shouts, “Mercenaires, mercenaires.” Bruce is wearing khaki shorts with patch pockets. He finds a gendarme, who bundles him into a ã van — “for your own protection.” He is taken to the gendarmerie, then ordered into a police vehicle and driven to Cotonou. At the Camp Ghézo, he joins a cheerful crowd of between 300 and 400 blacks and whites, all down to their underpants. After being stripped — he is wearing “pink and white boxer shorts from Brooks Brothers” — Bruce is ordered back aboard the truck and taken to the Sûreté Nationale and led before the commandant, a man with thin red eyes and white woolly hair.

These are the five words Bruce writes next: “Foreign prints: ‘Kicked by Amazon.’” It is not clear what these words describe. In his journal, nothing happens at this point. But in his Granta article of seven years later, there appears at this point a fearsome woman in the mold of the 19th-century warriors observed by Bruce’s childhood hero, Richard Burton: “I stood like a schoolboy, in the corner,” Bruce wrote, “until a female sergeant took me away for fingerprinting. She was a very large sergeant. My head was throbbing: and when I tried to manoeuvre my little finger onto the inkpad, she bent it back double; I yelled ‘Ayee!,’ and her boot slammed down on my sandalled foot.” There is certainly no mention of the brutal sergeant in the notes he took at the time. Then to what do the words “Foreign prints: ‘Kicked by Amazon’” refer? Was Bruce assaulted? Or was he projecting himself into a scene from a print that animated, say, the pages of his Richard Burton?

 

A year later, the story has metamorphosed further. On February 3, 1978, Bruce told the diarist James Lees-Milne of certain “hair-raising experiences” that had occurred on this journey. Lees-Milne recorded their conversation in his diary. “In one little country — I forget which — he was arrested for some misdemeanor, passport not visa-ed, and beaten up. He was hit in the face, stripped of all his clothes — what a pretty sight to be sure — and humiliated in public. ‘How awful!’ I said. ‘Well,’ he replied. ‘I must confess to having rather enjoyed it.’ ‘Then you are a masochist, I surmise.’ ‘Just a bit,’ he answered.”

Only to his doctor and to his wife does Bruce appear to have confessed the story of his “gang rape,” which may owe less to Richard Burton than to Rimbaud (who was gang-raped in the Paris commune) or T.E. Lawrence (who alleged a similar assault by Turkish soldiers). According to Elizabeth, the incident took place “a few days after he left Benin.” Bruce’s journal simply reports how the coup petered out. Detained overnight, he is hauled up before an apologetic police tribunal at 1 p.m. “Actually made them laugh and got out.” He moved into the Hotel de Plage, where Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians had been filmed, and three days later flew to Abidjan in the Côte d’Ivoire.

In Bruce’s version to Elizabeth, he was raped here. She says, “He was waiting to go to Brazil. He got a room in some cheap hotel and couldn’t lock the door, and soldiers came in for money and raped him. That’s what he told me. He could barely say it. ‘I didn’t do anything. There were several of them.’”

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 Times of 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 boeuf of the North African desert. Sometimes it would get so exhausting that I’d say, ‘Could you just show me a photograph?’”

He rehearsed his stories “like Churchill, muttering in the bath,” says Elizabeth. “He was always playing a kind of role: You could see him cooking up how he was going to do it. He was so excited when he got to someone’s house: He’d drive up, slam on the brakes, jump out and rush into the house — and I’d have to turn the engine off and shut the car door.” Elizabeth Chatwin did not believe he intended anyone necessarily to believe his stories. “But if they did, he went further.”

Bruce told stories as much to entertain as to hide inside them and to keep others away. As long as he was talking, he could not be questioned. He talked as he wrote, to keep something at bay, with an intensity to convince whoever was listening, or reading, that his dragons were not peculiar to him. He told his stories right to the last — going up to bed, stopping on each step of the stair for five minutes, going out to the car, leaning out of the window as he drove off — till the moment he died.

 

BRUCE CHATWIN: A Biography | By NICHOLAS SHAKESPEARE | Nan A. Talese/Doubleday | 618 pages | $35 hardcover


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