The principal theme that runs throughout all four of Bruce Chatwin’s novels is the fall of humankind from its pristine condition of nomadic innocence into the corrupt world of permanent location. Chatwin called this fall “the sins of settlement.” He used the myth of Cain and Abel rather than that of Adam and Eve to illustrate the fallen condition of the human race. Abel became a metaphor for the wandering nomadic shepherd, and Cain a metaphor for the first settler, because, after he was cast out of Eden, he moved east to found the first city. Chatwin applies this mythic fall to modern civilization in one form or another in all his novels; each novel is also a variation on what became his permanent theme: the nature of human restlessness.
The Viceroy of Ouidah
After the enormous success of his best-selling travelogue In Patagonia, Chatwin decided to write a scholarly biography on the notorious Brazilian slave trader Francisco Felix de Souza. However, after his second visit to Benin in 1978, when he was arrested and brutalized by the Marxist military government, he decided instead to write a fictionalized account of de Souza’s life. Benin had previously been known as Dahomey, an ancient city. Dahomey became, with de Souza’s assistance, one of the leading slave-trading countries during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. De Souza, a Brazilian, had come to Dahomey to acquire slaves from West AfricA&Mdash;specifically Dahomey—to work in Brazil’s mines and plantations. In Chatwin’s novelistic version, he renames de Souza Francisco Manoel da Silva and uses some of the facts of de Souza’s life; however, he imaginatively re-creates the vast majority of the scenes surrounding the main character’s life.
Da Silva is coolly sadistic toward the slaves he captures and transports to Brazil, and he prides himself on keeping them healthy so that they will be more valuable to plantation owners. Money and power are always his essential concerns. He becomes immensely wealthy and powerful, becoming the viceroy of Ouidah, the capital city of Dahomey. Greed and corruption cause his downfall, and at the conclusion of the novel, da Silva (as did the actual de Souza) loses his luxurious estate and ends up a poverty-stricken wanderer begging for shelter and food. Chatwin uses a thematic pattern that recurs in his other novels: A European Christian culture corrupts an African animist one by engaging native peoples to enslave others of their race. The novel also demonstrates the vicious practice of building one culture’s edenic paradise on the ruins of another culture.
On the Black Hill
Nothing could be further from the exoticisms of The Viceroy of Ouidah than Chatwin’s next novel, On the Black Hill. Chatwin claimed that he was tired of being labeled a travel writer and consciously decided to write a novel about people who never traveled anywhere. He was always fascinated with the borderland region between western England and eastern Wales. The story of twin brothers who spent their entire lives on their farm, called The Vision, is a composite of a number of stories about twins, a lifelong interest of Chatwin.
This novel was written in a style entirely different from that of The Viceroy of Ouidah and resembles the domestic novels of...
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