Bruce Chatwin Chatwin, (Charles) Bruce - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

(Charles) Bruce Chatwin 1940–

English novelist and travel writer.

Each of Chatwin's books depicts a different world, consistently evoking the strangeness of place and people in a style termed "powerfully visual and aural" by the New Yorker. His acclaimed travel book, In Patagonia (1977), contains historical data and insightfully delineates people and places he encountered on a journey through the tip of South America. His first novel, The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), was originally intended to be a biography but became instead an imaginative reconstruction of the nineteenth-century slave trade set within the former West African country of Dahomey. Horror and grotesque humor combine in this novel to depict the world and mentality of a Brazilian slave trader. Most critics praised the novel, although a few objected to the sensational subject matter.

Chatwin's second novel, On the Black Hill (1982), shifts locale once more. In this novel Chatwin delves into the lives of identical twins living in rural Wales. The important events in the story are confined to the family farm; the peculiarities and limited perspectives of that existence emerge through a series of compact, keenly observed episodes. Most critics praised the novel and Chatwin's compressed style. John Updike observed that Chatwin gave a sense "of the immensity of time a human life spans, a span itself dwarfed by the perspectives of history."

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Maurice Richardson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bruce Chatwin is an original: laconic, wistful, sweet and sour, detached and sympathetic, with a sharp eye for the curious. [In the travel book In Patagonia, he] writes very well indeed in a clear, streamlined, educated cis-Atlantic style that reminds you a little of Evelyn Waugh. He has a special gift for catching the genius loci of this strange springboard into the Void. (p. 550)

Maurice Richardson, "Walkabout," in New Statesman (© 1977 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 94, No. 2431, October 21, 1977, pp. 550-51.∗

Malcolm Deas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia is … concerned with the human agents who have failed to transform the ambiente there in the past hundred years or so. It is a work of travel, of observation and accident, but also of learning, reflection and art, and can stand in the curiously distinguished literary company that Patagonia has touched….

Frequently on the journey south from Buenos Aires the author walked. In ninety-seven passages of from a few lines to a few pages he covers the distance, and much else besides…. Bruce Chatwin's success in this short book is the more interesting because it is so exceptional.

It is a book about isolated people, but of very diverse origins; the reader must reflect that any man might be a Patagon-ian…. As [William Henry] Hudson hinted, human weakness and oddity will show up more sharply against this background than against any other. In Patagonia resists the temptation of exploiting this natural advantage to excess. Chatwin can convey a person's eccentricity and absurdity without giving the reader that uneasy sense that a life is being reduced to a trouvaille. With persons as they appear in Patagonia, this requires an unusual exercise of rapport and restraint….

Mr Chatwin's encounters are always interesting because his episodic method allows him to leave all the others out entirely, and to cut each recorded encounter to just what it will bear. He relieves the eccentric with the ordinary, but the ordinary are just as finely conveyed…. He describes individuals, and not types, with the economy of the sketch, not the caricature.

In Patagonia is also the work of a learned man, not of the sort of traveller who thinks that reading will blunt rather than heighten sensibility. The author has read deeply in the extensive bibliography of the region, from the earliest discoverers through Darwin and Hudson to the Argentine writers of the present day…. Historically, it is the shade of Darwin that haunts the book most frequently….

In Patagonia is that most enviable achievement, a minor classic.

Malcolm Deas, "The Sands of the Deep South," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3950, December 9, 1977, p. 1444.

Hilton Kramer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It has taken some 85 years, but it looks as if Patagonia has now acquired another English laureate of remarkable literary powers in the person of Bruce Chatwin, who reversed [W. H.] Hudson's journey, traveling from London to the remote corners of "the accursed land," as it is called in Buenos Aires, and coming away with a book that is a little masterpiece of travel, history and adventure. It is called, simply, "In Patagonia" …; it is short—199 pages; and it is a wonderful read.

For Mr. Chatwin is a marvelous storyteller—a miniaturist who packs dozens of odd tales, bizarre characters and unforgettable scenes into the 97 succinct chapters of his book, many of them scarcely a page in length. Like Hudson, he has a sharp and sympathetic eye for natural history, and his book abounds in vivid pictorial glimpses of the landscape, but it is in his accounts of the human history of Patagonia that he is most absorbing. About everything from the legendary exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to the coming of kosher butchers from Israel to anarchist uprisings to grim Boer settlements, Mr. Chatwin has something memorable to tell us. And if the imagery of Patagonia has found its way into the poetry of Donne and Coleridge or the prose of Edgar Allan Poe, he knows exactly how it got there, and he tells us that too. He is not only a hearty traveler, capable of enduring the most awful discomforts and the most terrible food without...

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Alastair Reid

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Since tourists took over from travellers, the times have not been kind to those few, rare writers who have always seen the world well for us—who filter unknown landscapes through the screen of their curiosity, who travel at a human pace, and who keep notes that allow us to take armchair journeys after them….

The English, perhaps because they look on strangenesses with a piercingly cool eye, have turned up a steady stream of enlightening travellers…. But such writings have dwindled over the last two decades, giving way to more massive studies, which sum up countries and tell us everything about them except what they are like…. Yet there are endless alluring unknowns, lacking only a traveller with time to take them in, with an uncommitted curiosity and an unjudging eye, and with an appropriate prose manner. These qualities come brilliantly together in Bruce Chatwin, whose "In Patagonia" … takes travelling back to its magic roots….

[Mr. Chatwin] remains rigorously true to the tradition of the traveller's tale—the oldest form of storytelling—and never once intrudes himself self-consciously into the narrative. We know nothing about him at the book's end except that he has been ears, eyes, and memory to us—not impersonal but unpersonal. He is less a traveller than a wanderer, for he has few express intentions. His journey, through the startling landscapes of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, is thoroughly externalized, in sharp physical detail. He has the power of compressing place and character into small and vivid compass…. (p. 186)

[Clear-cut] cameos seem almost...

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Eve Auchincloss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Patagonia] is a travel book of sorts, containing a lot of well-digested history of that strange southerly part of Argentina where so many oddly assorted people have turned up: Magellan, Drake, Darwin, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Spanish revolutionaries, Scotch sheep farmers, Jewish merchants, a colony of dour Welshmen, and the author's grandmother's cousin, a shipwrecked sea captain. As he travels south from Buenos Aires, much of the way on foot, Chatwin gives us Patagonia in charged fragments: anecdotes, etymology, landscape, characters, poetry, towns, Patagonian literature, tragic sea stories. The style is the man: detached, humorous, succinct, wry, feeling, energetic, self-effacing: he catches the essence and gives just that, not a word more. In Patagonia may bring to mind The Great Railway Bazaar, but it is a less showoff book: absolutely original, perfectly poised, wise, an unclassifiable classic.

Eve Auchincloss, in a review of "In Patagonia," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), December 3, 1978, p. E14.

Brian Martin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Viceroy of Ouidah shows that] Chatwin has a gift for remarkably vivid imagery: 'Virgins were broken at Simbodji with the ease of bursting seedpods', and on the way to Dahomey, 'women pointed up a tree to where a crucified man croaked for water in a library of sleeping fruit bats.' Reading Chatwin's descriptions of life in Brazil and West Africa is like reading the early history of Greene-land. It is a sad, barbaric, decadent story told beautifully and brilliantly. Admirers of Conrad and Malcolm Lowry will relish it: and to most palates, it is curiously original, like 'the shock of aguardiente on the tongue'.

Brian Martin, "Slave Coast," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 100, No. 2590, November 7, 1980, p. 29.

Mary Hope

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Viceroy of Ouidah is an] extraordinary fictional treatment of the life of a Brazilian slave-trader who ended his days in Dahomey, flamboyant, ruined, flawed, the god-like ancestor of generations of darker and darker-skinned descendants whom the author discovered when he was trying to write a factual history. His information was patchy and he decided to turn the story into fiction, which he has triumphantly done. From early 19th-century Brazil, he follows Francisco Manoel de Silva to Dahomey (now Benin) where the farouche hero sets up a sub kingdom, is patronised and then rejected by the fearsome king, saved by the king's half brother, and dies sadly, surrounded by his teeming offspring forever exiled from the Brazil he longs for.

It is flawed as fiction but has such an obsessional quality, such vigour and exactitude in the description of life beyond conventional boundaries that it is intensely powerful stuff. Chatwin is fascinated by flamboyant savagery, the barbarity of the African kings matched only by the barbarity of the Christian slave-traders who deal with them. It should not be missed.

Mary Hope, in a review of "The Viceroy of Ouidah," in The Spectator (© 1980 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 245, No. 7949, November 15, 1980, p. 21.

Victoria Glendinning

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Viceroy of Ouidah is far more fantastic than most novels, while being far closer to fact. The unbelievable brutality of the slave trade, and the smell of blood, are overpowering….

Extravagant though all [the details] … may seem, it is the discipline with which this book is written that is the most striking thing about it. Every temptation … to interpret, explain, embroider, enlarge, has been resisted. Bruce Chatwin's literary manner is stark and staccato. But his material is so baroque and suggestive that his short book seems longer and denser than it really is. It verges on being excessively 'decadent', hideously and ludicrously camp, a glittering sado-masochistic drag-act performed to the beat of the black man's drum. It is held back from the brink by strict compression—there must have been some hard-headed cutting—and by the sad and moral marriage the author makes between historic and poetic truth….

The overriding impression is of clashing cultural myths, all of them with death at their centre, that lie rotting one on top of another in a dreadful, comic compost—and not only, if one thinks about it, in Dahomey.

Victoria Glendinning, "Death in Dahomey" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1980; reprinted by permission of Victoria Glendinning), in The Listener, Vol. 104, No. 2689, November 27, 1980, p. 733.

John Hemming

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Dahomey] makes a strange setting for the second book of an author whose In Patagonia enjoyed much critical praise. The story [of The Viceroy of Ouidah] evidently appealed to Chatwin not because of any prurient interest in the scandal of the slave trade, but because it took place in backwaters of Africa and South America. There is almost nothing in this book about the sufferings of the slaves or the mechanics or dimensions of the slave trade. But there are brilliant descriptions of the dusty poverty of the Brazilian interior and of the rot and decay of the humid coast. Almost every page contains marvellously concise observations by someone who has travelled in these remote places and who revels in the outlandish or the exotic. The strength of the book lies in the wealth of detail, the meticulous depiction of everything from the look of a man burnt alive in a brushfire to a tree full of "a library of sleeping fruit bats", or to the pictures and termite-riddled furnishings of a Benin house.

Chatwin reserves his most careful descriptions for anything connected with religion or superstition. He compares the power of a blood-thirsty Dahomean king, surrounded by prostrate subjects and the skulls of his victims, and that of a poderoso do sertão, a mighty cattle baron of the Brazilian north-east. He notices every custom or ritual that surrounds marriage, child-birth, or particularly death in those two regions. He loves to catalogue the curios and relics kept by old people—by Francisco da Silva after his eventual decline, or by his daughter.

The Viceroy of Ouidah is remarkably short for a novel that covers the rise and fall of a trading dynasty and spans a century and a half in time. But it is none the less powerful despite its brevity. It tells of amazing adventures in wild places and makes compelling reading.

John Hemming, "A Trader from the Badlands," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4053, December 5, 1980, p. 1380.

John Thompson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bruce Chatwin's travel book "In Patagonia" … earned wide praise and distinguished awards. In it he yielded only occasionally to the urge for novelistic invention that overcame him this time [in "The Viceroy of Ouidah"]. He set out to write a biography of a Brazilian slaver in Dahomey, but he was arrested in Cotinou and something happened—he doesn't say what—that made him decide not to go back for more research. Thus he wrote this "work of the imagination." How can we object? None of us has seen these things. No doubt Dahomey was and is something special. We read today of Uganda. Still, others have found or imagined other primitive Africas. One could mention Graham Greene's "Journey Without Maps" or, for a work of the imagination based on somewhat less horrendous events, Chinua Achebe's "Arrow of God." That novel of West Africa has violence enough, and cruel superstition too, yet it is suffused with the common humanity of which I find not one dried drop in "The Viceroy of Ouidah." (p. 28)

John Thompson, "The Hero Was a Slaver," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 14, 1980, pp. 7, 28.

Richard Hall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is no denying the brilliance of Bruce Chatwin's book. The prose coruscates, so that many images from this African horror story linger disturbingly in the mind.

Yet you are left wondering what to make of The Viceroy of Ouidah. The tale's bare bones (a fitting metaphor) concern a young Brazilian who set himself up on the slave coast of Dahomey in the early 19th century and grew rich from the many human cargoes he shipped back to South America, until the dark continent wreaked its dreadful revenge upon him.

This may be taken as a superb, impressionistic piece of historical reconstruction, although Chatwin carefully calls it "a work of imagination."…


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Anne DuchêNe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


[On the Black Hill] disconcerts expectation; something one imagines by now this author very much enjoys doing. After the harshly and brilliantly exotic expanses of In Patagonia and The Viceroy of Ouidah, [Chatwin] has elected to study a few square miles of hill-farm in Radnorshire, and the lives of the twin brothers who farm it.

The writing has the emblematic self-sufficiency of the late David Garnett's. The sense of place is flawlessly invoked, usually in paragraphs of only a few lines …; but the necessary presence of the practical is never neglected….

The mixture of the possible and the unlikely with the laconically...

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Francis King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Geographically, the claustrophobic world inhabited for 80 years by Lewis and Benjamin Jones [in On the Black Hill] is close to that of Mary Webb's novels; thematically it is even closer…. Mr Chatwin is a better, because more fastidious, writer than Mary Webb; but the elements which are finest in her novels are also to be found in his: an ability to evoke country lives flowing, strong, dark and deep, through their narrow channels; a poetic sensitivity to landscapes changing with each change of season; and the born storyteller's knack of convincing one that these characters scraped their precarious livings, carried on their embittered feuds, triumphed or (more often) were thwarted in their violent passions, and...

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Lorna Sage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'On the Black Hill' experiments with themes [Chatwin] has made his own as a travel writer—the improbable and bizarre completeness of worlds on the margins of consciousness, and the ready-made fiction you can find, if you look, in the accidents of history and geography. 'On the Black Hill' surveys twentieth-century life from the vantage-point of a small mountain in Radnorshire, where time arranges itself in slow layers, and you can observe the frenzy of large events through the wrong end of the telescope.

Eccentricity is the order of things, and the book's beginning, describing the curious, crotchety routines of twin bachelor brothers perched on their hill … has the same sort of imaginative...

(The entire section is 355 words.)

V. S. Pritchett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

After the excellent book on his travels, In Patagonia, it is at first surprising to find Bruce Chatwin writing a novel about the small sheep farmers at home on the hills of the Welsh Border country of England. Sheep farming is, of course, the common link. In the nineteenth century large numbers of tough, poor, and exalted Welsh peasants migrated to Patagonia as if drawn to the isolation, the rains, the snows and hard conditions they knew at home and where they would be free of the mocking gaze and rule of the Sassenach conquerors. The people of On the Black Hill are part of the sturdy remnant who toiled and haggled at home.

But if the novel is a watchful traveler's journey through...

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John Updike

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Bruce Chatwin] writes a clipped, lapidary prose that compresses worlds into pages. "In Patagonia," an account of his wanderings in southern Argentina, won high praise five years ago for its witty obliquity, elegantly economical descriptions, wealth of curious historical and paleontological data, and perky word portraits of the drunken gauchos and homesick Scotsmen he encountered in this vast, raw region. The one virtue "In Patagonia" did not conspicuously possess, it seemed to me, was momentum; the traveller so deliberately minimized his personality and obscured his motives that the prose seemed to travel on ghostly legs of its own, snacking on scenery and bits of dialogue where it pleased, and hopping about so...

(The entire section is 575 words.)