The title of Bruce Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here carries no question mark. Perhaps that is because this title represents merely the traveller’s rhetorical mumbled aside, a phrase not intended to be asked, let alone answered. These are surely just the mumbled words that punctuate experience, uttered like “Well here we are” to provoke a moment’s reflection on the path travelled thus far and the unknown routes that still lie ahead. Perhaps also the title is a question whose multiple answers are simply the stories, reflections, observations or whimsies contained in this magnificent, almost random volume.
The pieces are grouped, but the only classification is by broad scope of content. There are sections relating to Russia and China, but Chatwin does not attempt to raise the country-specificity into a structure. There are pieces about people, some known, some famous, some historical, some fictional. Some were met along the way, while others were lifelong friends. There are a few tales from the art world, arising from the author’s employment in a famous dealer’s house, and these inevitably contain eccentricity, occasional surprise, sham and consideration of provenance. There’s some myth as we set off in search of yeti, intruding reality in the form of a coup and unwanted restriction as recurrent illness regularly reminds the author of its presence. Overall these pieces have the characteristic of a commonplace book containing random jottings, some of which have been expanded into something more finished. They thus do not purport to any particular sequence, and clearly there remains much that is omitted between the lines.
But this is not a problem. Each piece is a gem. The writer’s style, often proclaimed as jagged, spiky or idiosyncratic, genuinely reflects the experience of travel, when the view around the next unknown bend is as likely to bore as excite, achieve the commonplace as frequently as the spectacular. The reader is thus offered a genuine share in the writer’s direct experience and the time always feels quite real. The sentences take you there, render you a fellow traveller, not a mere recipient of another’s reflections.
And though he does not attempt to become a professional name-dropper, Bruce Chatwin clearly brushed shoulders with some pretty impressive people, and even a couple of quite famous ones. His recollections of meetings, friendships and events themselves take on the same immediacy and clarity he brings to his travel pieces. There are journeys around people that on occasions venture inside as well, but, also like good travel writing, it’s the journey itself that leaves the reader a space to reach individual, personal judgments that are not forced by the writer’s prejudice.
What Am I Doing Here certainly is a question, but by not admitting its own reality it thus never primarily seeks to find answers. It’s the experience itself that counts and, like all thought-provoking memories recalled from the journey, the recollections just keep returning to demand re-interpretation. It’s a short book that seems to remain only impressionistic, but well before the end What Am I Doing Here transforms itself into a long-lasting and profound experience, one that can be re-lived repeatedly.