“There is no road”, said Machado, “because the road is made by walking”. Bruce Chatwin seems to have followed this motto. His was a journey in pursuit of beauty, and objects were his driving force.
With two official biographies and a wife who still recounts stories about him around the world, this dandy-aesthete Englishman born in 1940 in Yorkshire has become the dream of a generation. If you own a black Moleskine notebook with an elastic band, it’s because it was used by Chatwin, to then be mass-produced by a Milanese company which foresaw its commercial potential.
During his travels, Chatwin used to take notes in these notebooks, once exclusively made in France. His journey documented in the 1977 travel book In Patagonia brought him international fame.
Chatwin identified as a writer, however the academic rigour of his work was not guaranteed: being accurate and sticking to the facts were never his objectives, though deep down it doesn’t really matter.
His dad was a Royal Navy officer who used to move from port to port with his wife and the young Bruce. That was when Chatwin’s nomadic life began.
His autobiographical pages are full of imagery: he himself tells us that his Anglo-Saxon surname comes from “chette-whynde”, which can be translated as a “winding path”.
Anyone who tries to understand their own life’s truth must face its bends and forks. He was renowned for his vanity, for being a ‘chatterbox’, as his friends used to call him because around Chatwin everything started and ended with a chat. He was also known for having female and male lovers.
In 1965 Chatwin married Elizabeth Chanler, the daughter of two American collectors. He met her at Sotheby’s when he was working his way up at the auction house. His career within the house started when his father’s friend got him a job as a porter at only 18 years old, and ended with him becoming one of the most famous anthropological and African art brokers. The world of collectors is extravagant and diverse, and within it Chatwin was able to find lovers and objects, build relationships, buy and sell blurring the lines of legality on his travels in Cairo, South Africa and Afghanistan. After resigning from his post at Sotheby’s, he attempted to study Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh but ended up dropping out. In 1973 he started writing for The Sunday Times Magazine as an advisor on art and architecture which allowed him to start travelling again. Collectors and objects were his fortune and became the protagonists of his books. He was a theoretician of nomadic life who was terrified of living in a single place. He spent a lot of time in New York, where, amongst other things, his friend Robert Mapplethorpe shot some iconic portraits of him.
Among his many friends was the brilliant Werner Herzog who directed “Cobra Verde”, a film based on his 1980’s novel The Viceroy of Ouidah.Chatwin even gifted him the famous leather backpack that accompanied him on his travels. In 1986 he was diagnosed with HIV and started living between England and the South of France. After having some time apart from his wife, he got ill and threw himself into his last crazy art deals until his wife got back and tended to him. He died when he was 48 years old. Elizabeth buried his ashes under an olive tree in Kardamili, a remote haven on the Mani peninsula in Peloponnese, with the help of their friend Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, a British writer and traveller.
The author of his biography, Nicholas Shakespeare, writes that Chatwin “tells not a half-truth but a truth and a half”. He gives the example of the story told by Bruce about his first job: at the age of only 4 years old he appointed himself as guide of the William Shakespeare monument, inside Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-upon-Avon, where his mother and him lived temporarily with his great-aunts. He started being singled-out for his tall tales when he was in boarding school. It was during those years that he also first started showing symptoms of a psychosomatic eye disorder which led him to want to escape to Patagonia in his later years.
Salman Rashdie, a writer and admiring friend, said that Bruce used to own a cardboard box he never let go of – his little portable Wunderkammer where he kept small pieces of art.
His editor, Jonathan Cape, called Chatwin a traveller, a story teller, an enthusiast of the unusual, a researcher of a subjective truth – an amateur genius.
We don’t need much else. He inspires us to travel. Travelling to exist, smile, let go, break free and say goodbye. Those of us who are settled, because of a job or by choice, know how much nomadism can be in our thoughts, even when it’s not accompanied by the rhythm of our steps.
Bruce Chatwin asked himself “Why do men wander rather than stand still?”. Maybe we each will find an answer by walking.