‘The beast’

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For. Miguel Angel Sanchez de Armas

He was a handsome young man with intense blue eyes given to melancholy, a seducer of women and men, who one day began to lose his sight and left his life of ease in London to go live in the Sudan.

Thanks to that decision he did not lose his sight and in the following years he became one of the most extraordinary pilgrims and writers of the 20th century, as great as the adventure novelists of the 19th century, but unlike many of them, a real globetrotter and not mental.

I’m not talking about Joseph Conrad, although he had much in common with the peerless author of Nostromo. Separated by more than a century, they have in their watering of the culture of the perfidious Albion a common spiritual thread, although as we know Conrad was born in Poland and our character, like Byron, saw the first light in Sheffield, in the green heart of England.

Both were striving, obsessive, vagueworlds. Conrad embarked at the age of 16, fought in Spain in the ranks of Don Carlos’s army, traveled to the end of the world at that time: the Malay archipelago and the Congo River. He wrote 13 novels and his love passion brought him to the brink of suicide.

Chatwin, on the other hand, was more than a navigator, walker. He traveled on foot through the deserts of Africa, the arid expanses of Patagonia and the mysterious Australian wastelands where time stood still before the memory of man.

He had indiscriminate love affairs without knowing if any hurt him enough to take his own life. He published six books. When he died, a victim of what was then a “mysterious disease”, he had finished one with the suggestive title of What am I doing here?

With this book he cemented the legend that he had forged for himself over the years, for he was, as an impatient correspondent for “Babelia” put it in March 1997, “A man who always left false trails!”

Bruce Chatwin is undoubtedly one of the most attractive literary personalities of our time, although his work remains little known in Mexico. Federico Campbell introduced him in one of his “Hours of the Wolf”, but the Aztec readers of this wandering English form a club as hermetic and reduced as the American followers of JRR Tolkien were in his time.

Chatwin’s books are not easy to classify. One of the best known of him, in patagonia, accepts many readings. It is certainly a novel, but also a travel diary, very close, even in style, to Far Away and Long Ago by William Henry Hudson, the delightful volume of memoirs that appeared in 1918.

From his travels through Dahomey and Brazil was born The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), novel about the slave trade. the black hill (1982) describes life on a Welsh farm. For many, Chatwin’s most important work is The

song line (1987), unclassifiable book on Aboriginal Australians. utz (1988) is the portrait of a Meissen porcelain collector.

I suppose that in general terms it can be said of his work that it is the memory of an observer divided into episodes conventionally called books for the rest of the mortals. Neither can Bruce’s life or personality be inserted into a mold. Chatwin belongs to a section of human beings not easily classifiable.

This Englishman from Sheffield who was born at half past eight in the afternoon of a hot May 13 of the year of God 1940 in the bosom of an “unpretentious” middle-class family, was over time a mystery and a revelation for those who they surrounded him.

Like Tolkien, he had a sick childhood. At the age of nine, his favorite uncle was murdered somewhere in British West Africa, a vast territory where today Nigeria, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Benin, Ghana and part of Cameroon are located, and this sparked the boy’s imagination, who immediately he began to read everything he found about that corner of the Empire.

His mother’s name was Margherite and she liked to confide in her friends that little Bruce’s delivery had been difficult, “but the baby was incredibly beautiful”. His father was a quiet, level-headed and well-respected lawyer.

His good looks -beauty one might say- and an almost unlimited, obsessive capacity for conversation were two of his traits. So distinguished was his bearing that naturally all who dealt with him assumed him to be an aristocrat. This was the case of Silvia Lemus, the wife of our compatriot Carlos Fuentes, according to his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare.

Not only the women of the town found him irresistible. The great writer and activist Susan Sontag said of him: “It was amazing to look at. There are very few in this world with such a captivating and charming figure… the stomach tightens and the heart stops, because we are not prepared for that image. I saw it in Jack Kennedy and Bruce owned it. It is not only beauty… it is a luminosity, it is something in the gaze… and it exerts its fascination on both sexes…”

“A child, a piece of brontosaurus skin, a remote land.” With these elements begins in Patagonia, the book with which Bruce Chatwin debuted at the age of 37 and with which he would achieve fame as a writer.

Nicholas Shakespeare met Chatwin in London in 1982 and his memory is interesting. He visited him in his Eaton Place studio where a bicycle was leaning against the wall and a Flaubert book strewn on the floor.

“He was younger than I had imagined, with the appearance of a Polish refugee, anorexic, baggy pants, blonde gray hair, blue eyes, sharp features and a verb like a razor. […] He hadn’t stopped chattering from the moment I entered his little attic room. In minutes he had given me the telephone number of the king of Patagonia, the king of Crete, the heir to the Aztec throne and that of a guitarist from Boston who believed he was God.

Chatwin did not like to give interviews, but Shakespeare convinced him to participate in a television interview with the hook that he would share credits with Borges. Bruce arrived at the studio first and when he saw the Argentine appear he began to chatter about his books and his work. “He’s a genius!” he said out loud. “You can’t go out without his Borges. It’s like packing the toothbrush.”

Don Jorge Luis, who was walking down the aisle of the television station arm in arm with shakespeare, listened, stopped, raised his face a little and without addressing anyone in particular, exclaimed: “How unhygienic!”

In hindsight someone might say that he was a manic, obsessive-compulsive personality. He was very capable of taking the first step of a trip that could be literally one or a thousand kilometers with no more luggage than his Parisian notebook with thick leaves and leather covers where he wrote down in lowercase letters – smaller the more personal the entry was. his observations on everything that crossed his path.

It amuses me to imagine the surprise of a sheikh in Benin, some Orthodox Germans in southern Argentina, or an Aboriginal family in Queensland when this lanky Englishman appears to them in the shop, in the stable or in the bushes and says, as if a long-awaited family visit, “Hello, I’m Bruce Chatwin. Shall we chat?”

In an article published in LAWeekly in March 2000, Shakespeare recalls Joan Didion saying, “We tell ourselves tales to survive” and believes this was “truer for Chatwin than for most of us.”

When he asked Salman Rushdie, “What is that Beast that Bruce tries to keep at bay?”, he replied with great sharpness: “The beast it is the truth about itself. The great truth that it hides is its true identity.”

It was not until his last months, when he fell ill, that the truth came out. Ten years after a visit to West Africa, on the afternoon of September 12, 1986, Bruce was admitted to the emergency ward at Oxford Churchill Hospital. His entry card only identified him as 46 year old travel writer HIV positive.

On Wednesday, January 18, 1989, at half past one in the afternoon, in the French hospital bed where he was hospitalized, Bruce murmured: “I have seen the silver doors of paradise!”, before giving up his soul. He had not turned 50 years old.

A coach with gold satin curtains and blue stars transported the body to a crematorium. His friends asked a Greek Orthodox priest who was refereeing a soccer match to officiate a mass before the writer’s remains were placed in the oven. When it was all over, the members of the funeral procession went to eat.

During Chatwin’s cremation, Salman Rushdie received word that he had been declared the target of a fatwa. It was his last public appearance in years.

Three weeks later Elizabeth Chatwin and Paddy Leigh Fermor carried Chatwin’s ashes to Greece and deposited them, with a libation of wine, at the foot of an olive tree in the orchard of a Byzantine chapel dedicated to Saint Nicholas and had lunch in the shade of the tree. .

Thus found rest that man with intense blue eyes, handsome as a gazelle and given to melancholy, who traveled on foot through the deserts of Africa, the arid expanses of Patagonia and the mysterious Australian wastelands where time stopped in a time before the memory of man.

 

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The position ‘The Beast’ appeared first in El Arsenal.

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