Bruce Chatwin has come to be known as one of English literature’s most renowned travel writers, novelists, and essayists. Although On the Black Hill and Utz are genuine novels that are based on real characters or character types, Chatwin’s travel writing established his early reputation as one of England’s most distinguished writers. His ability to interconnect fact and fiction within his unique perspective made his semiautobiographical novels both believable and entertaining. Some of them became popular best sellers. His stylishly rendered travelogues substantially revived the art of English and American travel writing in the latter half of the twentieth century. These books and essays have been favorably compared with the best travel writing of D. H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Robert Byron, and Paul Theroux. Like Lawrence’s travel books, Chatwin’s demonstrate the disastrous impact of Western culture on native cultures in both South America and Australia. Western civilization and its corrosive technology succeeded in separating the Indians of South America and the Aborigines of Australia from their connections with the source of their vitality—their natural surroundings.
Chatwin’s first book, In Patagonia, won several prestigious awards, notably the Hawthornden Prize and the E. M. Forster Award. Chatwin’s ability to present facts using novelistic techniques raised the level of travel writing from mere reportage to serious examination of the conflicting value systems of European emigrants and indigenous groups in some of the most remote areas of the world. He discovered repeatedly during his travels that humankind’s failing has been its abandonment of its natural, biologically determined impulse to move throughout the world following the cyclical processes of the natural seasons. Settling into one permanent location is, in essence, unnatural. It is this persistent pattern of settlement that, to Chatwin, explains the origins of human restlessness, for Chatwin the greatest mystery in human history. The history of the world, then, consists of the conflict between pastoral nomads and what Chatwin called the sins of settlement. Not only the novels but also his travel books take as their primary subject the profound effects of “the sins of settlement” on the human psyche.