Big-headed boy

Bruce Chatwin

Nicholas Shakespeare <em>The Harvill Press, 550pp, £20</em>

There is a sequence of photographs, of the passport strip variety, in Nicholas Shakespeare's Chatwin biography, which show Bruce at various stages in his life, from babyhood until just shortly before his death at the age of 49. Observing them, the reader has the momentary, disconcerting, impression of the subject becoming younger, rather than older, over time. It is an observation Chatwin himself would have enjoyed.

Looks were important to Bruce Chatwin; pivotal, indeed, not only to Bruce Chatwin, but to "Bruce Chatwin", the myth that he spent a lifetime constructing. Almost everyone who knew him - and certainly everyone Shakespeare interviewed in the course of writing this exhaustive, not to say exhausting, biography - commented on them. At his birth the maternity nurse is alleged to have said, with eerie prescience: "He's so beautiful. He's almost too beautiful to live." In later life he became a "Golden Boy", whose good looks, despite a disproportionately large head and "strange, cold blue eyes", were equally seductive to both men and women. And he knew it, too. He was so vain, attests his close friend John Kasmin, that even when he was driving a car he would become riveted by his own image in the mirror, leaving the vehicle to wobble, terrifying his passengers. They were not the kind of looks that translate easily on to celluloid. Another photograph, taken by James Ivory in the Oregon desert in 1972, shows a gamin Bruce in shorts (there are rather a lot of photographs of Bruce in shorts), tousled hair flopping into his eyes, hips thrust forward, thumbs hooked into his waistband. He appears to look not so much at the camera as straight through it, his upper lip slightly curled: an adolescent Christopher Robin stranded on Golding's island, the Lord of the Flies himself.

I never met Bruce Chatwin, but I know many people who did. He was that kind of person - the kind of person everyone wanted to know. Like many of his ordinary readers, I first came across him when I read and admired In Patagonia. In wintry but beautiful prose he told tales of a land as strange, in Theroux's analogy, as the land where the Jumblies live. Not long afterwards I was to travel a great deal in Chile myself so I heard a lot about Chatwin. Not all of it was complimentary. In Punta Arenas, where I had friends (the Campos Menendez family, about whom he had written both inaccurately and at some length), his name was mud. Later, as a fledgling writer, I tried to write some travel articles about Patagonia myself, only to be told by almost everyone I approached that it was Bruce's "patch". No one else's views, it seemed, were admissible at that point, even if In Patagonia was highly fictionalised, a novel and not a travel book. Chatwin's "Patagonia", for all its fantastic embellishments, had become enshrined as the definitive one. For a while, his name was mud with me, too.

In Patagonia, we are told, changed the definition of modern travel writing; but this is not strictly true. Or perhaps I should say that if it is true, it should not be. That Bruce Chatwin was, at his best, a writer of exceptional gifts there is no question, and English letters will be forever enriched because of him. Travel writing, however, that much misunderstood and gloriously ragamuffin genre, will not. Chatwin, like many of the greatest exemplars of the genre, eschewed the term "travel writer", a harmless snobbery in most cases but in Chatwin's case, for once, perfectly true. He was a fabulist, in a European or even Latin American rather than a British tradition. If In Patagonia is a novel thinly disguised as a travel book, then Songlines is the reverse: a travel diary that claims to be a novel. Not surprisingly, it is his least successful book.

Chatwin spent 17 years trying to find a vehicle to express his obsession with nomadism, a body of rather vague ideas that had its roots in his own inability to settle anywhere. An early, unpublished version of it, The Nomadic Alternative, ended up so convoluted that, he wrote, "not even I could understand it, let alone the poor reader". Part of the problem was that his theory - that people moved about because movement is the natural condition of man - is simply wrong; a poetic notion, maybe, but one that remains quite unsubstantiated by any more rigorous scholarship. "I've spent lots and lots of time with lots of groups," explains the British expert on nomads, Jeremy Swift. "All say it's nice to move on . . . but it's hell on wheels doing it. I remember the Bakhtiari women on the last bit of their migration sobbing with pain: 'Why do we have to do this?' " If Bruce had offered them a lift in his Land Rover it would have delighted them, apparently.

The Songlines, as the book later became, centres on the Aboriginal idea of "tjuringa line" or "dreaming track". The term, in Shakespeare's phrase, "is not translatable in any sense", but this did not stop Chatwin. Again, despite ruthlessly exploiting his contacts in order to short-cut his way into the material, Chatwin never gleaned anything but the most superficial understanding of the sacred "songlines" (a term he coined). "You have to earn mystery," says one Australian commentator who observed him at work. "It's only lovers who get there." In The Songlines the blurring of the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction finally implodes, becomes something phoney, even dangerous, at its heart.

It was not only in his writing that Chatwin was unwilling, or unable, to distinguish between fact and fantasy. In life, too, he was a legendary mythomane. Charming and funny when he wanted to be, he was adored by his many friends. He was also a social mountaineer, possessed of a gargantuan ego, and talked so incessantly that, as one friend memorably puts it, "he murdered people with talk".

Did any of them, even his long-suffering wife, ever really know him? Continually embellishing and even re-inventing himself, by the end of his short life (he died of Aids in 1989) he had transformed himself into a creature so rare that it is tempting to think of him as a kind of human curiosity, fit for a place in his own cabinet of marvels. As a subject of a biography he is both fascinating and repulsive, in about equal measures. Nicholas Shakespeare's scrupulously impartial analysis of this most complex man is to my mind quite brilliant.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Prepare for a brave new world