In this collection of profiles, essays and travel stories, Chatwin takes us to Benin, where he is arrested as a mercenary during a coup; to Boston to meet an LSD guru who believes he is Christ; to India with Indira Ghandi when she attempted a political comeback in 1978; and to Nepal where he reminds us that 'Man's real home is not a house, but the Road, and that life itself is a journey to be walked on foot'
This was Chatwin's last book, a collection of his short stories, essays and journalism from the seventies and eighties which he prepared for publication during his final illness (which he refers to in several pieces, but still steadfastly refuses to call by its proper name, even though everyone who read the book must have known what it was...).
Despite the circumstances, almost everything in the book still seems to reflect Chatwin's usual concern for perfection of style, and it's a pleasure to read throughout. The subject-matter, as you might expect, ranges widely over his big interests in life - in particular the fine art business, travel, architecture, nomads, and literature. He says in an introductory note that all but one of the pieces were "my ideas", but there does seem to be quite a spectrum between very personal reflections and obvious newspaper commissions (like the Observer article describing a cruise on the Volga with a boatload of German Stalingrad veterans and widows - a kind of trip it's rather difficult to imagine Chatwin going on on his own initiative).
There are some very interesting peripheral notes related to his other books, such as his account of working with Werner Herzog on the film version of The viceroy of Ouidah, and some tantalising hints of other things that might have been developed into books if he had had more time.
A book that everyone who enjoys Chatwin's prose would want to have on their shelves to complete the set, but perhaps not the first one you would reach for if you don't know his work yet.
The book really pales in comparison to Chatwin's others, however. It's filled with vignettes and a few short stories about people that Chatwin has met, traveled with (or liked to imagine he knew.) Some were really fascinating... others were really tedious.
I'd really only recommend this book to Chatwin completists. If you're new to his work, you are much better off with "In Patagonia" or "Songlines for non-fiction or "On the Black Hill" for non-fiction, as all are really wonderful.
"White metal fastenings glittered among the brown stumps of her teeth. A cigarette stuck to her lower lip. Her nose was a weapon. You knew for certain she was one of the most powerful women in the world, and knew she knew it…. She waved me to a chair and, as she waved, one of her breasts tumbled out of her nightie. "Tell me," she shoved it back, "are there any grand poets left in your country?"
The joy of reading his prose is surpassed only by the delight in knowing that opening the book to any page you will be engrossed by the words upon the page. A reader's delight that persuades you with its charm that you should return to one of his other books as soon as possible.