May 16, 2011

ON THE BLACK HILL By Bruce Chatwin

taken from The New York Times

BRUCE CHATWIN'S highly praised travel book, ''In Patagonia'' (1977), established the writer as, among other things, a connoisseur of human oddity as it flourishes in isolation. His displaced Scottish sheep farmers and Welsh hymn singers, left stranded by the receding tide of economic colonialism, are depicted as turned in upon themselves, rendered queer by their desperate clinging - in the remote wastes of the Argentinian far-south - to obsolete modes and attitudes transplanted a century ago from ''Home.'' Even more bizarre are the descendants of Dom Francisco da Silva, a Brazilian slave trader, who - as Mr. Chatwin tells us in his semihistorical fantasy, ''The Viceroy of Ouidah'' (1980) -founded a mulatto dynasty in the bloodthirsty kingdom of Dahomey. In both works the human peculiarities are set against landscapes poetically evoked with exceptional vividness and exactitude.

The step from such nonfiction to Bruce Chatwin's first novel is not so great as might be imagined. ''On the Black Hill'' also chronicles the lives of odd folk living in relative isolation; it too paints a landscape which, as in the novels of Thomas Hardy, is at least as animate and moody as its inhabitants. But there the resemblance to Mr. Chatwin's earlier books ends. In its imaginative reach, ''On the Black Hill'' is very much a work of fiction. Nothing in Mr. Chatwin's previous work quite prepares us for the dramatic intensity with which scene after scene of the novel is brought to life. Despite the eccentricity of many of the characters, we soon realize that ''On the Black Hill'' belongs not to the literature of exoticism but to a valued, essentially British tradition that stretches back to the closing decades of the 18th century - a tradition of writing about homely, country things with an enraptured attention that causes them to glow with an almost visionary light.     read more....

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