Off the Beaten Path

BOOKS

By , Merle Rubin, who writes from Pasadena, Calif., specializes in reviewing literature for the Monitor.

WHAT AM I DOING HERE by Bruce Chatwin, New York: Viking, 367 pp., $19.95

PUBLISHED as a posthumous collection, but selected by the author himself with posterity in mind, the 35 articles in this book suggest something of the range of Bruce Chatwin's far-flung interests, while demonstrating the quality of style and consistency of outlook that have made his such a distinctive voice.

Born in Sheffield, England, in 1940, Chatwin worked at Sotheby's auction company for eight years before leaving his job to devote himself to his twin obsessions: writing and travel. His five previous books - perched on a kind of tightrope between fiction and nonfiction - are dominated by the exotic and the esoteric: Patagonia; the 19th-century slave-exporting kingdom of Dahomey; the seemingly timeless natural world of the Welsh border country; the tracks of aboriginal Australian wanderers; and the timeless, artificial world of a ceramic collector in Prague.

Recommended: Default

The short pieces in ``What Am I Doing Here'' - travelogues, profiles, essays, reviews, and fact-based ``stories'' with which fictional liberties have been taken - are typically eclectic, quintessentially Chatwin. Many have appeared before, in somewhat different form, in various journals.

Chatwin casts himself in the role of omnivorous observer: a man trying to leave his preconceptions behind, to see things as they are, yet still determined to preserve his skepticism and to follow the particular bent of his special tastes and inclinations. In this collection, we observe the observer in an amazing variety of situations: chatting with Diana Vreeland, traveling down the Volga, or stripped to his underpants, a gun at his back, during a coup in Benin (formerly Dahomey).

Elsewhere, we follow him on the tracks of the Tibetan yeti; puzzling over the riddle of the ``Nazca lines,'' giant drawings etched on the surface of the Peruvian desert; scrutinizing the story of a ``wolf-boy'' in India; or reconstructing the mind-set of an ancient Chinese emperor who almost destroyed his empire merely to get hold of a rare breed of ``heavenly horses'' from a kingdom to his west.

Chatwin counts himself a believer in the virtues of walking: `` ... in Sherpa-country,'' he writes, ``every track is marked with cairns and prayer-flags, reminding you that Man's real home is not a house, but the Road, and that life itself is a journey to be walked on foot.'' His essay on ``Nomad Invasions'' delicately balances the values of nomadic and settled life, illuminating the contrast between nomad and farmer, while pointing out the symbiotic relationship between these two types of culture: ``Nomad and farmer might hate each other, yet they needed each other.''

There are a number of fascinating encounters with the famous and the not-so-famous: with dress designer Madeleine Vionnet; with filmmaker Werner Herzog, who invites Chatwin to travel to Ghana, where he is filming Chatwin's book, ``The Viceroy of Ouidah''; and with French writer Andr'e Malraux.

In Russia, Chatwin meets up with a Greek-born collector and preserver of the Soviet avant-garde art that fell from favor under a regime that preferred old-fashioned ``inspiring'' portraits of struggling worker-heroes. Wary of the famous, he allows himself to feel a purer admiration for pursuers of private dreams, like the American artist Donald Evans, who painted ``several thousand miniature watercolors in the form of postage stamps ... `issued' ... by 42 (imaginary) countries....''

Chatwin's love of the marginal, the out-of-the-way, for personalities that seem to contradict themselves, for stories that resist his best attempts to understand them might have been seen as an over-valuation of rarity for its own sake. Yet his gift for description - understated, yet vivid - captures our attention. His ability to speculate imaginatively without becoming overwrought holds our interest. And his open, but never credulous attitude (``My whole life has been a search for the miraculous: yet at the first faint flavor of the uncanny, I tend to turn rational and scientific,'' he notes inspires our confidence.

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