Thursday, April 12, 2007

Songlines

Bruce Chatwin is such an elusive figure. His elegant prose style is easy to read, yet the truths that he writes about are partial truths or even not true as he has put them down. He is a storyteller, and reading Nicholas Shakespeare's compendious biography one senses that there were few parts of Chatwin's own life that were not embellished. The writer of unvarnished, spare prose, lived a life where he found it difficult to speak many fundamental truths about himself.

The result was great restlessness. A traveller to difficult and inaccessible places: Patagonia, Afghanistan, the Australian desert, Chatwin developed a passion for the nomadic. His books express an idea that wandering is natural and healthy both for the human spirit and indeed the human body. In the "Songlines" he develops this thesis based on a extraordinary range of different sources. His contention that the walkabout of the Australian Aboriginal peoples reflects a sacred connection both to the land and to the earliest roots of humanity is a rich and satisfying idea, yet the story of the characters of the Songlines ostensibly true, is actually substantially fictionalised. The "Bruce" of the book is a seeker after deep truth, yet the Bruce Chatwin remembered by those who met him was a braying oaf, who managed to offend many with intrusive and inappropriate questions. Of course a writer must simplify the truth of people's lives: the full truth is only gained by living such a life. However, nine weeks of research still seems a bit thin in order to put forward a developed theory of real intellectual integrity.

Perhaps writers are thieves- certainly Chatwin lifted life stories almost entire to put into his fiction. It was fiction that was closely based on real life, but it was fiction. Chatwin was a cruel fantasist in many ways, taking short cuts to see a different view of the truth that, if not wholly fake, was nonetheless not wholly true either.

Occasionally I have become irritated by Chatwin- a trivial, mendacious figure, he has seemed to me. I have thought that his brazen social climbing and prejudiced, exclusive view of the world was just another version of that old fashioned English public school snobbery. The wonder of those people who knew describe about him, I have put down to his very good looks. Less easy to explain is the personal charm that seems to have captured many in his spell- not least his accepting and largely uncomplaining wife, Elizabeth. Though Chatwin was promiscuously homosexual, and ultimately died of AIDS, he retained the admiration of many women which he occasionally returned in full measure- perhaps again, those good looks must have played their part.

Yet my final feeling about Chatwin is that while he may have been right about the need for the journey, he dismissed the question of destination far too easily. His joy was to wander, he never seems to have expressed thoughts about the inevitable completion of a journey.

Many faiths explore the idea of journey as a metaphor for religious growth. The Islamic Hajj, the Hindu Kumbh Mela and the Christian idea of pilgrimage all embrace the need, indeed the requirement for humans to make at least one great journey, even as they live settled lives.

In 2000 I made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella- on foot from France. It included many of the experiences that Chatwin speaks of in the impetus to travel. Yet it was more than just this impetus, though the destination was only part of the journey, nevertheless it was a key part. The rituals of arrival in the great Cathedral were not an afterthought. Though it may be better to travel hopefully than to arrive, in fact it is still a powerful experience to find that the destination itself has some meaning.

Chatwin wanders far from his English homeland- "le tombeau vert" he characteristically calls England- he tells many stories, and sees much in life. Yet in Chatwin's dense and spare prose I see only journey away, and not a sense of arrival or completion. His collection of essays: "What am I doing here?" sums up his dilemma in the title.

I wonder if he ever knew.

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