Utz (Vintage Classics) Paperback – 3 Dec 1998
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"Not a word is wasted in the telling of this tale. Each sentence is fashioned, polished, and put into place with microscopic care" (Daily Telegraph)
"This shiny little novel is not just about pretty porcelain figurines but about dirty great issues of life and creativity" (The Times)
"With Chatwin, the real excitement derives from an intellectual drama, in dialogues about art as a surrogate creation, a robbery of divine power, and art collecting as idolatry...For Chatwin, ideas are the supreme fictions" (Observer)
"Bruce Chatwin at his most erudite and evocative" (New York Times)
SHORTLISTED FOR THE BOOKER PRIZE Bruce Chatwin's final, bestselling novelSee all Product description
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The acquisition and preservation of such a collection in Czechoslovakia during the two world wars (where Nazis might see them as spoils of war in WW2) and during the post-war Communist regime (in which art should not be kept in private hands but as assets of the people) carries great risk.
Utz himself is a shadowy figure and he is seen often as others see and report him, through the eyes of his paleontologist friend, Dr Orlik, the retired operatic diva who lives in an apartment in the same building as Utz, a slightly seedy art dealer from New York and an unnamed writer who comes to interview Utz. However, most enigmatic of all is Marta, Utz’s peasant-born retainer.
The narration is beautifully concise and had me thinking about the art of porcelain (amazed to learn that porcelain and pork have the same root as words) and its production and cultural importance.
The book though, is enigmatic, and the Utz we initially see is not the same as the one we see at the end.
I have enjoyed reading this book and one read through may not be enough to get was Bruce Chatwin was trying to convey.
The nameless British narrator tells of one Kaspar Utz, a former aristocrat of the Czech republic, whose life revolves around his fabulous collection of porcelain figurines. As the Communist regime takes over, Utz is grudgingly permitted to keep his treasures, though with regular visits from the authorities who insist it's all to be left to the state.
And although he manages annual trips abroad, he never absconds, drawn back by the artefacts - and perhaps by his devoted, self-effacing housekeeper, Marta.
The narrator only meets Utz briefly, but keeps informed on his life ... and the mystery at the end.
There are a number of themes here; how humans devote their lives to unimportant things; obsession; love. Very well written.
Utz is the romanticized life history of a real person called Rudolf Just and his affliction, which in German is called Porzellankrankheit, a little-known type of addiction common among royals and very rich people.
BC met Utz in Prague in 1967 and they spent altogether 9.5 hours together. The novella is an account of this meeting and BC's subsequent investigations about what happened to him and his collection. Utz died in 1974. Much later BC re-established contact with the tiny cast of people surrounding Utz during their one encounter, and new perspectives emerge...
Kaspar Utz inherits a fortune at a young age when he is already under the spell of Meissner porcelain figures. He rapidly becomes an expert. He uses his considerable assets to acquire ever more items, but unlike the 17th century king August of Saxony, who surrounded himself with so many porcelain items that his small empire collapsed, Utz manages to keep together and even expand his collection. During WW II he moved his collection in time from Dresden to the cellars of the ancestral mansion. Later, after the communist takeover in 1948 and again in 1952 and after, he made deals with the new rulers of Czechoslovakia. BC wonders what the deals really implied... They did allow Utz to make annual trips abroad and for his collection to stay with him (albeit photographed, numbered and fully registered by the State) until his death, in his two-room flat.
BC's main question, what happened to the collection, is not solved in the novella, but plenty of possibilities are suggested. This meticulously researched and beautifully plotted and written novella is BC's farewell gift to humanity. A very rich and atmospheric book, requiring re-reading upon completion.
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