Bruce Chatwin: Utz
Several English writers have felt the need to write an Eastern European novel. Kazuo Ishiguro‘s The Unconsoled and Rupert Thomson‘s The Insult are two good examples. However, unlike these two, Utz is firmly set in a specific country – Czechoslovakia while it still was Czechoslovakia. Utz, the hero, comes from the minor aristocracy and became a collector of Meissen porcelain when his grandmother gave him a rare piece. He has managed to hold on to it through the World War and Communist rule and has it crammed into his two room apartment which he shares with Marta, his maid (who, we later learn, is also his wife).
The unnamed narrator (Chatwin himself?) visits Utz and his collection once but hears about him from Utz’ friend, Orlík, a paleontologist who studied both mammoths and house flies. Chatwin gives a very sympathetic portrait of an obsessive collector who is a prisoner of his collection even more than he is a prisoner of the political system he lives under. (He is able to leave Czechoslovakia for an annual cure at Vichy and has money abroad.) However, there is more than meets the eye to Utz for, as with all good Eastern European novels, everything is not as it seems. Utz’ marriage to Marta, his relations with the Czech authorities and what happens to the porcelain after his death are just three of the enigmas surrounding this man. Chatwin leaves us guessing and leave us with the Western view of Eastern Europe – that there are things there we cannot understand.
First published 1988 by Jonathan Cape