LONDON — Bruce Chatwin, a travel writer and novelist who wrote the critically acclaimed and commercially popular book "In Patagonia," died in the French resort of Nice from a rare bone marrow disease he had contracted in China, his family reported. He was 48 and died Tuesday.
Despite suffering from the debilitating disease caused by a plant fungus that eventually confined him to a wheelchair, Chatwin recently completed his sixth book, a collection of writings called "What Am I Doing Here?"
It is to be published later this year.
In a 1987 interview, Chatwin said he contracted the ailment during a trip to western China, dismissing the disease that killed him with the comment, "Hazards of travel--rather an alarming one."
The (London) Daily Telegraph called him one of the most remarkable writers of the last dozen years. In a relatively brief career as a writer, he published five books, three of them novels.
At the age of 25, Chatwin--an expert on Impressionist art--was the youngest person to be appointed a director of the British auction house Sotheby's. Several years later he quit to study archeology at Edinburgh University.
At age 33 he began his career in travel writing, going to work for the Sunday Times of London. "In Patagonia" grew out of his travels to South America while on assignment for the magazine.
"Songlines," his study of Australia's aborigines, was published last year.
A private man and spare writer, he combined an obsession with nomadic peoples with elements of fiction and realism.
Born the son of a naval officer, Chatwin went to several boarding schools, skipped college and joined Sotheby's as a trainee. Within six years, he was head of their Impressionist department.
Years later, Chatwin told an interviewer, he left the house "out of sheer boredom. Works of art are much tougher than those handling them, who crumbled before your eyes."
He enrolled at Edinburgh University to study anthropology and archeology before embarking on his first travels. In 1965, he married the daughter of an American admiral, Elizabeth Chanler.
"In Patagonia" was published in 1977 and followed his solitary journey through the southern tip of South America. It brought him instant recognition as a writer.
The book, based on his fascination with people there and their stories, welded truth and imagination.
Chatwin dubbed the technique "searches"--an imaginative mixture of anthropology, history, biography and fiction. The book won the Somerset Maugham and E. M. Forster literary awards. His other works included "The Viceroy of Ouidah," a study of slave-trading in the early 19th Century and "On the Black Hill," a work about those living in the border country between England and Wales.
Fair-haired, with good looks and a penetrating gaze, Chatwin once remarked in an interview: "What interested me most were the people who had escaped the archeological record--the nomads who trod lightly on the earth and didn't build pyramids."