On the Black Hill
Shortly before the end of Bruce Chatwin’s novel On the Black Hill, a small child takes an old man up through the forest to see a “funny person.” As the two stare through a gap in the bushes at a mossy tree stump surrounded by birds, the stump moves. It is Meg the Rock, the old man’s neighbor, her skin plastered with mud, her layers of tattered green jerseys merging with the ferns and lichens of the slope, talking to the wild creatures of the Welsh hills as if she were one of them—as indeed she is.
This scene is at the heart of Chatwin’s precise and moving novel about a world that has changed little since the time of Queen Elizabeth I or of Caratacus and the Romans. It is a world that is touched in the end by tractors and aerial photographers and antique dealers and electronic games in the village pub, but it is a world in which man and nature remain nevertheless inseparable, almost indistinguishable, interacting with each other in patterns that are as old and intricate as the hills themselves.
Bruce Chatwin’s first published book, In Patagonia (1977), was a much-praised modern version of a traditional English genre, the travel narrative. In it, the young author used the story of his quest for traces of a prehistoric beast, allegedly discovered by his grandmother’s cousin in the farthest tip of the South American peninsula, as the starting point for an exploration of an alien culture. Digressions on Butch Cassidy, Isabel Perón, Charles Darwin, and the Ancient Mariner lure the reader of In Patagonia into a land where heat and isolation breed eccentricity, and where every natural object conceals some fragment of myth. Settled by Boers, Welsh, Germans, and Italians who, even as they talk about politics and oil, seem frozen in the past, much like Uncle Charley’s Giant Sloth, Patagonia becomes in Chatwin’s hands a kind of fairyland or netherworld, the sort of place where medieval knights were doomed to wander forever.
The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), Chatwin’s second book and first novel, was based on the life of a Brazilian slave trader, marooned by chance on the African coast. A skillful but rather slight narrative, it seemed little more than an expansion of one of the digressions that worked so effectively in the Patagonian work. There was nothing in it to prepare the reader for the astonishing shift of manner and matter that seems at first to characterize On the Black Hill, a pastoral novel that evokes the landscapes of D. H. Lawrence or Thomas Hardy. Village fairs, parties at the squire’s house, the predictable rhythms of plowing and reaping: All of the familiar events and images of country life that inhabit the English literary consciousness are present in this book and promise the reader an anachronistic kind of pleasure that is, in fact, part of the book’s real appeal.
The apparent simplicity of the subject matter and the limpid quality of Chatwin’s admirable prose are, however, deceptive. Like Ronald Blythe in Akenfield (1969) and G. B. Edwards in The Book of Ebenezer Le Page (1981), Chatwin in On the Black Hill uses the study of a small community as a vehicle for cultural self-examination, a postmodern exploration of the urban present in terms of the rural past. By focusing intently on a literary territory that is familiar to readers who have never watched a sheepshearing or seen a moor, the author forces his audience to measure and assess the observable relationship between continuity and change.
In any case, for all of its familiarity, Chatwin’s Wales is, in its way, as remote as Patagonia, and its inhabitants are as isolated and peculiar as the expatriate Scot of that Southern Hemisphere who tried hard to grow a thistle. Benjamin and Lewis Jones, the central characters of On the Black Hill, are identical twins, mirror images of each other, until experience subtly marks them. They live together for eighty years and sleep in the same bed for more than half that time. After their mother dies when they are in their forties, they change nothing in their small farmhouse, finally and futilely barricading it against the present. They feel each other’s pain, moving sometimes as a single creature, at other times struggling apart, wracked by half-understood jealousy. Clinging to each other and to their land, with the solemn dignity of dumb animals—they raise sheep and sow fields—not so much resisting change, as stepping back from it, allowing it to flow around them.
The boys’ first memory is of a wasp sting, felt by one, suffered by the other. Lewis, the firstborn, is the stronger—the outgoing one who will lust after women and cherish his tractor. He keeps a scrapbook of newspaper descriptions of airplane crashes, and when he loses his virginity, he strikes his brother and leaves home. Ben nurses the sheep, handles the money, and pours the tea. By a...
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