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 …