Bruce Chatwin was at the height of his fame when The Songlines topped the UK bestseller list in 1987. Two years later, at the age of 48 Chatwin died; one of the first prominent victims of HIV AIDS. Much has been written about the writer since his death; many have been drawn to the man because of what he was, his personality, his looks, his relationships, not just what he wrote. The Chatwin cult peaked more than a dozen years ago when Nicholas Shakespeare published his definitive biography to widespread critical acclaim.
In Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin, Shakespeare and Chatwin’s widow Elizabeth have compiled a voluminous collection of the writer’s personal correspondence from as far back as a child at his English boarding school, almost to his deathbed. Though the peak of Chatwin’s celebrity status has passed, (and with the moleskin notebook that Chawin inadvertently reinvented as a fashion accessory available at stationery stores in every corner of the world), Under the Sun arrives on the bookshelves to nudge our elbows, to ask who exactly was Bruce Chatwin, and how the man and the myth might be separated by re-assessing the messages he left along his meandering trail.
Chatwin’s fixation with exploring nomadic behaviour, and his own acutely felt restlessness, resulted in a visit to Australia in 1983. Whilst his brief stay in the Australian central desert informed his research for The Songlines, his thoughts were not to crystallise until a trip to Greece later the same year. In a letter to his wife written from Patmos, Chatwin declared “…at last! I’ve found the right formula for the book: It’s to be called simply, OF THE NOMADS – A discourse. Needless to say the models for such an enterprise are Plato’s Symposium and the Apology. But so what. I’ve never seen anything like it in modern literature, a complete hybrid between fiction and philosophy: so here goes.” Aswell as Patmos, it was in the Mani (where he would visit his mentor Patrick Leigh Fermor) where Chatwin would often feel at his most productive. “I’ve gone to ground in Greece for the winter” he told a friend from Kardamili in January 1984 “…work at least six hours a day…and am pressing forward rather than procrastinating.”
A year later, whilst still working on The Songlines, the most remarkable connection Chatwin made with Greece came about when he journied to Mount Athos, the self-governed peninsular of northern Greece and the holiest seat of Greek Orthodoxy. Robert Byron, the writer most revered by Chatwin, had written of Mount Athos “To anyone who has sojourned beneath the Holy Mountain there cannot but have come an intensification of his impulse to indefinable, unanalysable emotion.”
Chatwin would rise before dawn each morning at the Chilandari monastery to be enthralled by the kyrie eleison – the ancient mesmeric prayers incanted by the Orthodox priests. It was while walking one afternoon to the Stavronikita monastery that he saw a black metal cross on a ledge of white rock facing the sea. ‘There must be a god’ he scribbled in his notebook after another entry which begins to makes sense of Chatwin’s frantic restlessness. ‘The search for nomads is a quest for god’’.
The voyage that Chatwin began at Mount Athos evolved into a strong desire to be received into the Orthodox Church as he confronted his own death. But his journey into Orthodoxy was one of his unfinished voyages. Chatwin died in Nice on January 19th 1989. His memorial service took place on Valentines Day a month later, in London’s Greek Orthodox church of St Sophia. Attended by friends and family, and some of the UK’s leading writers, Martin Amis said that Chatwin had played a last joke on his friends, subjecting them to “a religion that no one he knew, could understand or respond to”. Salman Rushdie also was at St Sophia that day. A few hours later he would learn of the fatwa calling for his assassination.
Chatwin had never been overtly religious until he faced his own imminent mortality. “Religion is a technique for arriving at the moment of death at the right time’ he once noted. With regular trips to Greece in the 1980s one might draw the conclusion that he had an abiding love of the country, but in typical contradictory Chatwin style, there’s evidence he was ambivalent about contemporary Greece. He allegedly told a friend once just before his visit to Mount Athos “I don’t know about Greeks – and I have very, very little interest in Greece, and that only during the month of February.”
Chatwin’s pull towards Greece was ultimately spiritual and it is of course Greece that provides the final immortal chapter to Chatwin’s story, for it was here that his wife and Patrick Leigh Fermor scattered his ashes. The location they chose was one of his favourites – a small Byzantine church called Aghios Nicholaos in the old town of Exohorio above Kardamili in the Mani. Chatwin had been a prodigous walker and he had often trekked in the area. Aghios Nicholaos is in a sublime position sitting on a bluff of high ground in the lush valley which spreads down from Exohorio.
Today it is still possible to discover the tiny chapel as Chatwin did. The sign to the Chora is easy to miss, but take the road which descends with the contours of the valley and Aghios Nikolaos peaks out above the tiered olive groves. A narrow unsigned track leads down, through the shimmering silver-leafed olive trees before the tiny church comes into full view. Five ancient stone steps lead up to the tiny west facing entrance to the chapel. The wooden door is locked these days; the steps provide the only place to sit. Laid out before you is an enchanting, timeless view across the Gulf of Messinia. Its appeal to Chatwin is easy to understand. This tranquil, serene and spiritual place is the perfect place to rest.
‘Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin’ ed Elizabeth Chatwin and Nicholas Shakespeare, pub Jonathan Cape, pp 554