On the Black Hill

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2016

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.

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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 chance mistake, it is he who is dragged to prison and abused by the NCOs for refusing army service in 1919. He is sickened by the sight of short skirts and by his knowledge of Lewis’ temptation, when, in a daring moment, his mother sends the two of them to the fair. His mother’s favorite, Ben clings to home and in his old age buys land instead of machinery.

Their mother, Mary Jones, is at once the boys’ link to village life and the source of their distance from it. The daughter of a missionary who spent her adolescence wandering with her parents in hot climates and who brought back a sketchbook of the Holy Land, she declassed herself by marrying the boys’ father, a rough Welsh farmer, who is alternately passionate and depressed. While Amos Jones, crazed by the long winters and religious fervor, feuds with his neighbors, Mary runs the house in proud and bitter isolation. She reads and tells stories of her past, weaving her frustrations and her intelligence into a net that binds her sons to each other and to her.

Mary sends the boys to school against their father’s will, and when Benjamin almost dies of pneumonia, she nurses him for days without leaving his bedside, then bravely sends him and his brother to the seaside to strengthen their lungs—an expedition that proves to be their sole departure from the valley. She worries about their inseparability but secretly cherishes it, admitting to herself with guilt that she does not want them to marry. She uses Benjamin, tied to her after his illness, to draw Lewis back when he tries to leave, finally drawing him back forever by her death. The night of her funeral, Benjamin makes up the parental bed for the two of them. By the end of their lives, holes are worn in the linen sheets where their heels have stuck through.

Life goes on unchanged at The Vision (named after some apocalyptic miracle on the property) for four decades after Mary’s death. The family pictures are never moved; the wallpaper hangs in strips because the twins remember the day their mother put it up. The boys, middle-aged men now, occasionally travel about the local countryside on bicycles, exploring historic sites they found described in Mary’s books. When the visitors from “outside” appear, they seem alien and peculiar. An artist couple from London is infatuated with the twins and succeeds in seducing Lewis; a German prisoner of war comes to help them work and proves to have an affinity with poultry; a lonely psychiatrist, a refugee from the Nazis, stumbles upon them and observes their relationship. Recognizing in this latter soul a sympathetic creature, Lewis says to her in a rare outburst of restlessness: “Sometimes, I lie awake and wonder what’d happen if him weren’t there. If him’d gone off . . . was dead even. Then I’d have had my own life, like? had kids?”

This is a sad story, but the sadness is muted. The men as they age move closer to each other, ignoring the scars that differentiate them. The yearly cycles of farm work continue as the generations pass around them and the countryside begins slowly to change. The manor house which they had gazed at as children burns down and is left a heap of ruins. Miss Nancy, the surviving daughter of the gentry, whom they had once peeped at from behind a hedge, takes them driving in her car. The cottage of Tom Watson the Rock, their father’s archenemy, is given over to Meg, the bird lady, and her animals. A Buddhist commune of sorts springs up on the hill, and a big South African wanderer, known locally as Theo the Tent, adopts Meg and the old men. Lewis dies of a heart attack while plowing. Benjamin, indifferent as his grand-nephew’s wife sells his mother’s furniture to antique dealers, finds his way to the cemetery and sits happily on his brother’s gravestone, chewing a grass stem while his neighbors watch hang gliders soar and fall from the mountain.

On the Black Hill is a subtle and beautifully wrought evocation of a place that is at once immediately recognizable and dreamlike. Chatwin’s style is spare but vivid, his metaphors drawn almost entirely from nature and slipped in slyly enough to be almost indistinguishable from story. Events explain themselves so convincingly that the author’s few comments seem obtrusive. The plotlessness of the novel seems to become the plot of the book.

In design, On the Black Hill is as archaic in its way as In Patagonia, and like that self-described “Wonder Voyage,” it teases the reader with elements of fairy tale and myth. The brothers on the hill, living out the emblematic role so often assigned to twins in folklore, might well be victims of enchantment, caught by their mother’s spell. Naturalistic explanations for their behavior of course exist, but Chatwin is too wise and too skillful to offer them. Nature in the book is both irresistible and ultimately baffling. The characters and the events that shape them seem no more, or no less, eccentric than field flowers, and human actions take on the inevitability of rainstorms or killing frosts. When modern consciousness intrudes—as when a pair of jets flying low over the river Wye causes the twins to recall their grandfather’s prediction that the world will end with a bang—it is a shocking reminder that human time and natural time may no longer synchronize.

Certainly the book is nostalgic, but because social and external changes are made to seem part of a larger, nonhuman pattern, much of the sadness that might attend this depiction of a disappearing way of life is defused, and the peculiar juxtapositions of character that the passage of time brings to the twins and their friends are often extremely funny. Antique dealers and hang gliders are integrated into a perspective that robs technology of its threat.

A marvelous scene near the end of the book illustrates Chatwin’s command of present and past. As an eightieth birthday present to his uncles, Kevin, the grandson of a long vanished sister—a boy who rides a motorcycle and has tattoos on his arm—arranges a surprise airplane ride for them. Benjamin is reluctant, terrified, but Lewis is allowed to take the controls of the plane. Following the pilot’s instructions, Lewis traces out the numeral “80” in the sky. He feels, as they fly over the heather and pines around The Vision and see Theo the Tent waving below, “that all the frustrations of his cramped and frugal life now counted for nothing, because for ten magnificent minutes, he had done what he wanted to do.” Chatwin’s mention of a final holocaust may suggest that he is not entirely convinced by his own arguments, but for the reader, this cosmic optimism about human life in general and, perhaps, British life in particular, is touching and at least momentarily persuasive.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 73

Antioch Review. XLI, Spring, 1983, p. 249.

The Atlantic. CCLI, March, 1983, p. 116.

Christian Science Monitor. September 7, 1983, p. 11.

Harper’s. CCLXVI, January, 1983, p. 74.

Hudson Review. XXXVI, Summer, 1983, p. 369.

Library Journal. CVII, November 1, 1982, p. 2108.

London Review of Books. CI, January 31, 1983, p. 69.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 9, 1983, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, January 2, 1983, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LIX, March 21, 1983, p. 126.

Newsweek. CI, January 31, 1983, p. 69.

Time. CXXI, January 3, 1983, p. 87.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LIX, Summer, 1983, p. 91.

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