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Make It Strange

On the Black Hill

by Bruce Chatwin
Viking, 249 pp., $14.75

After the excellent book on his travels, In Patagonia, it is at first surprising to find Bruce Chatwin writing a novel about the small sheep farmers at home on the hills of the Welsh Border country of England. Sheep farming is, of course, the common link. In the nineteenth century large numbers of tough, poor, and exalted Welsh peasants migrated to Patagonia as if drawn to the isolation, the rains, the snows and hard conditions they knew at home and where they would be free of the mocking gaze and rule of the Sassenach conquerors. The people of On the Black Hill are part of the sturdy remnant who toiled and haggled at home.

But if the novel is a watchful traveler’s journey through peasant life during the first eighty years of this century, its characters are strong and strange enough to burst the bonds of parish record. They are by nature self-dramatizing. They are carrying with them the ancient inner life of their race. On the Black Hill has been compared to works like Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders or Tess of the D’Urbervilles, because it comes so close to the skin of rural life, but the comparison is misleading. Chatwin dispenses with grand tragic plot and Hardy’s dire use of coincidence. Above all there is no President of the Immortals indifferent to human fate, there is no Victorian atheism and pessimism.

The imagination of the Border people is mythical and Biblical: it has been lit by the torrential eloquence of their dissenting preachers. (The exception among Mr. Chatwin’s people is an Anglican clergyman, a Greek scholar who scorns the Bible and who distributes the Odyssey to his parishioners. He was also joint master of the local hunt and was continually called upon as the only man who could save a swarm of bees barehanded. He tipped them into hives which he compared to Athens). The Border people are not the common run of bibliolater preoccupied with mean moral wrangling; they see themselves as descendants of Abraham—the man of flocks—and look upon the money-making English cities across the Border as examples of the corruption of Sodom. They see themselves as “travelers to the Abiding City of God.”

Strangeness plainly stated is the key to Mr. Chatwin’s plotless chronicle, the mixing of outward and inner life. The story is dominated by two bachelor brothers who are identical twins. They are thrifty farmers who slave for eighty years on poor mountainy land in an isolated farm originally called Ty-Cradoc—the name of Caractacus, the Welsh hero who fought the Roman invaders, is still evocative in the Border country—but now known as The Vision because a country girl saw the Virgin there in the eighteenth century. Paganism and Christianity go hand in hand.

Benjamin and Lewis Jones are old men who have shared the same bed since the death of their parents, and we go back over their lives. They are shrewd, hard-working men but they are exceptional because they are magnetized, even entranced, by their likeness to each other and their immediate awareness of each other’s minds. Very important to them is that they were born of a peculiar marriage. Their father had been a hot-tempered laborer who had made an unlikely marriage with the lonely educated daughter of yet another eccentric Anglican clergyman, who had died suddenly. It was a marriage of passion.

She had spent her childhood in India, seemingly in an Anglican mission. Her accent is educated English. It is she who fights to stop her two sons from becoming village dolts. They get a little schooling, but before that, at the age of six, they can read and write easily under her teaching. She brings them up on Shakespeare, Euripides, Hardy, and—of all people—Zola, perhaps because of La Terre. The Bible is still the mainstay of the remarkable Welsh literacy and her education has a lasting effect on them. Late in life they will eagerly turn to Giraldus Cambrensis and to Froissart’s Chronicles.

If the mother had to put up with brutality from the husband she loved and who loved her, she never left him, although her family had cut her off. The sons worshiped her, loved the Indian pictures and relics she brought with her, and in old age slept out of piety under the worn-out coverlet she had stitched together from her old dresses.

When they were born their mother could not tell her sons apart, and indeed throughout their lives they gazed mystified by each other. Lewis the elder grew to be tall and stringy. At the age of eighty he could walk miles over the hills without exhaustion or wield a heavy axe all day. He gave off a strong smell. His head would wobble as he spoke, unless he was fumbling with his watch chain because he did not know what to do with his hands. (The two men would often take out their watches, not to tell the time, but to see whose watch was going faster: their only rivalry.) Lewis would say no more than “Thank you very much” or “Very kind of you” if anyone made a statement of fact to him. He was a wonder with sheep dogs. Benjamin grew up to be shorter, pinker, and neater, rather bald with an aggressive long nose. His skill was delivering lambs. After their mother’s death he did the cooking, the darning, and the ironing, kept the accounts, and like his brother was a notorious hard-bargainer and stingy, except with hay, which he gave away to any neighbor in need, saying it was “God’s gift to the farmer.”

Lewis was the restless one. Among the pictures in the house was one of a Red Indian. A memory of learning Longfellow’s Hiawatha from their mother gave Lewis a restless desire for far-off places. He saw himself as an expert in geography:

He would pester visitors for their opinions on “them savages in Africky”; for news of Siberia, Salonika or Sri Lanka; and when someone spoke of President Carter’s failure to rescue the Teheran hostages, he folded his arms and said, decisively, “Him should’a gone to get ‘em through Odessa.”

The first airplanes gave him a morbid interest in air crashes and he kept a lifelong record of them. In old age he even took a short trip in a plane, marvelously evoked by Mr. Chatwin.

It was Lewis who hankered after girls—a danger to his closeness with his brother and once the cause of a violent quarrel, which their mother had always feared. (There is an account, strangely close to the horse-riding seduction scene in Turgenev’s Torrents of Spring; in Chatwin’s novel a local artist’s wife seduces Lewis, having bet her husband that she would.) Benjamin guessed this at once; the twin brothers knew each other’s thoughts so well they could even quarrel without speaking. Much later on Lewis outraged Benjamin by buying a tractor. Lewis thought of the machine as a woman and wanted to give it a woman’s name. He worshiped it, loved its noise, and thought the engine was as perplexing as a woman’s anatomy. (In the end, the thing ran away with him and caused his death.)

In their early childhood Benjamin was stung by a wasp but it was Lewis who cried and who showed a curious lifelong power of taking his brother’s pain on himself; after all, they used each other’s names. Benjamin would run away from people who could tell them apart and screamed when they were separated. They had curious games, such as standing forehead to forehead staring into each other’s eyes in wonder. When their sister was born they hated her and played at having babies—their mother had to stop them so they played at being lambs—not so strange perhaps, children often play at being animals. The sister was her father’s pet and grew up to run off with an Irish handyman to Canada. A girl was an outsider in this family. At school football games, it was fatal to put Lewis and Benjamin on opposite sides: Benjamin would dash across to Lewis’s side and wreck the game. In the classroom they gave identical answers to questions.

Their most agonizing time came with the 1914 war when conscription started. Lewis was allowed to go off and work on another farm; Benjamin had to join up and pined. He gave up washing for fear of reminding himself that—at the same moment—Lewis might be sharing someone else’s towel. He hated Lewis for leaving and suspected him of “stealing his soul.” One day, staring into the shaving mirror, Benjamin saw his face growing fainter and fainter, as if the glass were eating his reflection. Without his brother he became nothing. In the army Benjamin was recalcitrant and was arrested. Lewis knew by the pains in his coccyx when his brother was being beaten up in the detention barracks.

Around them are their strange neighbors, notably their chief enemies, the land-hungry Watkins family at the Rock. Watkins is a coffin maker. The son of that family is a notorious thief who seduces his own sister. After the coffin maker’s death, his widow sees money in fostering the bastard children of the countryside, a bedraggled, bemused collection who come and go as the years pass. As the two brothers prosper the Watkins family collapses into rural misery.

There is rural murder in the novel and suicide and there is a rotting corpse when a farm is isolated in a bad winter. We are watching the behavior of raw people as they fight their way fiercely and sometimes comically through their lives: they are neither the poeticized people of towny nostalgic novels about peasant life, nor are they crude and Zolaesque. They are far from decadent; they take their sexuality whole-heartedly. Mr. Chatwin is not an erotic novelist but he does convey the ruling sexual willingness. There is a rebust account of a lusty Welsh fair where Lewis, who is after the girls, makes Benjamin take a spin on the Wall of Death. Benjamin has to face the intolerable sight of girls with their dresses flying over their faces and sees bare flesh. Benjamin staggers into the street and vomits into the gutter but the girls cannot get Lewis from him.

Mr. Chatwin’s writing is simple and direct. He has learned from the Russians “to make it strange,” which is second nature to the Welsh; he is quietly true to changes of sky and landscape and is remarkable in his power to bring human feeling to the sight by some casual action.

I find the following incident remarkable. Lewis has gone to see Rosie Fifield who had rejected him as a lover when she was a maid at the Big House and was willingly seduced and abandoned by the rakish son of the family. She has turned into a broken oldish woman and Lewis goes to see her out of charity because she is ill and in want; there is nothing but a bottle of pickled onions in the house. She does not thank him for the food he has brought and there is little but monosyllabic chat:

Before leaving he folded her sheep, which had gone a whole week without hay. He took the milk-can and promised to come back on Thursday.

She clutched his hand and breathed, “Till Thursday then?”

She watched him from the bedroom window walking away along the line of hawthorns, with the sunlight passing through his legs. Five times, she wiped the condensation from the pane until the black speck vanished from view.

It’s no good,” she said out loud. “I hate men—all of them.”

That phrase “with the sunlight passing through his legs” is an example of Chatwin’s visual gift, his ability to catch the evanescent detail that will last in the watcher’s mind. It lights the act of parting as it might seem to a simple watching woman in a passing hour of her life. But he is not a professional sorrower at the toils of the peasantry. He can be satirical yet just about the local gentry and about the modern world that comes slowly with its trippers and its week-enders, its washing machines and its cheating antique dealers who try to strip the old farmers of their treasures.

The Bible is the overruling consolation. The mythical world lives side by side with the real. The Border people live by their imagination. We see Benjamin reading the lesson from the Book of Revelation at the Harvest Festival. His mother’s teaching comes back to him; he can utter the words jasper and jacinth, chrysoprase and chalcedony, without misplacing a syllable. And the visiting preacher cries out that he can reach out his hand and touch the Holy City as he listens:

But it was not a city…like Rome or London or Babylon! Not a city of Canaan, for there was falsity in Canaan! This was the city that Abraham saw from afar.

The preacher is a Welsh nationalist of extreme views but in the cautious Welsh way “expressed these views in so allusive a language that few of his listeners had the least idea what he was talking about.” He was (Mr. Chatwin notes) wearing a suit of “goose-shit green” and had the habit of “cupping his hands in front of his mouth, and gave the impression of wanting to catch his previous statement and cram it back between his teeth.” Droll and yet manly, he is storing his breath up, perhaps, for the moment when he will let out thunder, and evoke Abraham as a hero, indistinguishable from Caractacus, or, even more remotely, as a pre-Roman Celtic giant. The whole book is at once grave, sparkling, and ingeniously contrived. Even the German psychiatrist who appears to explain the pathology of twinship is assimilated into the story without turning it into a case history.

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