Chatwin, in Patagonia and down under

Susannah Clapp is currently theatre critic of The Observer. Forty years ago, she was Bruce Chatwin’s editor, so, with an anniversary edition of In Patagonia on the way, she can offer a singular perspective on the man and the work:

I had written the reader’s report on the book. It had dazzled and worried me. It was exceptional – but it was enormous and it didn’t flow. I became his editor, with the task of making the book speed along. Over the next few weeks, we went through every line of the manuscript, reading it aloud in the Regent’s Park flat of the art dealer John Kasmin. Every night, the author went home merrily to hack away his stuff: he loved chucking out adjectives and anything that looked like a moody reaction shot. Every morning, he arrived having cut – but often having also added another episode; stories kept spilling out of him. 

In Australia, the 30th anniversary of Chatwin’s The Songlines — inspired by the way in which Indigenous Australians map geography and preserve history and culture — is of greater interest. In a fascinating piece in the Monthly, Richard Cooke writes: 

It is an imperfect book, and the fete surrounding its publication has moved on, but The Songlines did force the white world to gauge the depth of Indigenous culture. And it is partly imperfect because Chatwin too was overwhelmed by his subject. As he tried to make sense of what he had seen in Alice Springs and its surrounds over a total of nine weeks in the early 1980s, he wrote that songlines were on “such a colossal scale, intellectually, that they make the Pyramids seem like sand castles. But how to write about them – without spending 20 years here?”

Scaling these intellectual monuments, even tracing their outlines, is almost impossible. Songlines are not just sung poems. They are also legal documents, genealogical records, maps and the legends of maps, documentations of flora and fauna, systems of navigation, religious rites, spells, history books, memory palaces, and endless other combinations of ceremony, knowledge and philosophy that cannot be readily analogised into another culture. Anthropologists have dedicated their lives to obtaining only the most peripheral glimpses of them. Some have resisted further insights, knowing they are bought through a system of law, obligation and initiation that is not entered into lightly. Compared to the accumulation and expanse of millennia of living traditions, writing itself can seem like an almost futile explanatory tool. And Chatwin had only a few weeks.

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