The Compleat Walker
Yes, indeed. But I am trying to recall what it felt like to read his books without knowing who he was, to experience the exotic absence of an author from his own pages, to crack open the astonishing In Patagonia (1977) expecting yet another snotty English travelogue and discovering instead a "Wonder Voyage" that asked us to dream about not only penguins and gauchos but Caliban and Darwin, mobile gas ovens and a Lost City of the Caesars, giant sloths, slaughtered Indians and a carapace of "enormous armadillo...each scale of its armour looking like a Japanese chrysanthemum." To venture next to The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), expecting a slave-trade novel and getting instead a sadomasochistic fantasy of horned vipers, bloody goats, severed heads and Amazons, a voodoo brew of imperialist porn and candomble trance-dancing. To continue, chastened, to On the Black Hill (1982) alert to sinister subtexts but flummoxed by a lot of Thomas Hardy sheep, dissenting preachers, an Industrial Revolution, class war, Euripides and the Book of Revelation, as well as what John Updike decided must be "a homosexual marriage" of 80-year-old twin brothers waiting for the arrival of a New Jerusalem. And none of this prepared me for The Songlines (1987), which is as close as he ever got to the geography in his own head--and even so, the man was missing.
In The Songlines, under a ghost-gum tree, attended by dingoes, bush devils and black cockatoos, Chatwin reinvented Australia. Hadn't the Aboriginals specialized in his own sort of walkabout forever? Wasn't all their vast interior a labyrinth of invisible pathways, "Dreaming Tracks" or "Song-lines"? Didn't their creation myths tell of legendary totemic beings who wandered the continent in Dreamtime, singing out the names of Fire, Spider, Wind, Grass and Porcupine--and so summoning into existence the very world that would disappear if they didn't hit the road with their own sacred tunes? It seemed to Chatwin that Australia was one big musical score, "a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys." Not that he saw any of this on either visit. Rather, he willed it. According to Pam Bell, a poet who watched him in action: "He knew the mystery was there and he didn't understand it. In The Songlines, he was desperately trying to go to the centre. It was the most important thing for him and he realized halfway through he wasn't going to be able to do it. He was excluded. You have to earn mystery. It's only lovers who get there." Where he arrived after a couple of hundred pages was back at his notes for a nomad book he'd abandoned before he left for Patagonia. These notes, tacked on and italicized, are needy.
He needed ancient Greek and Hebrew, Old Norse, Old English and all of classical mythology to be gigantic songmaps too. He needed there to be a kinship between the songs of Aboriginals, the Gregorian chants of Catholic monks, the mantras of Tibetan lamas and the drumbeats of African shamans. He needed our origins to have been nomadic and pacific, grounded in the "voluntary graces" of food-sharing, gift-giving, song-singing and story-telling. He needed our development of weapons like fire to be defensive, after Homo erectus was menaced a million years ago on the open grasslands by a giant predator, dinofelis, the beastly Prince of Darkness whose dragon shadow haunts our unconscious to this day. And--because the whole point of our Big Brain is to sing us through the wilderness, and our central nervous system has a built-in "migratory drive" that makes us want to walk all day, and only when we're "warped in conditions of settlement" do we seek "outlets in violence, greed, status-seeking or a mania for the new"--he needed agriculture to be a bad idea and cities even worse. The Noble Savage was Chatwin's kind of guy.
Scientists who are really familiar with nomads tell us they'd just as soon stick around if only the animals let them, and actually like to hitch a ride. But even such wishful thinking--bickered about by competing ethnologists, paleontologists and other desert-crazed monomaniacs who dream our past on an Ice Age toenail or tooth--was still exhilarating to contemplate and also a good reason to leave town.
Except for those of us who prefer to find and lose ourselves in cities--whose idea of a vibrant culture depends a lot on politics, newspapers, movie houses, street lights and streetcars, labor unions and cobblestones, caffeine and maybe even cigarettes. For people like me, who never get out of Paris or St. Petersburg or Bombay or Istanbul, Noble Savagery is a good reason for Bruce to leave town, so the rest of us can read about it without having to. His last novel, Utz (1989), disappointed urban types because it was too much about basilisks and unicorn cups and too little about Prague, which he first visited in a fateful 1968.