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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, and wealth acquired through Utz’s grandmother, a Jewish heiress. It was in her nineteenth-century chateau at Czeske Krizove in Bohemia that the child Utz fell in love with a Meissen harlequin and his lifelong passion began. Passion or disease? King Augustus the Strong of Saxony, who founded the Meissen factory, spoke of his obsession with porcelain as die Porzellankrankheit—the porcelain disease. It ruined his finances.

Utz has no financial worries. A Central European vicar of Bray with a Swiss bank account, he is fond of proclaiming that “wars, pogroms and revolutions…offer excellent opportunities to the collector.” He collaborated with Goering’s art squad, swapping his knowledge of the whereabouts of hidden works of art for the safety of his Jewish friends. He is German when Hitler is in the ascendant, Czech when the Allies march into Central Europe, and Jewish when being Jewish is an advantage under the Gottwald regime.

After the war he did a deal with the government: his collection was officially numbered and photographed, and understood to be the property of the state after his death. Meanwhile he was allowed to keep it. There were over one thousand pieces, so he needed a room to keep them in, but a two-room apartment was more than the authorities would allow a bachelor to occupy. So in 1952 he solved the problem by a mariage blanc to his housekeeper Marta. After the civil ceremony she moved in and slept on the living-room floor among the china cabinets.

Every summer Utz would go through the tedious ritual of applying for a visa to leave Czechoslovakia (a country full of spas) in order to take the waters at Vichy. The visa was never refused. Why? On the way to Vichy, Utz would call on his bank in Zurich, where, along with his share certificates, he was accumulating a second collection of porcelain. After sitting out his month in Vichy he would travel back to Prague. His return amazed his acquaintances as well as the authorities: most Czechs used their visas, if they could get them, to emigrate. But Utz pined for his porcelain and was always disappointed with the fleshpots and flirtations of Vichy.

Apropos of flirtations: early on in the novella the narrator mentions Utz’s ludicrously small prick; he also presents him as being in love with his Meissen Columbine. For these and other reasons one is misled into assuming that Utz has no sex life. Then suddenly the narrator discovers a string of operatic mistresses and decides that Utz must have had a seductive mustache after all. All along, he proposes alternative versions of his story. It is unsafe to march too confidently in any direction he may point to.

Shortly after the narrator’s visit to Prague, Utz is rebuffed by a prospective lay and “forced to revise his image of himself as the eternal lover” (Harlequin in the Meissen collection). He turns to Marta. She exacts a church wedding, and goes to the altar with the Utz wedding veil on her head and “minor sweatstains under the arm-pits.” How could the narrator know about those? There are a lot of occult things going on.

Marta, for instance, enters the story just before the war as an orphan goose girl in love with a gander. Utz sees her being hounded by the villagers at Czeske Krizove, rescues her, and takes her on as his maid. When the narrator first sees her thirty years later she is “cradling”—the verb must be significant—a swan-shaped porcelain dish belonging to King Augustus’s famous swan service. Ganders can turn into princes, goose girls into princesses, and swans can be Zeus in disguise. Everything vibrates with mythical overtones, and Prague is an eerie city. It was here that the sixteenth-century Rabbi Loew formed the monster Golem out of clay to be his servant: as God formed Adam and Kändler—the famous Meissen sculptor—formed his porcelain pieces. And before Kändler there was Böttger, the “inventor” of European porcelain, who was really an alchemist—as the collector Emperor Rudolf had been a century before him. Utz tells the narrator about Rabbi Loew as they sit on a bench in the old Jewish cemetery where the rabbi lies buried. Utz’s apartment overlooks the cemetery.

A lot of arcane and esoteric matter has seeped in through the window, and into Chatwin’s novella too. By a miracle of which the rabbi might have been proud he manages to fit into his 150 pages an account of the cabbalists; the history of porcelain from ancient China to the factory founded at Capo di Monte by Augustus the Strong’s daughter when she became Queen of Naples; the etymology of the word “porcelain”; disquisitions on alchemy, the commedia dell’arte, and Winckelmann’s views on the rococo; and the information that Prague is the place for terrorists to have their facial surgery done. He also manages to get in digs against Czech professional exiles with their “anti-Communist rhetoric…as deadly as its Communist counterpart,” and against Western “dissident-watchers” “who, instead of watching animals in an East African game-park, had come to spy on that other endangered species, the East European intellectual.”

It may or may not be significant that it is an East European intellectual who leads the narrator to a possible solution of the central mystery. The central mystery is this: Utz has a mild stroke in 1973. Afterward, the authorities force him to sign an agreement (until then there had been only an understanding) that his collection will belong to the Prague museum; they also force him to import his Swiss collection into Czechoslovakia. In 1974, Utz dies of a second stroke. The narrator, as we know, attends the funeral (an extremely comical occasion). After the funeral Marta retires to her native village, and the collection is nowhere to be found: the cabinets are empty. The curators wring their hands. What has happened?

On a tip from the retired soprano living in the apartment below Utz’s, the narrator chats with the dustbin man who collects from that building. The young man turns out to be a writer, delighted to introduce an English colleague to his circle of cryptointellectual buddies. They are writers and philosophers who prefer to earn their living by manual labor because it’s “better for the mind” than “white-collar squabbles.” On Saturdays they meet for a drink in a village near a large garbage dump. From their evidence the narrator infers that Utz and Marta smashed up and dumped the porcelain collection there.

Again, why? The narrator concludes that Utz came to regret his life of subterfuge and trickery, and to recognize the faithful Marta as his true “eternal Columbine.” From their second wedding onward, “they passed their days in passionate adoration of each other, resenting anything that might come between them. And the porcelains were bits of old crockery that simply had to go.”

An unlikely tale for the reader to believe. Still, the narrator believes it and goes to seek out Marta in her village. At her gate he is met by “a snow-white gander” followed by an old peasant who says: “Ja! Ich bin die Baronin von Utz.” A baroness is not quite a princess, but still…. Believe what you like. It’s part of the pleasurable unease of being involved in a highly sophisticated, highly civilized jeu d’esprit whose rules are not divulged, and may not exist.

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