Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1949
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 tries to find out what happened to the porcelain. After talking to the current curator of the museum, to Orlik (who, retired now, has returned to puttering with mammoth bones), and to several garbagemen familiar with Utz’s dustbin, he is inclined to believe that once Utz and Marta became lovers (in Marta’s mind, a true husband and wife), the collection (including all the pieces he smuggled into Prague from Geneva) became meaningless to Utz, and so he, with Marta’s help, destroyed it.
In any case, the porcelain is missing, and in order to understand why, it is important to see what it meant to Utz in the first place.
The porcelain figures in Utz’s collection embody and, as it were, comment on the nature of life in its human framework. They show, especially in what they are made of, the human wish to create life and control time. They show, with elegance and wit, that life is a form of play. Finally, and paradoxically, they show that life is fragile at best.
The invention of Meissen porcelain by Johannes Bottger in the eighteenth century was the result of a tyrant’s wish. Augustus the Strong of Saxony (the homeland of Utz’s forebears), thinking that Bottger could turn lead into gold, forced him to work for him. Using Red Tincture, which was said to be crucial to this process, Bottger created red porcelain. Later, he invented white porcelain. These were as valuable in themselves as gold to Augustus. An alchemic wonder, they stand for the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone—that is, the ability to become immortal. Immortality, however, is an illusion. As art, Meissen porcelain may outlast its artisans and collectors (with the exception of Utz, who outlasts his collection), but it, too, is bound by time and chance.
Porcelain is also an example of the wish to create life. In this respect, it is like the Golem said to have been invented by the Rabbi Loew in the nineteenth century. The Golem was composed of clay and animated by Cabalistic magic; porcelain is also composed of clay and animated by a kind of magic, the artist’s imagination. But the Golem of legend was really alive, a monstrous embodiment of man’s desire to become God, to become the master of nature itself. Indeed, oppressive governments are golems created by those under the sway of this desire. The result is horror and ugliness.
Porcelain, on the other hand, is alive only by successfully mimicking life, especially its follies. The Swan Service in Utz’s collection, the court ladies and the buffoons in it, show to what amusing lengths human beings take food and sex and even art. Such pieces are not meant to oppress anyone, but to delight the observer. As such, they are beautiful.
To Utz, they are a reminder of a saner time than his own. Of that time, the eighteenth (or “Porcelain”) century, they represent “the wit, the charm, the gallantry, the heartlessness and light-hearted gaiety—before they were swept away by revolution and the tramp of armies.” In short, Utz’s porcelain shows human life as play, a sort of breathtaking nonsense. The jester Pulchinella makes a joke out of eating spaghetti, and an orchestra of monkeys makes one out of serious music. The lesson is clear: We are fools—rogues and aristocrats all—and art is one of the best ways we have of accepting this. In this sense, it stands against the witless golems of power.
This contrast between the two highlights the fragility of porcelain. Like the span of human types it represents, Utz’s collection is at the mercy of tyrants, but either they do not know it exists (the Nazis) or they do not know what to do with it (the Communists). Fragile himself, Utz still does what the porcelain cannot. He makes himself unobtrusive and seemingly cooperative. Though the Communist regime in Prague bugs his apartment, he never says anything to attract their attention. He may, in fact, bore them. He brings women home, or he says little to his servant Marta, or he talks (when the narrator is there) about porcelain. If his eccentric friend Orlik is there, the talk is presumably about flies (which seem to be Orlik’s private image for the authorities).
Paradox runs through all this. Utz’s porcelain is strong in its art, but delicate as a medium. Utz himself is strong by appearing weak. The most interesting part of the paradox, though, is Marta.
Marta is like a living piece of porcelain. She is a peasant, one of the types in Utz’s collection. She is also an exaggeration, which is typical of the Meissen mode, as well as of the porcelain that came from the Naples factory that Augustus the Strong’s granddaughter founded when she became the queen of that city. To the superstitious villagers where she lives when she is young, Marta is intolerable, for she seems to be in love with a magnificent gander which she raised herself. In the late 1930’s, Utz sees her being chased by a mob of these villagers. It is as ludicrous a scene as any depicted in his porcelain, and he rescues her in his ear. Her loyalty to him after that is as exaggerated as her religious fervor, which surfaces when she insists that her marriage to Utz is not really valid until they redo it in a Catholic church, and when she tries unsuccessfully to help the nuns unclothe the Infant of Prague statue in the Church of Our Lady Victorious. Moreover, she intensifies the seedy comedy of her husband’s affairs with the divas, first by making it easy for him to have them, and then, after finally going to bed with him, by taking revenge on them.
Marta, however, is a real person, not porcelain. Alive, and expert in the ways of survival, she is the strongest character in the novel. She has contacts among the peasants, she is familiar with the black market, so she keeps Utz not only fed but well fed. She is also his conspirator in keeping his porcelain collection safe and, when the time comes, in making it vanish for good. And it is she who orchestrates Utz’s funeral, fooling the museum officials and the divas alike, after which her escape from the capital is so immediate and clever that no one thinks to track her down until the narrator does years later.
This kind of female strength brackets Utz’s life. When he is a boy, his grandmother, who has joined his family in spite of her Jewishness, starts him on his porcelain collection, by which he gains a focus and a philosophy, and thus the strength to survive and a reason for doing so. When Utz is an adult, and when he nears the end of his life, Marta is crucial to his survival and leads him to his final outlook, which is that real life, with its mortal needs and urges, is more important than the fake life of porcelain. Marta, in short, provides an ultimate note of triumph to Utz’s life.
Utz is sparely and elegantly written. Though the chronology of the plot is not always easy to follow, and though the narrator’s long-term interest in Utz is hard to credit, the novel presents a unique and even splendid modern image of the comic relationship between the state and the individual.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 68
The Atlantic. CCLXIII, February, 1989, p. 83.
The Christian Science Monitor. January 27, 1989, p. 13.
Library Journal. CXIII, December, 1988, p. 131.
London Review of Books. X, September 29, 1988, p. 10.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 22, 1989, p. 3.
The New York Review of Books. XXXVI, February 2, 1989, p. 6.
The New York Times Book Review. XCI V, January 15, 1989, p. 3.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, October 21, 1988, p. 48.
The Times Literary Supplement. September 23, 1988, p. 1041.
The Washington Post Book World. XIX, January 22, 1989, p. 1.
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