Utz by Bruce Chatwin,
Picador 1989 (1988)
Tyranny sets up its own echo-chamber; a void where confused signals buzz about at random; where a murmur or innuendo causes panic…
Chatwin’s final fiction, the novella Utz, is a tease in that nothing is quite what it seems. In 1967, a year before the Prague Spring, the unnamed narrator travels to Prague for some academic research where he hears of and meet Kaspar Utz, a collector of Meissen china figures. Behind the Iron Curtain is not of course the ideal place to amass a collection of kitsch artworks but Utz has agreed they will all go to a state museum after his death.
The novella opens with the collector’s funeral; the inevitable question then becomes, What has happened to the porcelain figures? And then, What will the Czechoslovak state now do? But here’s the tease: the narrator takes his time to render this question an urgent issue for the reader. And this being a Cold War story, some of the participants have to learn to be as secretive as the Soviet-era country they are living in.
As for the surname of the German-born baron whose life we are introduced to, will it surprise you to know — despite utz bearing “any number of negative connotations: ‘drunk’, ‘dimwit’, ‘card-sharp’, ‘dealer in dud horses'” — that it’s very possible that the word derives from the German verb uzen, ‘to tease’?
This is an almost unclassifiable piece of fiction: by turns art monograph, character portrait, historical fiction, detective tale, humorous anecdote, and autobiografiction, it intrigues, cajoles and educates all in one. Let me count the ways.
In a series of reported conversations the supposedly ingenue researcher is given a fragmented art history lecture on porcelain, from its origins in China to late medieval Germany and onwards: vicariously we learn the derivation of the word, how the manufacture of porcelain may be related to alchemical research, the politics that led to its production in Dresden and Meissen and, later with its Capodimonte pieces, in Naples; and we hear that Utz associates his china figures with medieval legends of the golem.
Meanwhile, Utz’s life is creatively reconstructed, often with humour but also completely unreliably: his childhood in Saxony, his move to Prague, his French trips to the spa in Vichy via Geneva ‘for his health’, his relationship with housekeeper Marta, his obsessions with operatic divas.
Published in 1988 — the year before Chatwin’s own death from AIDS — Utz naturally runs the risk of being interpreted as autobiografiction. Chatwin was encouraged to write the novel from details he’d included in a 1967 letter from Prague, which was when he met an obsessive Czech art collector called Konrad Just. It’s tempting to speculate that intimations of his own mortality led him to open his novella with Kaspar Utz’s death in 1974, and that musings about his own literary legacy encouraged him to concoct a mystery about the fate of that fictional private collection.
This is such a multifaceted narrative hiding under a colourful coverlet. Chatwin’s writing is dense with detail without being at all confusing, and draws readers along while allowing them to share in the erudition he reveals. The added frisson of Cold War tensions points up the apparent frivolity of, even danger from, Utz’s porcelain mania, and reveals the fine line the collector constantly treads while shuttling to and from the heart of Europe.
As with any mystery we’re invited to read between the lines and try to work out what’s ‘true’ and isn’t, but will we be any wiser at the end? Is Utz even the baron he claims to be, for example? There’s a Capodimonte work, The Spaghetti Eaters — featuring commedia dell’arte characters — which Utz acquires; it seems to tie in the Tarot image of Il Matto — The Fool — which appears on most covers of this novella. With such covert signs Chatwin tantalises us, raising suspicions that, profound though Utz may be, we may be correct to assume the whole is one big tease.
Sadly, though he didn’t live to see the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, Chatwin’s conclusion of the passage on Tyranny’s echo-chamber was, so to speak, prophetic:
… in the end, the machinery of repression is more likely to vanish, not with war or revolution, but with a puff, or the voice of falling leaves.
One hopes that, if this was true then, it will be so now, and forever.
A title read for #NovNov, Novellas in November