Rules of the Game

Utz

by Bruce Chatwin
Viking, 154 pp., $16.95

Utz is the hero of Utz. “In Grimm’s Etymological Word Book,” Bruce Chatwin explains on page 16 of his 150-page novella, “‘utz’ carries any number of negative connotations: ‘drunk,’ ‘dimwit,’ ‘cardsharp,’ ‘dealer in dud horses.’ ‘Heinzen, Kunzen, Utzen oder Butzen,’ in the dialect of Lower Swabia, is the equivalent of ‘any Tom, Dick or Harry.”’ The Standard German-English Langenscheidt gives “uzen—tease, chaff, quiz, sl. kid.” In dialect German a t more or less in the spelling is neither here nor there, and the noun Uz can also mean a trick, a leg pull, a practical joke. So the reader has been warned.

Chatwin’s tale is a mine field of clues, false, ambiguous, some possibly real. Nothing is what it seems: even the stuffed bear in a Prague restaurant turns out to be not a brown bear from the Carpathians, but a grizzly shot in the Yukon. So Utz needs to be read with circumspection—a good idea anyway, because Chatwin’s prose can slip down too quickly to be appreciated as it should be. It’s a kind of throwaway Mandarin, compensating by its simplicity for the profusion of baroque facts collected for one’s instruction, amusement, and very likely some more secret purpose as well.

Utz is about collecting, and is also itself a collection of esoteric data. “Collecting,” Baron Thyssen said the other day, “is an activity that is not quite normal, there are no logical reasons why you do it. They can come later.” Utz himself pronounces collecting to be a sin—a form of idolatry. In form, Utz is a mystery, the puzzle being not whodunit, but why did he do it. There is a classic narrator-sleuth who has no characteristics that would not fit Chatwin himself: he is laconic, funny, a cool mimic (the Anglo-Czech conversations are a big syntactic joke), and idiosyncratically encyclopedic. The opening is classic too; the story begins with the funeral of the chief character, attended by the narrator. It takes place in a Prague church in 1974. The narrator has not seen Utz since their one and only meeting seven years before. In 1967 he was visiting Prague to do research for an article on “the Emperor Rudolf II’s passion for collecting exotica: a passion which, in his later years, was his only cure for depression. I intended the article to be part of a larger work on the psychology—or psychopathology—of the compulsive collector.” Quite a lot of clues there.

Kasper Joachim Utz is the owner of an incredibly rich collection of Meissen porcelain. He turns out to be such an insignificant-looking little man that afterward the narrator can’t remember whether he had a mustache or not. He is a bachelor (or so it seems) living in a small apartment with a homely middle-aged housekeeper and his fabulous collection. Utz is a scion of the minor—minimal—Saxon nobility. Before the war the family had a house in Dresden, estates in the Sudetenland …

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