Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
How iron was the Iron Curtain? Every ‘through the curtain’ experience tells us something about the division of Europe during the Cold War. It adds evidence to any view of how ‘European’ — in dimensions of time and space alike — the East remained during the Communist period.
Few English writers of those years were better able to evoke a place and its historical context than Bruce Chatwin (1940-89). Aside from his sensitivity to character and the spare clarity of his prose, his most sustained strategy was the relentless accumulation of arcane detail. Whether describing flowers, furniture or crockery, he exhibited knowledge and taste that his readers could only fear. He turned this capacity for harnessing observation and displaying learning to the Eastern bloc with unique effect.
Chatwin went to Prague three times, spending a total of two weeks there. In the summer of 1967, he took part in an archaeological dig in Czechoslovakia, visiting the capital by tram every evening; in July 1987, he and his wife drove to Prague in their Citroen 2CV.
He channelled his experience into the short novel Utz, published the year before his death. Kaspar Joachim Utz comes from the old Sudetenland nobility. He has inherited and accumulated a massive collection of Meissen porcelain, which is with him in Czechoslovakia when the Iron Curtain falls, and foreign investments, which remain in Swiss banks. He is allowed to travel to Vichy every year: apparently, the porcelain acts as the guarantee of his return.
The novel is a foreign visitor’s attempt to unravel the posthumous mystery of Utz’s life: does the priceless and improbable private collection seal Utz off from the Communist state, or does it represent his negotiation with the authorities? Is it emblematic of his private life, or is it the sum of his public commitment? In what does his relationship with the West consist?
‘Utz was one of those rare individuals who, throughout the Cold War, persisted in the illusion that the Iron Curtain was essentially flimsy,’ the narrator observes. ‘Because of his investments in the West — and powers of persuasion that mystified both himself and the bureaucrats of Prague — he succeeded in keeping a foot in both camps.’ Yet when Chatwin went to Prague in 1987, he met the editor of the New York Review of Books, Barbara Epstein, who later noted: ‘The Czechs were totally cut off from the West.’ As the book was being prepared for production, Chatwin insisted to his publisher: ‘One of the principal themes of the book is that Old Europe survives.’
Thus did Chatwin write a book about the tyranny of collecting possessions that was also an interrogation of the solidity of the Iron Curtain. Ten months after his death from AIDS, the Iron Curtain had gone.