07 December 2009

Book Review: Utz by Bruce Chatwin

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Utz
Bruce Chatwin

Despite World War II and the later challenges of a repressive Communist state, Kaspar Joachim Utz has managed to collect over 1,000 pieces of Meissen porcelain and cram them into his tiny two-room flat in Prague. The novel begins with Utz’s funeral in 1974 and the tale unfolds through the recollections of the narrator who interviewed Utz once in 1967 and whose knowledge of Utz’s life is less than perfect or complete.

At the heart of the story is Utz’s decision to stay in Communist Czechoslovakia despite having the opportunity and financial means to defect to the West on his yearly state-approved pilgrimage to the healing waters of the spas in Vichy. His reticence to leave Czechoslovakia is largely based on not wanting to leave behind his collection, but he also harbors a secret and seemingly intense love for his housekeeper. The luxuries of the West also seem to Utz to have lost their attractiveness and he seems rudderless at the prospect of choosing somewhere new to live.

Switzerland? Italy? France? Three possibilities. None of them inviting. Germany? Never. The break had been final. England? Not after the Dresden raid. The United States? Impossible. The noise would depress him dreadfully. Prague, after all, was a city where you heard the snowflakes falling. Australia? He had never been attracted to the colonies. Argentina? He was too old to tango.


The more he considered the alternatives, the clearer the situation seemed to him. Not that he would be happy in Czechoslovakia. He would be harassed, menaced, insulted. He would have to grovel. He would have to agree with every word they said. He would mouth their meaningless, ungrammatical formulae. He would learn to ‘live within the lie’.


But Prague was a city that suited his melancholic temperament. A state of tranquil melancholy was all one could aspire to these days!
Interestingly, Bruce Chatwin’s book was published in 1988, the year before the start of the Velvet Revolution and the opening of Czechoslovakia’s borders. Chatwin died young (49) in 1989 and I am not sure if he lived long enough to see that happen.

I have only read one other book by Chatwin, his amazing On the Black Hill. Although Utz and On the Black Hill are worlds apart in setting, they both deal with characters who make choices that may seem restrictive and unattractive to those of us used to a large degree of self-determination. But their lives seem to retain a richness nonetheless. For those of us who are warm and well fed and have the personal and political freedom to make seemingly infinite choices, it is a little hard to understand. But it is also comforting to know that diminished or limited circumstances don’t have to mean a diminished or limited life.

I liked Utz quite a bit. But for me, if you are only going to read one book by Bruce Chatwin, make it On the Black Hill. (Recently Cornflower has been writing glowingly about On the Black Hill as well.)

2 comments:

  1. So Utz was a real person? I had this book once and just could not get into it. I wasn't sure at the time if it was fiction or not. That must be an amazing china collection. Too bad the book has no pictures.

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  2. No, I don't think Utz is real. I guess giving his full name makes him sound real doesn't it.

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