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Half-Truths And Consequences

Travel Writer Bruce Chatwin Crafted A Life As Colorful As The Cultures He Celebrated.


Bruce Chatwin: A Biography, by Nicholas Shakespeare (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). Cloth, $35.

THE LATE BRITISH writer Bruce Chatwin was a consummate outsider who forever yearned to be an insider, one who carefully maneuvered his way to fame and wealth. Not that he was undeserving: when his first book, In Patagonia, appeared in 1977, it found a large and appreciative audience of readers who recognized in the author an uncommonly talented storyteller and an uncommonly intrepid adventurer.

To write his book, which was instantly hailed as a classic of travel literature, Chatwin spent months ranging across the remote plains of southern Argentina, examining the lives of the Welsh and German expatriates who had gone there to search for their own fortunes -- or, in the case of the Welsh, to get as far away from England as they could, a motive with which the constantly traveling Chatwin was in full sympathy.

The people of Patagonia would later complain that Chatwin had made up a few things and gotten others wrong, but readers did not much care. Instead, they praised Chatwin for the power of his spare, always active prose, and rightly so.

For his words he earned prizes, accolades and handsome royalties. And those words sent travelers streaming into South America to see for themselves the magical landscapes that Chatwin had described -- which, as often as not, resided not on the ground but in the author's inventive mind.

Bruce Chatwin told marvelous stories, and he never let the facts get in the way of a good yarn. A gloriously handsome man, he enraptured women and men alike. He used his charms to gain entree into the moneyed elite of Europe and America, and his address book was thicker than his collected manuscripts.

In time he gained notoriety for being the guest who would not leave, who arrived at villas and castles and stayed for months on end, amassing huge phone bills, demanding constant attention, insisting on being served the best foods and wines. He believed, Nicholas Shakespeare suggests in his far-reaching biography, that his wonderful anecdotes and the sheer gift of his company were sufficient repayment for his hosts' sometimes unwilling generosity.

Shakespeare's biography, nearly a decade in the making, goes well beyond the portrait Susannah Clapp offered in her 1997 memoir With Chatwin, a comparatively slight but still worthy book. Shakespeare faced a daunting task, for he constantly had to separate real events from Chatwin's carefully set fictions.

Those fictions were legion. Chatwin had a well-developed gift for self-invention -- and for disguising the truth about events in his life. He had no fear of padding his résumé to serve his interests, as he so often did when, in the early 1960s, he began working as a dealer for Christie's, the London-based art brokerage, acquiring rare antiquities by means that sometimes verged on the illegal. Even when Chatwin fell ill with AIDS, from which he would die in 1989, he refused to allow the truth to be known. Instead, he came up with a tale to disguise his illness: he had contracted a fungal disease, he announced, from breathing contaminated air at a harvest feast in the mountains of China.

Some of his fictions caught up with him while he was still alive. After the publication in 1987 of his book The Songlines -- a book that Chatwin had been struggling with for years, one that he began as an anthropological study of nomadic peoples -- he came under severe criticism for having misrepresented the Australian aborigines, his ostensible subjects. His thinly disguised portraits of real people (including the writer Salman Rushdie, who traveled with Chatwin in the Australian desert) pleased few of their subjects, who accused Chatwin of distorting the truth and misappropriating knowledge that was not his to reveal.

Stung, Chatwin retreated from travel writing. He spent what little remained of his life writing a short novel about a subject he knew well, the rarified world of art collecting and its attendant obsessions.

Shakespeare, himself an accomplished novelist, turns in what will very probably stand as the authoritative -- but probably not final -- word on the life of Bruce Chatwin. His book is a study in vanity, deception, and endless appetites for the pleasures of the flesh -- matters that, of course, are of perennial interest. It is also about the pleasures of the mind, the rewards of travel, and the joys of storytelling, and in those subjects Shakespeare's book has more than passing value.

Will readers approach Chatwin's work differently after knowing of the author's considerable shortcomings and self-serving inventions? Will they feel badly used after learning that the man who reinvigorated the tradition of English travel writing -- a genre that has filled shelves and shelves in the decade since Chatwin's death -- habitually ignored realities that did not suit his sometimes fanciful theories?

Probably not, for good readers know that part of the writer's art is to pilfer tales from the lives of others and to tell little lies. For all literature, as Vladimir Nabokov observed, is really a species of fairy tale. At that art, Chatwin was a master.

In the end, Shakespeare's life of the writer does nothing to detract from Chatwin's very real accomplishments as a prose stylist of exceptional ability, a fabulist who labored to produce beauty -- a commodity altogether too rare in the world today.

Bruce Chatwin ranks among the best recent literary biographies, and any reader with an interest in how a writer's life shapes his or her art will find much to ponder in Shakespeare's revelations.

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