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Peter KurthWhen the writer Bruce Chatwin died in 1989, word got around that he had succumbed to a rare exotic illness, "a fungus," as he told people, that he "must have picked up by inhaling it in the dust" on a trip to China. That Chatwin had AIDS was a fact known to lots of people in spite of his dissembling, but he still talked about a fatal condition "caused by Chinese eggs ... or by a visit to the Hong Kong bird market. He also spoke about a disorder caused by bats in caves," says Susannah Clapp, his editor in London and the author of this memoir, the first book about Chatwin to appear since his death. When Chatwin finally did permit the letters "HIV" to pass his lips, Clapp tells us, it was only to declare that he was "arranging an expedition to Africa to find a stable form of the HIV virus -- the Aga Khan was to be approached for funding."
"The word AIDS is one of the cruelest and silliest neologisms of our time," Chatwin had remarked in a letter to the London Review of Books the summer before he died: "'Aid' means help, succor, comfort, yet with a hissing sibilant tacked onto the end it becomes a nightmare." To a man whose reputation in life as well as letters rested firmly on his being a perpetual enigma, who prided himself particularly on his fastidious tastes and "hardly wrote a confessional line in his life," according to Clapp, AIDS must have seemed banal, colloquial and ultimately uncivilized.
"Chatwin occasionally sported a beret with his sharp suits," Clapp remembers, "and was given to entertaining his colleagues with imitations of Bea Lillie and with his rendering of 'A Bar on the Piccola Marina' -- the Noël Coward song which describes how love came to Mrs. Wentworth Brewster and sent her round the bend." When he wasn't quoting Coward it was Robert Louis Stevenson, who had written his mother in 1874, "You must remember that I shall be a nomad, more or less, until my days are done."
This is a splendid and honorable book, beautiful, true and faithful to the friendship it describes. As a travel writer, Bruce Chatwin redefined the form, first with his classic In Patagonia, and later in The Songlines, his novel -- or was it? -- about Australian Aboriginal culture. He "delighted in paradox," as Clapp reminds us. His work "hovered teasingly between fact and fiction. It abstained from personal revelation but was full of autobiographical memoir." Chatwin was a gay man contentedly married to an American woman, the son of "Birmingham worthies" who made himself at home in the tents of Bedouins and the beds of art collectors, who decorated his numerous flats and abodes with Swedish furniture, Japanese screens, Athenian reliefs and friezes by Matisse but nevertheless was "an inventive and adventurous traveler" who could sleep on the ground with the best of them. If he was secretive to the last, guarded and "difficult to hug," it was only in keeping with the persona he had fashioned for himself. He owned his own life; it belonged to him. In death, he still has the best of editors. -- Salon