It seems very strange that Bruce Chatwin left us fully 25 years ago, on Jan. 18, 1989. Like everything else, it seems only yesterday that Chatwin was making an exemplary name for himself as a latter-day incarnation of the old “British Orientalists,” backpack slung onto his well-muscled shoulders for a mad journey deep into some desert or mountain fastness where—always on the track of his grand, lifelong subject—some nomadic people or another were waiting to be described.
He got closest to that goal with The Songlines, which, published in 1986, had slowly built a reputation as a brilliant blend of anthropology and travel in the Australian Outback. And then, after following up with a brilliant novel, Utz, set in the rarified world of Meissen porcelain and exploring the power of things to possess their possessor, he died, having let it be known that a mysterious bacillus from a cave in remotest China had resisted treatment.
It was AIDS that killed him, and the fact that he had chosen to invent a story infuriated some of his readers—and some of his fellow writers, who took the opportunity to call the truthfulness of every story he had ever told into question. It was an easy exercise, for if Chatwin was a demon of research, he was also quite content to remove inconvenient facts from consideration if they got in the way of a good story. Indeed, The Songlines had come under attack for being laced with fictional elements, and even though Chatwin had never presented it as anything other than an imaginary exploration of its subject—the geography of a nomadic people who prefer the old ways to maps and (now) GPS devices—it became a kind of parlor game to find embellishments and outright impossibilities in The Songlines. Even his biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare, wrote despairingly of the book that “one cannot help feeling a little duped.”
Chatwin is less widely read a quarter-century after his passing but for no good reason. He was a superb storyteller, even if storytelling meant departing from the literal truth—a standard to which we do not hold many other literary travelers, it should be said, from Herodotus to Mark Twain. And, that said, most of his books, which were too few to begin with, remain in print.
In Patagonia (1978), which offended a few readers back in the day for certain imprecisions that served his novelistic bent, is now published as a Penguin Classic. And deservedly so, for few tales apart from Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight and some of Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories (themselves inventions, of course) capture the essential loneliness and arid isolation of the place.
Bruce Chatwin had a habit, on finishing a book, of ridding himself of the objects, books, maps and letters he had accumulated in his research; it would be a service for someone one day to reconstruct the prodigious library he devoured to do his work. Meanwhile, we have his books, some of them (The Viceroy of Ouidah, Utz, and, yes, The Songlines) among the very best of his time. All merit rereading—and all occasion a tip of the slouch hat and walking stick to their author.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.