Collector's Piece. BOOKS

UTZ by Bruce Chatwin, New York: Viking. 154 pp. $16.95

THE thumbnail ``bio'' beneath the author's photograph in ``Utz'' picks out two oddly significant strands in the life of Bruce Chatwin, who passed on last week: (1)that he worked as an art auctioneer for Sotheby's in London; (2)that he traveled in Asia, Africa, Australia, South America, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union. Whether or not his extensive travels were also a form of connoisseurship, it's clear that a spirit of connoisseurship inspired his literary art.

His first book, ``In Patagonia,'' was an exceptional piece of travel writing that explored the seemingly familiar but curiously estranged world of the antipodes. His second, ``The Viceroy of Ouidah,'' was a novel based on the grotesque real-life story of a 19th-century slave trader in the African kingdom of Dahomey. His third, ``On the Black Hill,'' also a novel, was set in the isolated landscape of the Welsh border country, while his fourth, ``The Songlines,'' traced the wanderings of Australian Aborigines as recorded, or encoded, in their traditional songs.

Chatwin is quoted as saying that his novel ``Utz'' is based on a brief encounter with ``someone I met behind the Iron Curtain.''

An intricate, polished little jewel of a book, ``Utz'' is less a story than an artfully posed conjecture - about a man whose passion in life appears to have been his collection of Meissen porcelain.

The novel's narrator meets Kaspar Utz, a minor aristocrat, in Czechoslovakia shortly before the ill-starred 1968 Prague Spring uprising. A nondescript, slightly peculiar little man, with a stiff, Teutonic bearing, Utz - who is one-quarter Jewish - has managed to preserve his precious collection of crockery and figurines through war and the cold war, Nazi invasion, and the threat of Communist confiscation. While others from the East flee to the West, Utz takes a yearly trip to Vichy but uses his ``freedom'' only to buy more porcelain and smuggle it home.

Chatwin places Utz - a man who finds his porcelain collection more ``real'' than the vast political events in the outside world - in the context of Czechoslovakia, which is characterized in this novel as a nation whose ``propensity to `bend' before a superior force was not necessarily a weakness.''

The Czechs' ``metaphysical view of life encouraged them to look on acts of force as ephemera.'' An unnamed historian tells the narrator true heroes seem to carry in their heads the sum of Western civilization without bothering to speak out against the party or the state: ```With their silence ... they inflict a final insult on the State, by pretending it does not exist.'''

Utz is not quite one of those ``true heroes,'' but he seems to bear some relation to them. While his passion for porcelain makes him a lover of art and the imaginative world, it also verges on idolatry. He considers his porcelain-mania sinful - a violation of the commandment not to worship graven images. Chatwin mines this thematic vein deftly, working in disquisitions on porcelainmaking as a form of alchemy and Jewish legends about artificial clay men known as Golems.

In a style that is spare, precise, understated, and transparent, he offers a clear but distanced view of this curious character and his world. It's enhanced with shadows, rather than flashes, of humor - the Kafkaesque, European humor of resignation.

When Utz dies, his collection seems to have vanished with him. The narrator is left to conjecture what happened. In place of the colorless collector he presents an Utz who learns the joys of human love and passes beyond dead clay to the breathing soul.

Yet this ending, which should be deeply satisfying, is too neat, and, coming as it does after the cold detachment of Chatwin's narrative, too sweet. Compared with the fascination of the figurines, the purported attractions of Utz's ``real life'' love are unconvincingly portrayed.

``Utz'' is an elegant addition to what might be called the Chatwin collection of literary exotica, but there's something about its cool perfection and burnished technique that exudes the chill of a collector's piece.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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