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on 21 June 2017
This short novella paints an exquisite portrait of the collector. Utz is a member of the Czech minor nobility who during the twentieth century has inherited and then acquired many fine pieces of Meissen porcelain. Some of them are described in intricate detail, reflecting the Rococo world in which they were created.

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.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 30 August 2017
Maybe a *3.5 for this exquisitely written novella - I read it in one sitting, but didn't really get wrapped up in the characters.
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.
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on 6 March 2010
In 1998 Bruce Chatwin (BC) selected and edited his best journalistic work. He also lived to see the publication in 1998 of Utz, a work in progress for more than 20 years, which was short-listed for that year's Booker Prize. He did not live to see his collection of short pieces called What Am I Doing Here. He died of AIDS, or perhaps, as he claimed himself, of an extremely rare bone marrow disease contracted in Western China, in January 1989.
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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on 15 November 2000
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.'
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VINE VOICEon 2 July 2008
This book, like one of its main subjects - porcelain dolls - it petite, fragile, and crafeully formed. Its other main theme is Prague under communism in the 60s and 70s, and how in these times the intelligensia were forced to take on menial work, while anyone with collections of any value was made to fret over them.
Chatwin strings together a series of tiny chapters, many as short as a page long, to tell the story of porcelain collector Utz through his narrator, an English art historian. Propelled into Utz's life for little more than 9 hours, he is somehow drawn into the mystery of the man's life, which he tries to unravel, but is never sure if he really has.
Chatwin's unravelling of the tale is just as dextrously performed as the hero's own, in this untterly engrossing book.
Historically and psychologically - the mindset of collectors - this book is a rare treasure.
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on 1 July 2008
An exquisite novel, but Alas, too short!

And yet, it conjures unforgettable characters and evokes Prague in a way that makes you recognize it even if you've never been there.

It isn't just the main characters that are memorable, but all of the characters in this story, no matter how small a space they take up. Characters such as Orlik, the paleontologist who studies house-flies and who asked the narrator to examine Dutch and Flemish still-lifes of the seventeenth century "to check whether or not there was a fly in them", or the temperamentful ex-soprano who lived under Utz's apartment, or the man whose job was emptying garbage trucks, but who spoke English and was a writer, or the Ludvik and Zitek, other "garbage collectors" who were actually poets, writers, philosophers and out-of-work actors.

While most of the characters in the book seem unfazed by the restrictions imposed upon them by the regime in former Czechoslovakia, they do, however, express themselves in constantly enigmatic terms such as "maybe yes, maybe no", "maybe it is, maybe it is not", "maybe they are alive, maybe they are not"... whether that is the only deference to circumspection they are willing to offer, or whether it is
due to a need to inject mystery into their lives to compensate for its grimness and predictability, we do not know for sure..

The world of the story seems divided into several "parallel universes" that coexist side-by-side, that of the characters versus that of the figurines, whom "Utz", the protagonist, regards as living entities, as well as that of the communist regime versus the people, who find ways to navigate around it with the least confrontation and maximum benefit possible.

The question of the fate of the collection remains unanswered in the end, with the narrator offering a wild guess that is neither confirmed nor denied. The story ends at the sight of the one character that could give him the answers. We, however, do not learn what those answers are.

Maybe because the uncertainty of a "maybe-maybe not" is the only answer there is?

There is, however, one certainty about this book: its characters shall remain with you for a long time after you put it down.
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on 16 March 2004
This was for me the first Chatwin, and a great surprise.
Not just a novel, not just a travel story in the last years of the soviet regime in the Czech Republic, but also a delicate essay of some marginal aspects of XVIII century life: the art of white Meissen ceramics.... With many delicious detours in the labyrinths of mittleeuropean culture and in the psychology of the collector (be him of books, of stamps or whatever).
A book of enormous erudition almost concealed in small details and witty remarks.
And not just learning, but also humanity and a mild observation on the cases of human life under despotism - the meaning freedom, the many faces of opportunism (the one in the oppressed citizen, the one of the intellectual who "freely" criticizes from his warm "western" deck the grey dull soviet regime).
No one get salvation, but Baron Von Utz, who seems able in the mediocrity of ordinary life, of prevarications, of despotism, to resist the nausea of life in the contemplation of his collection.
The perfect world theorised by Leibnitz is perceived as in a glimpse in the eternal stillness of his Meissen figures.
A truly great book!
I love reading and even more sharing and discuss my opinions. Feel free to write me!
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on 7 February 2014
This short novel is based on a true story with embellishments about a rich Czech collector of Meissen porcelain during the Communist era who was effectively trapped in his country and only able to travel abroad for short spells each year. The authorities knew about his collection and threatened to confiscate it for a museum if he failed to return. Typically Chatwin, sparsely but beautifully written. Well worth reading.
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on 8 May 2016
I recently read The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin which was a jolly good read. I am halfway through Utz and have been "able to put it down" which is not high praise. So far, I have found it humorous and interesting by turns but it has not yet really got me hooked. This might be partly due to the tiny Chapters some less than a full page long. Reading Utz last thing at night, when quite tired, it is tempting to stop reading much sooner than with a "normal" novel with Chapters of say twenty or thirty pages. So the book being a matter of 130 pages or so in all is still taking me about two weeks to read. Fine, but so far no great revelations, which I thought I might find from my earlier reading of Songlines.

There was so little written and published by Chatwin in his brief creative life as an author that I wanted to read Utz and still look forward to reading his other books. You may find Utz fascinating. Don't let me stop you reading it. The Vintage paperback edition is crisp, clean and new.
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on 2 May 2016
"If Bruce Chatwin's novel Utz teaches us any lesson, it is that the importance of morality in our lives is a fiction. We use it in the stories we tell ourselves and others about our lives to give them a sense they might otherwise lack. But in so doing we obscure the truth of how we live." (John Gray) I liked the short chapters which made it easier to read moving from one idea to the next. the intricate details of one mans obsession, that amounts to his meaning and purpose in life, in the face of a world he can neither be part of or escape from. His sense of worth is tied up with the things he possesses and interacts with and yet in the end they have no lasting value.
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