The world's most famous travel writer, Paul Theroux, once wrote of his friend Bruce Chatwin, "Bruce was a great sender of postcards. From Australia he wrote, 'You must come here. The men are awful, like bits of cardboard, but the women are splendid.'"
That simple message sums up Chatwin, one of Britain's most famous travel writers: Sweeping, catty, know-it-all, and above all, coy. When Bruce Chatwin died from AIDS complications in 1989 at the age of 48, he covered up his sickness by claiming a bat had bitten him on a trip to China. He had also covered up his homosexuality throughout his life, and was known for his exotic anecdotes, many which turned out to be tall travel tales.
His innate duplicity about who he really was organically spilled over into his writing, which radically redefined travel literature as a hybrid of fiction and nonfiction and brought it into the modernist era. Chatwin's two most famous books about traveling in the Southern Hemisphere, In Patagonia and The Songlines (the latter chronicles his time spent with Australia's aborigines), included passages that were completely made up, according to the people mentioned in them. Chatwin declared that the borderline between fiction and nonfiction "is to my mind extremely arbitrary, and invented by publishers."
Theroux once scolded Chatwin's loose regard for the facts by telling him, "When you're writing a travel book, you have to come clean." Chatwin simply laughed and proclaimed, "I don't believe in coming clean!"
It's no wonder Chatwin appreciated the aboriginal concept of weaving reality and myth into one, and he especially felt drawn to ancient aboriginal songs, which can act as an atlas to navigate time and space. And in the end that was perhaps what Chatwin was ultimately searching for -- a map to find himself. Theroux described Chatwin as having "the image of an abandoned traveler. The worst fate for travelers is that they become lost, and instead of reveling in oblivion, they fret and fall ill." Not surprisingly, Chatwin's last book published during his lifetime was titled What Am I Doing Here?
Handsome, animated, charismatic, self-conscious, boastful, and restless, Chatwin's manufactured larger-than-life persona attracted many famous acquaintances, among them Jackie Kennedy, Salman Rushdie, gay artists Francis Bacon and David Hockney, and queer photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who courted Bruce for a time. Chatwin was also lovers with fashion designer Jasper Conran, whose mother, Shirley Conran, wrote the 1980s Lace series of novels. Shirley and Chatwin's wife, Elizabeth, (who knew and accepted his homosexuality) helped nurse the author as he lay dying in Nice, France. Elizabeth buried his ashes in Greece in an unmarked grave in front of a 12th-century church in the village of Chora, near to the home of one of Chatwin's many mentors, travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Australian poet Les Murray summed up Chatwin's complicated character as "lonely and he wanted to be. He had those blue, implacable eyes that said. 'I will reject you; I will forget you, because neither you nor any other human being can give me what I want.'"
Chatwin known for his catty, bluntly honest travel commentaries, like these below:
On Alice Springs, Australia -- "a grid of scorching streets where men in long white socks were forever getting in and out of Land Cruisers."
On Katherine, Australia -- "the first thing you saw, pushing past the frosted glass door, was a continuous row of hairy red legs and bottle-green buttocks."
On Port Madryn, Argentina -- "a town of shabby concrete buildings, tin bungalows, tin warehouses, and a wind-flattened garden."
On the Volga River -- "the nomadic frontier of Modern Europe, just as the Rhine-and-Danube was the barbarian frontier of the Roman Empire."
On Algeria -- "you are always aware of cemeteries."