Bruce Chatwin was an extraordinary observer of all that is curious. This was the impetus for all his works, culminating in his last novel written shortly before he died in 1989 - Utz, the story of a compulsive collector of Meissen porcelain in communist Prague.
Shortlisted for the 1988 Booker Prize, the book tells the story of Utz, a master of subterfuge.
Running his own private commedia, he outwits the Czech authorities to secure the safety of his treasure. The melancholic mood of Prague weighs heavy on the pages, relieved by the brevity of Chatwin's style. While Stalin's regime reigns horror outside of Utz's house, inside Utz "lifts the characters of the Commedia from the shelves, and placed them in the pool of light where they appeared to skate over the glass of the table, pivoting on their bases of gilded foam, as if they would forever go on laughing, whirling, improvising."
Utz introduces the reader to his family of anthropomorphised clay, the spaghetti eater, Pulchinella, with coils of spaghetti "poised eternally, destined to plunge into his nostrils", ladies of the court, "with frozen smiles and swaying crinolines"; monkey musicians wearing "ruffs and powdered wigs" and the seven figures of Harlequin, the trickster, arch-improviser, 'master of the volte-face'.
At the heart of any Chatwin story is a myth. With the book Utz, it is the Hebrew golem, that of the uncreated and unformed. It was on an archaeological pursuit in Prague, that Chatwin sought out the mythology of golems. When fire is breathed into the glutinous clay mud, the golem comes to life.
Thirteen years after his death, Bruce Chatwin remains one of the most inspirational writers in the UK.
Travelling toward the exotic, Chatwin collected anecdotes, rearranged them with a dash of fact and served up a delicious blend of fact, fantasy and folklore.
Utz flirts with the fantastic, paying meticulous attention to detail, reminding one of that other great illusionist, Borges. Both have the same clipped style, where conciseness illuminates the object and the reader is aware of authorial control.
Like the character Utz, Chatwin was an obsessive collector, had a sexually never defined and needed to return as much as roam.
Utz, given the option of exile, returns repeatedly to his collection. A victim of his collection, he fails to liberate himself from objects.
Chatwin himself spent his last days in an art frenzy, adding to his collection from the London galleries.
Chatwin once wrote in an essay, 'The Morality of Things', "Do we not all long to throw down our altars and rid ourselves of our possessions? Do we not gaze coldly at our clutter and say, 'If these objects express my personality, then I hate my personality."
Chatwin, it is said, 'holds a conversation with his reader that has the ring of midnight.' As his first editor (and current theatre critic) Susannah Clapp said, 'With Bruce, it was always midnight.'