Utz, like Bruce Chatwin’s previous books In Patagonia (1977), The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), On the Black Hill (1982), and The Songlines (1987), reflects his travels about the world. Utz takes place mostly in Prague, and it features the life of Kaspar Utz, a minor Saxon baron, part Jewish, who has amassed a valuable collection of Meissen porcelain. The story begins with Utz’s death in 1974. The narrator, on a research trip to Prague in 1967, spends a little more than nine hours with Utz, meeting his servant Maria and his paleontologist friend Dr. Vaclav Orlik, and fills in the rest of the story.
Utz’s passion for rare porcelain dates from his childhood, when he acquires his first piece, a Harlequin, from his Jewish grandmother. During the 1930’s, thanks to the sale of family farmlands and the money his mother and grandmother have left him, he travels about Europe and adds to his cache of expensive porcelain.
Then the war comes. Utz weathers it on the family estate in Czechoslovakia. His Nazi cousin Reinhold, a witless racial purist, tries to get him to join the German army, but Utz demures. Under the Nazi regime of Reinhard Heydrich, Utz’s racial background is questioned, but he makes a show of the medal his father earned fighting for Germany in World War I, and is left alone. To avoid suspicion, he gives easily obtainable advice to those who are looting works of art for Hermann Goring. This allows him to hide several Jews from the Nazis and to protect his porcelain collection, which he keeps in crates in his basement.
The war is barely over when the Communists assume power. Utz is as cunningly passive with them as he was with the Nazis. He hands over his land for a farming collective and his manor house for an insane asylum. He obtains a job as a cataloger in the National Library in Prague, where he lives in a flat near the Jewish Cemetery with his servant Marta and his porcelain. The authorities hesitate to confiscate the porcelain, since Marxist ideology is hazy regarding private collections. They content themselves with photographing Utz’s collection and with his promise to let the Rudolfino Museum in Prague have it when he dies.
Utz leads a deliberately undistinguished life from the 1950’s to the time of his death. In the beginning he goes to see Soviet films and pursues Hebrew studies when it is fashionable to do so. He maintains a close friendship with Dr. Vaclav Orlik, an eccentric paleontologist who for the time being has given up the study of mammoths for the study of the domestic fly. Though Utz marries Marta to avoid being evicted from his flat, he has one affair after another with aging opera singers, and each spring, bogus medical permission in hand, he visits Vichy in southern France, stopping off on the way in Geneva, where he has money and another porcelain collection. (The narrator suspects that Utz is a government agent for the sale of artworks on these yearly trips.) If Utz makes it seem that he goes to Vichy because he is fed up with winter, the Communist bureaucracy, Marta, and the porcelain, he also makes it seem that he comes back each time because he cannot abide the self- satisfied and vulgar ambience of the resort.
In 1968, almost a year after the narrator’s visit, Utz, rebuffed by a young opera singer, marries Marta again (this time in a Catholic ceremony at her insistence), and they become lovers for the first time. Sometime between this event and Utz’s death in 1974, the porcelain collection disappears. Then Utz does, in a way, since Marta manages the funeral. She will not let his past lovers see his corpse in the flat where she and Orlik sit with it, and she tells them the wrong church and cemetery for the services, and gives them, as well as the curator of the Rudolfino Museum and his staff, the wrong time for the funeral breakfast, after which she disappears herself, going to live with her sister in her native village.
When the narrator returns to Prague several years after Utz’s death, he...
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