Shortly before he died, Bruce Chatwin found God. This was on top of Mount Athos, after which he left for Katmandu. Looking down from the bees and grapes, he had seen an iron cross on a wet rock. “I had no idea,” he told his wife, Elizabeth. So he made time in his frenzied dying to hallucinate a Christos Pantokrator and convert to Greek Orthodoxy. The day after a memorial service for him in the Cathedral of St. Sophia in surprising Bayswater–where, as a matter of odd fact, a satanic Salman Rushdie first heard about the fatwa on his head–Elizabeth flew to Greece to bury her husband’s ashes on the island of Kardamyli, next door to a ruined Byzantine chapel lapped at by olive trees, wild garlic and wild geraniums.
One wishes the end of the “songline” had been more subversive. About almost everything else in a lifetime of running away from his country, his marriage and his sexuality, Chatwin was unorthodox, with “the nomad’s contempt for the pyramid.” Once, on an undulating “leopard-spotted” savannah, he had declared an altogether different faith: “For whenever I went back to that Africa, and saw a camel caravan, a view of white tents, or a single blue turban far off in the heat haze, I knew that, no matter what the Persians said, Paradise never was a garden but a waste of white thorns.”
Maybe he just liked smoky icons and singing monks. Maybe, with his legs paralyzed (“my little boys,” he called them), there was nowhere else to run. Maybe a mind so far gone as to imagine that the filmmaker Werner Herzog had healing powers and that the blood of a Nubian slave was a cure for AIDS, needed divine help. Or maybe God was the ultimate item to be purchased with a postdated check on his last crazy shopping spree, like the Bronze Age armband, the Assyrian quartz duck, the Han tortoise inkwell, the wax bozzetto of Neptune, a portable twelfth-century altar from Lausanne and a Tibetan tiger rug. All of a sudden, the nomad wanted to possess everything, as if he were an Utz.
Aesthete, vagabond, crackpot, fabulist, fugitive: Nicholas Shakespeare’s spellbinding biography allows us to hold all these Chatwins in kaleidoscopic focus simultaneously. In a Sotheby’s uniform of silk tie, slip-on shoes and a gray suit from Henry Poole on Savile Row, or a Lawrence of Arabia djellaba, or hiking shorts with knee socks (to cover up his varicose veins), or the shawl he claimed was Freud’s, babbling on about paleontology, John Donne and the influence of Simonides of Ceos on the memory techniques of Counter-Reformation Jesuits in China, he was a blue-eyed “compass without a needle,” a masked harlequin, “arch improviser, zany trickster, master of the volteface…Mr. Chameleon himself”–the talking animal as performance artist.
Shakespeare, whose career as a novelist Chatwin encouraged, had access to the moleskin notebooks and the widow’s good will. He spent almost a decade tracking the books across borders back to their author, from the black hills of Wales to the slave coast of Dahomey to the outback, the pampas and Prague. He’s chatted up everybody with a peppy opinion, from old friends, extant relatives, former lovers, testy scientists and resentful natives, to the luminary likes of Sybille Bedford, Roberto Calasso, James Ivory and Susan Sontag, plus of course Rushdie, who was amazed in Australia to find himself traveling with someone who talked more than he did. Like a shamus, Shakespeare puzzles missing pieces, pounces on aggrandizement and evasion, plugs holes in cover stories and stops to marvel at mean-street seediness (for instance, the S/M bathhouse/leather bar/Mapplethorpe scene in seventies New York). Like an epicure, he luxuriates past the point of wallow in so much wanton artiness (an Etruscan bronze! an Ingres interior! a Ngoro lacquer snuffbox! an Easter Island canoe paddle!). Like a therapist, he empathizes and exorcises (Bruce was in denial the way Napoleon was itchy). And like, of course, a novelist, he relishes every contradiction–hypochondrias and mythomanias; the longing to lose yourself in sand dunes but only after having gone horseback riding with Jacqueline Onassis in black goldpajama pants; the walkabouts and vanishing acts that circled round to home. (This “mother of all grasshoppers,” who desired men more than women and wrote his books in other people’s houses anywhere but England, ended up back with the wife who never divorced him because she was Catholic.)