The Compleat Walker
From Shakespeare, we know that Bruce near the end of his life talked this same Kevin Volans into composing an opera based on Rimbaud's Une Saison en enfer, which he considered "a western Songline," and that he'd wanted to play and sing the poet's part himself. Had Bruce been gang-raped, like Rimbaud during the Paris Commune, like T.E. Lawrence by Turkish soldiers? He hinted so. Shakespeare isn't sure. Maybe he just liked musicals. He had loved Hair so much, for instance, that he met with Galt McDermott proposing something similar about Ikhnaton, in which the sun-worshiping Pharaoh would uproot his court from Thebes and relocate to, of course, the nomadic Iraqi desert.
When Utz was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the satirical magazine Private Eye ran this playful description of what it called Tutsi-Frutsi by Bruce Hatpin:
Wry, evocative, sensitive account of a Viennese ice-cream collector who fills his cavernous flat in Marxist Prague with hundreds of different flavoured ice-creams. One day he wakes up and finds that they have all melted. As the Daily Telegraph commented: "Tutsi-Frutsi is a wry, evocative novella in which ice-cream collecting is used as a paradigm for man's insatiable urge to eternalise the transient." Cheekwin is of course best known for his award-winning cult novel Tramlines, which shows how the ancient Incas invented trams. An insatiable nomad, he lives in Notting Hill like everybody else.
Pretty funny. But from Shakespeare we now know everything there is to know, plus what we can't, and more than enough to be sad. In addition to his weird fascination with such Nazi collaborators as Montherlant and Malaparte, and the fact that he once stole a young woman's paperback copy of D.H. Lawrence's Kangaroo, and those twenty-three years of marriage during which he never washed a single dish, and his lifelong partiality to a single work of art (a Peruvian wall hanging, probably for an Inca temple, of blue and yellow parrot feathers from a species of papagayo now extinct), we also know about his grandmother's cabinet, his father the sailor, the Mickey Mouse gas mask, the Viking grave, the royal python, the low sperm count ("He can't make babies so he eats them," it was said of Ouidah's Viceroy) and the Beziehungswahn, not to mention gold griffins, a throne of skulls, a tub of Crisco, the ecstasy pills and the lithium, Kaposi's sarcoma and black urine.
We wind up with something daunting, as if Nabokov had set out to net a butterfly that was itself a Nabokov, all gaudy wings: a life that was its own secret work of art, an art with that life omitted, a biography that makes both of them more compelling and fosters the queasy feeling that all of us--Chatwin, Shakespeare and the reader too--are equally voyeurs. It was obviously too much to expect that he would tell the truth about his dying when he hadn't told the truth about his living. To the dreadful end, he insisted on what García Márquez has called "the sacred right of the sick to die in peace along with the secret of their illness," dissembling to close friends and his own parents, even exoticizing what he suffered from: It was, he claimed, a bone-marrow-eating fungus peculiar to South Asian bamboo rats he had picked up eating either a slice of raw Cantonese whale or a black egg on the Thai border. Or maybe an Indian amoeba in the bat feces of a Javanese cave he had stumbled into. Better yet, among Chinese peasants in western Yunnan, while he was tracing the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock, whose book on The Kingdom of the Na-Khi had been so much admired by Ezra Pound, perhaps...and so on, as if the deathbed were a proscenium arch.
OK, even if some overdue honesty might have helped dispel the hateful superstitions of the plague years, I am not so presumptuous as to instruct a stranger on how to die heroically. We didn't know about Rock Hudson in advance, so why should we have known about Bruce Chatwin? Who says writers have a higher obligation than actors? Or politicians? Or Han tortoise inkwells and Easter Island canoe paddles? Tell it to your Christos Pantokrator.