Bruce Chatwin is best known for his travel writing and his interest in nomads and nomadic cultures, making On the Black Hill something of an anomaly among his works. As the title suggests, the novel is defined by its setting, a small Welsh farming community on the English border. The lives of the community members are structured by ties to family and land. Relatively few people leave, and many of those who do leave return. The novel centers on Lewis and Benjamin Jones, identical twins who end their lives where they began, at the farmhouse in which their parents lived. Their deeply rooted lives are the antithesis of Chatwin's own adventurous wanderings, yet On the Black Hill proves as much an extension of Chatwin's fascination with the exotic as a departure from his usual subjects. In this novel, he brings to bear the keen cultural observation that marks his works In Patagonia, The Songlines, and The Viceroy of Ouidah. By anchoring the novel so firmly to a place, Chatwin brings changes of character and time into sharp focus. The novel renders the kind of journey that is his chief interestthe inner distance traversed. On the Black Hill raises the question of whether as much ground can be covered by those who stand still, as Benjamin and Lewis do, as by those who move from place to place.
The novel begins in 1899 and ends in the 1960s. Time itself is as central as any character in the novel to the meaning of the story Chatwin tells. The story starts with the courtship and marriage of the twins' parents, Amos and Mary, whose stormy relationship introduces the themes that run throughout the novel. Amos embodies the stubborn peasant allegiance to the way things have always been done, while Mary is associated with the culture of the larger world and a willingness to experiment. One of the mysteries the novel explores is Amos and Mary's attraction to each other; Amos, in particular, is both irresistibly drawn to and infuriated by Mary and all she represents. Initially attracted to her gentility, he flies into rage when she falls asleep over a novel or makes an Indian curry rather than the farm food to which he is accustomed. If Amos's reactions to Mary are often perplexing, her reactions to him are still more puzzling. Why does she choose to stay with him, despite his abuse? After his death, why does she take on his worst characteristics?
Out of this volatile marriage come Benjamin and Lewis, whose lives enact a similar conflict between rootedness in the old ways and an urge for adventure. While Benjamin is happy to live within the confines of The Vision, the family farm, Lewis yearns to leave it. Benjamin feels what the narrator calls a "murderous" love for Lewis, and Lewis blames his brother for thwarting his desire for travel and romance (p. 181). Benjamin reports Lewis's sexual conduct to their mother when the twins are well into their thirties, and, when the two men visit a fair, Lewis turns away from a sideshow promising sexual thrills because he is afraid of Benjamin. For his part, Benjamin seems to have channeled all his love and loyalty into his relationships with his mother and Lewis, and needs no one else. The novel suggests that Benjamin may be gay, but he lives his life as a celibate.
The frustrations and limitations of the twins' lives are played neither for simple comedy nor for pity; instead, Chatwin seems to ask what satisfactions such outwardly uneventful lives may yield. Lewis's fascination with flying is perhaps the best example of this tendency in the novel. Lewis follows from afar the careers of "lady aviators," and when he and Benjamin are "buzzed" by an airplane, sheer excitement brings him to stop their car in the middle of the road (p. 163). When Lewis tells Benjamin that evening that he would like to fly, Benjamin's only reply is "Hm!" (p. 163). For many years, Lewis's dream is in abeyance, and it appears that he has given up on it. But more than thirty years later, his dream is unexpectedly fulfilled, and, after the flight, he feels that "all the frustrations of his cramped and frugal life now counted for nothing" (p. 240). The flight is a triumph for Benjamin as well: he agrees to go on the airplane with his brother, giving up his role as naysayer and taking pleasure in something that initially frightened him. Why the twins are ultimately able to react to the disappointments of their lives with generosity, while their mother went to her grave bitter about her own, is one of the questions On the Black Hill leaves open.
At the novel's end, The Vision has been inherited by the twins' supposed nephew, Kevin, and his wife, Eileen, a young woman Kevin had gotten "into trouble," to his uncles' disapproval (p. 231). What sort of change their tenancy will represent, for good or ill, is as ambiguous as their backgrounds. By emphasizing the cyclical nature of this change, however, Chatwin suggests its inevitability. The birth of Kevin and Eileen's son is followed closely by Lewis's death, and, soon after, Benjamin moves away from the farm. The changing times are embodied in Theo the Tent, a character who appears near the novel's close. A young man self-exiled from an Afrikaner family, Theo has "dropped out" and become a Buddhist, taking up residence at the Black Hill Monastery and bringing the distant world closer (p. 228). In one aspect, he is a stand-in for ChatwinTheo feels the pull of nomadic cultures strongly and soon begins to feel "that even his simple shelter was preventing him from following The Way" (p. 229). Eventually, he leaves for Thailand. But, before he goes, he improbably befriends Lewis and Benjamin and arranges for their airplane ride. Concluding with this picture of estrangements ended and unlikely bonds forged, Chatwin seems to suggest that, given time and patience, it is possible for even the deepest wounds to be healed. If even the censorious Benjamin can accept his feckless nephew and the friendship of a Buddhist wanderer, perhaps there is some hope for all who face seemingly intractable differences.
Born in 1940 in Birmingham, England, Bruce Chatwin began his career at Sotheby's auction house, where he rose to become one of its youngest directors. He left Sotheby's to study architecture in Edinburgh, then returned to London to work for the Sunday Times magazine. In 1975, he left the Times to pursue his interest in world travel and later wrote the celebrated In Patagonia (1977) about his travels in Argentina and Chile. For the rest of his life, Chatwin continued to travel and write, producing works on a wide range of subjects. The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) explores an old slave town on the coast of West Africa and the history of its prominent Souza family, descendants of a Portuguese slave trader.
In addition to On the Black Hill (1982), Chatwin wrote two other novels, The Songlines (1987), about a project that helped Australian Aborigines map their native sites in order to reclaim them, and Utz (1988), about a Czechoslovakian porcelain collector. After Chatwin's death in January 1989, two more nonfiction books were published, What Am I Doing Here? (1989) and Far Journeys: Photographs and Notebooks (1993).