26 February 2014

The Dying of the Light

by David Edgerley Gates

I was put in mind of this by a photograph my pal Jack Hrusoff posted on FaceBook. I took it to be Alaska, but it turns out to be Patagonia. The ends of the earth are all too familiar. I asked Jack if he'd read the Bruce Chatwin book, which it turns out he had, at which point my thoughts went South, so to speak.

Chatwin doesn't fit into any easy category, as a writer. He was a traveler, and IN PATAGONIA and THE SONGLINES are travel books, of a sort, but more in the tradition of an eccentric like Robert Byron, and Chatwin himself was a big fan of Patrick Leigh Fermor. THE VICEROY OF OUIDAH is more curious, still, because it's a novel, more or less, but in fact a kind of masquerade. It's about the slave trade in West Africa in the early 19th century, and a very thinly disguised retelling of the life of Felix de Sousa, a Brazilian trafficker in Dahomey, whose career was colorful enough without making any of it up. This was an issue that dogged Chatwin, that he didn't spoil a good story for lack of the facts, and his accounts of both Patagonia and the Australian aborigines were later disputed. That might explain why he chose to call THE VICEROY fiction, so he didn't have to defend his inventions, but it falls between two stools, and ends up feeling incomplete. It's the least satisfying of his books.

Chatwin wasn't above inventing himself, for that matter. He died of AIDS, when he was 48, but he concealed the fact of his illness, and told conflicting stories about it. One could imagine AIDS was simply too generic. He said, for instance, that he'd contracted some weird fungal infection in the wilds of Africa, unknown to modern medicine, or that he was bitten by a Chinese bat.

The sadder aspect of this, aside from self-denial, is that Chatwin was taken over the coals, in some quarters, for not admitting what had actually sickened him. Rock Hudson, when he was dying of AIDS, went public, and used it as a platform, to educate people. This was honorable, and took a lot of balls, on Hudson's part, but why should anybody demand Chatwin turn himself into a poster boy? He was unresponsive to treatment, and suffering from dementia, for openers. It can't have been easy.

The larger point is that we deserve some privacy, at the end of our lives. Dying is a lonely enough
business as it is. Oscar Wilde once remarked, "biography lends death a new terror." Me personally, I can forgive Chatwin his embroideries and evasions. His life was purpose enough, and I don't think he had any obligation to provide an example. The real question is whether we've left something that will live after us.


  1. In Patagonia is certainly a legacy any writer would be pleased to leave, I think.

    Thanks for reminding us of his other works.

  2. I loved both "In Patagonia" and "The Songlines". The man could WRITE. I'll have to check out "The Viceroy". And I agree - it was nobody's business what he died of, and if he wanted to keep it secret, that was his business. He wasn't a world-renowned figure, and even if he was... well, sometimes I feel we're all ghouls and body-snatchers, gobbling over the bones of celebrity, never getting enough, and never realizing that there's no such thing as enough because what we want isn't there.


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