It's tricky business divining a man's soul from his drink order, but at the moment the temptation is overwhelming. Bruce Chatwin has just breezed into the hotel dining room, plucked a wilted necktie from the fingers of the maitre d' and alighted, sunny and windblown, at the corner table. "We'll have one glass of champagne," he proposes, "and then just water. Is that all right?"
Utterly and absolutely. Chatwin has always had a taste for extremes and a talent for finding them. The English admirer who called him the writer most writers have wanted "at one time or another" to be got it only half right. Most readers who tuck into a Chatwin tale wind up wanting to be him, too.
"In Patagonia," his first book, took him to the dry and grassy tip of South America and fixed him firmly in the firmament of great British travel writers. For "The Viceroy of Ouidah," the story of a Brazilian slave trader, he roamed to West Africa, where he was arrested as a mercenary for his troubles. He once claimed he wrote his third book -- "On the Black Hill," a novel about twin brothers who never leave their Welsh farm -- to prove he could write about people who stayed put.
"Songlines," his latest, begins as an exploration of the aboriginal ritual known as "walkabout," but quickly comes around to his abiding obsessions. Part novel, part Australian travelogue, the book is a rambling meditation on the reasons for human restlessness. Why is it, he wondered, that we feel freer, happier, better on the road?
"Rimbaud," he answers, raising a glass to the poet Verlaine called the man with footsoles of wind. "Rimbaud takes to the road as a way of curing himself. There's the extraordinary thing in which he says, 'I was forced to travel in order to ward off the apparitions which were crowding around my brain.' Now that is something we all know."
It's more than the narcotic of motion that pulls at us, Chatwin argues, and more than the sibilancies of a strange language. In setting out and leaving possessions behind, we become nomads again, the way we were and the way we are meant to be.
"Psychiatrists, politicians, tyrants are forever assuring us that the wandering life is an aberrant form of behaviour; a neurosis; a form of unfulfilled sexual longing; a sickness which, in the interests of civilization, must be suppressed. ... In the East, they still preserve the once universal concept: that wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and universe," he writes.
"Solvitur ambulando. 'It is solved by walking.' "
Chatwin talks the way he writes, spinning great, glittering skeins of stories, leaping nimbly from continent to continent, accent to accent. He is an inspired mimic, all wit and astonishment. The blond-haired aboriginal children found him irresistible. "I had a passage in the book about it, of the kids mimicking me behind my back," he says. "Ba-rilliantly getting this sort of Pommy stranger in noir."
At 47, he looks more worn than the glossy Pan on the jacket of "In Patagonia." He is very lean, and only recently recovered from a rare and debilitating disease of the bone marrow he picked up on a trip to western China. "Hazards of travel," he notes mildly. "Rather an alarming one."
Raggedy wisps of faded yellow hair frame his ruddy face and his wide-set eyes are horizon blue. He speaks in a confident staccato, rhythmic slaps of sentences further enlivened by gusts of enthusiasm and rolling waves of affirmation.
"What are you going to have?" he asks companionably, bending over the lunch menu. "Charred beef? Right off. Yes. I wouldn't mind that. Give me that. I quite agree. Right. Let's just have that. I don't think we want anything to start. Fine. Terrific." It's the Englishman Abroad, part protective coloring, no doubt, but good company all the same. "I've come to the conclusion that people give interviews to create a shell, an armor, and then under it they can do something completely different," he says a little later. "It's like a piece of ectoplasm, which somehow resembles you but is not quite you."
Part of the armor is a biography that has taken on mythic qualities since "In Patagonia" appeared in 1977: privileged childhood in wartime England, preparatory school, then packed off by his family to work at Sotheby's after announcing his intention to see Africa. "I wanted to be out and about," he recalls. "They thought I was young for that." With an eye for art developed during childhood vacations, he prospered and was promoted. He began to collect things himself.
But he longed for simplicity, for liberation from paintings and expensive baubles, and he still wanted to be out and about. He woke one morning with temporary blindness, psychosomatic probably. The doctor prescribed distant horizons, so the story goes. He went to the Sahara, studied archeology in Scotland and made a handy living in between by dealing in antiquities.
"Yes, when I was younger, the whole question of antiquities smuggling, which was what I was up to, was slightly less unrespectable than it is now. It was sort of -- in Paris it was sort of vaguely fashionable. There are some rather famous things which are not two miles from here very much enshrined in a museum case. I actually removed them from one country to another in a kind of jock strap."
In 1972 or thereabout, he was hired by the Sunday Times to write about art. He gravitated toward news features instead, reporting on migrant workers in Marseilles, the murder of a bus conductor. He interviewed Konrad Lorenz, Andre' Malraux and Simon Wiesenthal and spent a month traveling in India with Indira Gandhi.
The job lasted three years. "They decided because I was so absolutely erratic, wouldn't come into the office when I was wanted, it would be much more suitable if I would be on a retainer," he says. "In other words, they pushed me sideways. My immediate reaction to that was to send a telegram saying, 'I've gone to Patagonia.' So that was the making of me. I had an idea that I wanted to write a letter from the end of the world."
Chatwin has been wandering for so long -- on and off for more than 20 years -- that people are often surprised to find that he's been married, for more than two decades, to the same woman. "We have rather a laugh about that, my wife and I, because needless to say ... I mean, given the life we lead, saying goodbye, coming together again, going ... people are always trying to ..."
Chatwin's wife Elizabeth is from an old and well-connected New York family, and he moves in circles sufficiently rarefied that one reviewer was moved to describe him as a discreet Truman Capote, a "literary lion among the upper crust," but without the urge to tattle. There is a certain inextinguishable sense of wonder about him, a resilience that money can't buy but probably doesn't hurt. He has an apartment in Belgravia and a red farmhouse in the Chilterns, the chalk hills of south central England. When he's writing, however, Chatwin seeks out distant places. "On the Black Hill" was written in the West Indies, "Songlines" in India. For his new novel in progress, set in Czechoslovakia, he's been visiting Eastern Europe, and writing in France.
"I think certain kinds of marriages, the fact of all the travel is the motor that keeps the whole thing going," he says. His wife "is much more of a traveler than I; she's off all over the place."
He pauses and leans forward. "You see, this thing about women ... men in general are much less strongly action-oriented. Once you get a woman on the road, there's no stopping her. And actually, it is the gypsy women who keep the men going. It's the Bedouin women who keep the men going. In hunting societies, it's those women! Otherwise those men would just sit around the bar!" he finishes with a flourish. "And so it's all a question of hearth and home. If the hearth happens to move, they're off!"
He pauses again. "You have now an incredible phenomenon of elderly ladies in camping trucks. Everywhere you go, there are people with their camping things."
Therein the essential Chatwin story: personal observation stacked into something bigger, highly speculative, highly satisfactory, and topped off with a dollop of popular anthropology.
"In Patagonia" won the 1978 Hawthornden Prize in England and the 1979 E.M. Forster Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Soon after, Chatwin lit out for Africa again to travel among the nomads, hoping to write a book about people who find happiness in doing without things. The book never worked out, but fragments of it appear in "Songlines." Like all of his best writing, these shards glimmer with the magic and strangeness of distant places:
"There were fifteen passengers crammed into the back of a canvas-hooded pick-up. All of them were Moors except for myself and a person covered in a sack. The sack moved, and the drawn and beautiful head of a young Wolof peered out. His skin and hair were coated with white dust, like the bloom on purple grapes. He was very frightened and very upset."
And this: "The names of the tribes I travelled among are unimportant," he writes (a bit disingenuously; he understands better than anyone the power of the names). "Rguibat, Quashgai, Taimanni, Turkoman, Bororo, Tuareg -- people whose journeys, unlike my own, had neither beginning nor end. I slept in black tents, blue tents, skin tents, yurts of felt and windbreaks of thorns. One night, caught in a sandstorm in the Western Sahara, I understood Muhammed's dictum: A journey is a fragment of Hell."
It was while looking for a suitably Godforsaken place to work his alchemy on the notes from the African journey that he first traveled to Australia. The idea of "walkabout" intrigued him. "In the beginning, all I did know about it was that black fellows working on a cattle station suddenly up sticks and go, and leave their clothes behind and disappear over the horizon and then come back as if nothing had happened," he says.
Chatwin visited Australia three times, and gradually came to understand the walkabout as only the most visible part of an ancient aboriginal network of sacred sites, songs, landmarks and migratory paths. These paths, the so-called songlines, or "tracks of the ancestors," were the means by which the aboriginals consecrated, allocated and mapped their continent. Chatwin was intrigued by their similarity to the maps of other ancient societies: to the "singing stones" of the Lapps, the stone circles of ancient Britain, the Nazca "lines" in central Peru. The system's ingenuity at keeping ancient aboriginals in touch but out of each other's hair encouraged some of his own ideas about human evolution and the significance of nomadism.
"I think you have two kinds of societies, after all," Chatwin says. "You have a society which either accumulates or renounces. They're the two great models. And the renunciatory model demands that you, I think it really demands that you go on journeys.
"Why is it that the nomad peoples do not evolve spiritual beliefs about the afterlife journey of the soul, while sedentary people have the journey through the field of reeds, or whatever it happens to be? The Pygmies say when we die, we die, that's the end of us, the wind blows away our footprints. The others have these long trials, about which Dante was the greatest expert."
At least one reviewer has suggested that "Songlines" is simply Chatwin's high-flown attempt to justify his own wanderlust, and that with his metaphysical ruminations -- the quotations from Kierkegaard, conversations with Konrad Lorenz -- he's in over his head.
Chatwin only smiles. "The thinkers I'm attracted to are always, as it were, the speculative thinkers, on the edge." He professes a merry bafflement about the book's recent five-week run on the best-seller list. "A book that sort of deals with aboriginals, sort of deals with crackpot notions, I mean you couldn't have, by anybody's calculations, could you?" he says, and laughs. "I mean it's not our fault, as it were!"
In addition to Chatwin's indelible portraits of blacks and whites in modern Australia, "Songlines" includes a few characters from old short stories. One in particular, .2 an English traveling salesman who works in Africa, seems to exemplify Chatwin's notions about the tyranny of possessions. The salesman owns nothing more than a change of clothes. He has no house, no family, no English friends, but he is happy. He considers home to be a small safe deposit box in England. The box contains certain mementos: his parents' wedding photo, a teddy bear, "a letter from a boy in Burundi thanking him for the present of a football." Every time he adds a new item, he throws an old one away.
He smiles. "That is, although I wouldn't swear to the contents of the box being exactly that, the first short story I ever wrote. I wrote it in a notebook in 1963. It's the first bit of writing I ever did. And that, of course, is supposed to symbolize that old thing that you cannot wander free without roots, without an anchor. Because if you don't have the anchor, you become a layabout. The idea of encapsulating all that into the little box is something which is very attractive to me."
Chatwin's tug-of-war with his own possessions continues. He left for Australia with little more than a knapsack, but coming back, he was laden like a pack mule. He reportedly spent a week in London earlier this summer divesting himself of much of his library. "I get furious with publishers, really. Why is it we have to have these vast books? They could all be reduced in size, the pages could be thinner ...
"Very good plum pie," he adds as an afterthought. "Tart."
There are hints in "Songlines" that Chatwin's nomadic days are over. "I'm actually looking for a place, in a relatively warm climate, in the winter," he says. "In Italy maybe, or in Spain. I don't want to leave Europe now. Europe's much too interesting at the moment. It's evolving very, very fast in all sorts of directions."
It is cool and quiet in the taxi on the way to National Airport. Chatwin looks out the window. Someone mentions Meridian Hill Park and he notes in passing that his wife spent much of her childhood with her grandparents, who lived in Meridian House. He checks his schedule: to New York, and then to Toronto, and then home. After that, who knows? Maybe France, where he is writing a novel about a man in Prague. "Someone at the mercy of his possessions, which he hoards in a bed-sitting room.
"As a child I was haunted, above all things, by the schoolroom atlas," he says, as the taxi coasts toward a stop at the Eastern terminal. "I thought of it as sort of one's back door, really. I sort of take it for granted."