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BRUCE CHATWlN by Nicholas Shakespeare (The Harvill Press with Jonathan Cape, 20.00 [pounds sterling], hb)

Nicholas Shakespeare's biography is crammed full of fascinating accounts and facts, as was Bruce Chatwin himself. A photographic memory inherited from his father and a genius for non-stop storytelling made him a "cabinet of curiosities." Interweaving fact and fiction meant that, Chatwin, "with his gift for instant intimacy" left a trail of confusion, and mystery behind him. Bruce Chatwin "was a writer who happened to travel -- not a travel writer", says Paddy Leigh-Fermor, last in a line of mentors to Chatwin, became a guru for a generation of rucksack-toting travellers.

Who Was Bruce Chatwin? Nicholas Shakespeare, whom Chatwin personally helped out on his first novel, does a skilful job of solving this essential conundrum. Like a magician, Chatwin could challenge you to pick a card and immediately out would pop a new, totally believable persona. "Say almost anything of Bruce Chatwin and the opposite is also true. There seem to be as many Bruce Chatwins as people he met."

Shakespeare reveals a fascinating man metamorphosing from a young Warwickshire boy, into a pupil at Marlborough, art expert at Sotheby's, archaeology student, nomadic traveller and finally a writer. A man with a prodigious memory, on first name terms with so many people they fill most of the 12 page index, he never really came to terms with himself, nor with his energetic homosexuality.

Elizabeth, his American, unconventional wife, knew him better than he knew himself, and throughout the book is the eye at the centre of Chatwin's storm. Despite believing himself a solitary nomad he relied totally upon her. She was the fixed point for his "compass without a direction". He kept in contact even during their judicial separation, which they later overcame.

The biography is also the story behind Chatwin's books (set in Patagonia, Wales, W. Africa, Australia, Europe) and the trail of people upset over their own or a relative's portrayal in them. Shakespeare evens the score, showing how much of the writing is, like Chatwin's life, fictionally embellished. In self denial, dying at 49 from AIDS, he variously told how he contracted his illness from a bat cave, whales and from a gang rape in Benin. Martha Gellhorn said that both Hemingway (her ex-husband) and Chatwin are "mythomanes ... They believe everything they say."

After an eight year investigation Shakespeare is close to understanding Chatwin, a troubled, effervescent, paradoxical man, always in a hurry, always developing a theory. Nomadism was a central theme, which ultimately found expression in his Songlines. "What interested me most were those people who'd escaped archaeological records, the nomads who'd trod lightly on the earth and didn't build pyramids." Walking was Chatwin's key: "If I can't walk, I can't write." Chatwin personified the idea. This account of his shooting star life will leave you as breathless as if you too were in his footsteps.

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Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Crisp, Roger
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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