Traveling far, through Bruce Chatwin's restless eye and hand

November 28, 1993|By Anne Whitehouse

When the English writer Bruce Chatwin died in 1989 at the age of 46, he had published five highly regarded and original books, part fiction and part travelogue, set on four separate continents. An enthusiastic, inveterate traveler, he sought to relate his own restlessness to histories and theories of human nomadism in "The Songlines," which is ostensibly about the ritualistic wanderings of the Australian aborigines. In that book, he notes paradoxically that "the most convincing analysts of restlessness were often men who, for one reason or another, were immobilized."

As a young man, Chatwin worked in the London offices of Sotheby's, as head of both its Antiquities and Impressionist paintings departments. His career there figures in "What Am I Doing Here?", a posthumous collection of essays, interviews and memoirs. At Sotheby's, he gained a reputation for his infallible "eye," which, as his friend Francis Wyndham tells us in the introduction to this volume, "Sotheby's had hoped to exploit commercially but which, perversely yet triumphantly, he directed away from the art market and on to the potentially purer world of literature."

Mr. Wyndham contends that although Chatwin's friends were scarcely aware of his photography, Chatwin thought of himself as a photographer as well as a writer, and hoped one day to exhibit or publish his pictures.

For this handsome volume, editors Wyndham and David King have selected 100 of Chatwin's photographs, which are in color except for the black-and-white photographs that Chatwin used to illustrate his first book, "In Patagonia." He was an aesthetic photographer rather than a documentarist, and these pictures reveal his dramatic sense of the interplay of form and texture, color and design.

He was drawn to utilitarian objects of basic design and fundamental materials. In Mauritania, he photographed nomad tents of undyed and indigo cloth; wooden pirogues painted in stripes of bright, contrasting colors, and market stalls and shantytowns made of salvaged wood, cloth, cardboard and sheets of corrugated iron, arranged and painted in seemingly random and vivid patterns.

Other subjects that attracted him include frayed, diaphanous prayer flags in Nepal; a rack of lustrous, thick chadors -- the veils worn by Muslim women -- in Afghanistan; straw-hatted, circular Dogon houses and mud-brick granaries in Mali; an enormous bat cave in Java.

He composed pictures of the bold geometries of wooden English windmills, the Nazca lines in the Peruvian desert, ruined mines in Wyoming and the endless flat landscapes of Patagonia. He photographed derelict church altars and icons in Soviet Russia, temples in Bali and Nepal, pyramidal mosques in Mali and domed mosques in Afghanistan.

To accompany the photographs, the editors have selected chronological narratives from Chatwin's notebooks describing three journeys: two to West Africa in 1970 and 1971, and one to Afghanistan in 1969. They have included maps so that we can follow Chatwin's itineraries.

At his death, Chatwin had filled 50 notebooks. He mined them for his books and lovingly describes them in "The Songlines": "In France these notebooks are known as carnet moleskines: 'moleskine,' in this case, being its black oilcloth binding . . . The pages were squared and the end-papers held in place with an elastic band. I had numbered them in series. I wrote my name and address on the front page, offering a reward to the finder. To lose a passport was the least of one's worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe. In twenty odd years of travel, I lost only two."

In the notebook entries reproduced here are many striking images of landscapes and people, which are a kind of verbal equivalent of the photographs, as, for example, this description of a settlement in the Mauritanian desert: "The fort of the French, the flagpole. The cool pink arched officers' rooms. A Foreign Legion hat and a pile of Hennessy bottles. The latrines were engulfed in sand."

Particularly rewarding are the occasional correlations between a photograph and a notebook entry. Accompanying an image of (( the ribbed mausoleum of Gohar Shad in Afghanistan, decorated with tiles of variegated blues, is this description: "Sitting in the mausoleum of Gohar Shad, eating a small and delicious melon. Ribbed green explosion under the melon dome. Inconceivable that art doesn't follow nature here."

Chatwin's reflection on nomad tents in Mauritania deepens our experience of the photographs: "I love to look at the blue patchwork of the tents. The use of patchwork for clothing is a sign of humility, but is often carried beyond that to another plane -- that of worthiness -- thus the Ottoman Sultans wore the most costly patchwork clothes as a symbol of their sanctity."

In the notebooks, Chatwin comes across more as an "eye" than an "I," as he records sights and impressions, yet he conveys both his restless eagerness and his sense that true rest can only be found in motion, which time and again triumph over the difficulties, discomforts and frustrations of his journeys. An ascetic at heart who preferred deserts to tropics, he is as strong in his despisements as his appreciations: "O Niger, River of Slaves and Malaria/and Mungo Park/You are the most horrible green."

"The combined talents which made him so unforgettable a human being seem to live again with renewed intensity in this collection," Mr. Wyndham writes. A welcome addition to Chatwin's published works, this beautiful album will intrigue and delight his many readers.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer who lives in New York.

Title: "Far Journeys: Photographs and Notebooks"

Author: Bruce Chatwin

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 160 pages, $35

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