When Bruce Chatwin died in 1989 of a rare disease contracted in China, his reputation as a travel writer and journalist was at its height. The essays in What Am I Doing Here vary greatly in length (some are substantial magazine pieces, while the sketch of Diana Vreeland is a mere impression of less than a page) and in subject matter. The longer contributions tend to be the most interesting, as in the pieces on Andre Malraux, George Costakis, Ernst Jitnger, and Indira Gandhi, and the meditations on history and culture in “The Volga” and “Nomad Invasions.” Several of the essays bring to life little-known figures such as Maria Reiche, Joseph Rock, and Donald Evans, who despite their obscurity have occupied a special niche in the twentieth century world; and all of these pieces, both the short and the long, are gracefully written.
“The Chinese Geomancer” exemplifies Chatwin’s instinct for the unusual topic, as he seeks out in Hong Kong the geomancer Lung King Chuen. Lung’s card explains that he is adept at
Searching and fixing of good location for the burialof passed-away ancestors; surveying and arrangingof good position for settling down business andlodging places, in which would gain prosperity andluck in the very near future
The occasion for Chatwin’s interest in Lung’s geomancy is the completion of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, described as “the most expensive office block ever built.” Lung’s responsibility was to assure the proper positioning of the bank relative to the “dragon-lines,” those energy currents identified by the Chinese with underground water channels and the earth’s magnetic fields. A feng-shui (wind and water) expert such as Lung uses a magnetic compass to ensure that rooms, buildings, marriage beds, and so forth are all properly aligned and not threatened by disruptive crosscurrents.
All of this will bring smiles to the faces of nonbelievers, but Chatwin is too observant to sneer: “Yet we all feel that some houses are ‘happy’ and others have a nasty atmosphere.’ Only the Chinese have come up with cogent reasons why this should be so. Whoever presumes to mock feng- shui as a superstitious anachronism should recall its vital contribution to the making of the Chinese landscape, in which houses, temples and cities were always sited in harmony with trees and hills and water.” And who can say that Hong Kong’s prosperity has not been related to the five dragon- lines that Lung points out come together in the city’s central business district?
As for feng-shui in modern America, Lung is very severe on the topic of the “glass-curtain-wall buildings” that everywhere reflect each other in American cities. “‘If you reflect bad chih onto your neighbors,’ Mr Lung said, ‘you cannot prosper either.’”
Chatwin interviewed Andre Malraux in 1974 when the “traveller and talker, war hero, philosopher of art and Gaullist minister” was seventy-four. For Chatwin, it is Malraux’s life that is the “masterpiece,” and he easily prompts Malraux into an account of himself as “a happy mixture of intelligence and physical courage.
Malraux obviously enjoyed his life as an intellectual who was also a man of action; he smugly disdains those French intellectuals whom he describes as “usually incapable of opening an umbrella.” He explains his own “escape” from the library in acrid terms: “When you return from Asia and you find all your companions on the Nouvelle Revue Francaise writing novels about homosexuality and attaching immense importance to it, you are tempted to say, ‘There are other things. The Tomb of the Unknown Pederast under the Arc de Triomphe is a little much.’”
Malraux is equally contemptuous of those who talk a good revolution but stay at a safe distance from gunfire-“the sensitive souls of the Cafe Flore,” as he names them. He praises Regis Debray, and recalls his own readiness to lead six hundred officers to help Bangladesh in its war of independence against Pakistan. He envisioned finding eager recruits among the retired French officers who were “very bored and very ready to march.”
The interview concludes with the scholar-adventurer yearning for new frontiers—perhaps in Central Asia despite the Soviet flats now in Samarkand. “’And Tibet,’ he said, ’there is always Tibet.’”
If Malraux emerges as a modern incarnation of Tennyson’s Ulysses—eager to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield—Konstantin Melnikov stands out equally as an anachronism. In 1973 when...