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RICHARD EDER

The Recalcitrance of Private Porcelain : UTZ by Bruce Chatwin (Viking: $16.95; 154 pp.)

January 22, 1989|RICHARD EDER

In the magical and shabby city of Prague, with its crooked towers and dusty river, Bruce Chatwin has set a story as delicate as the skyline.

Nowhere is the individual so alone as in a state that proclaims all activities public. And nowhere can the individual sometimes be so individual and idiosyncratic.

Contemporary Czechoslovakian writers have voices that perversely insist on inventing themselves; not arbitrarily, but drawing upon the past and making a fool of the present. Bound voices, and the characters that use them, trace a lopsided and original freedom.

Chatwin's own protean voice has brought us Patagonia, the Welsh hills, and aboriginal Australia. In this mordant and suggestive story, he masters the grace, the damp, the dilapidation and the ghostly comedy of the city that produced Kafka and the Good Soldier Schweik, the Golem and Don Giovanni, and the inflamed reasonableness of spring, 1968.

Chatwin's tale begins with a funeral; an event verging on the illegal since, of necessity, the private for once impinges upon the public. In this case, it is a church funeral, required by law to be over by 8:30 in the morning in order to avoid religious conspicuousness.

It is an exceedingly cramped affair. There are only two mourners, and the janitor fills in for the organist, performing the only two chords he knows. The corpse belongs to Kaspar Utz, dead of two strokes.

Utz represents the supreme form of dissidence. He was not in the opposition, since he had no particular politics. His dissidence was more profound; he was entirely, outrageously private.

His story is told retrospectively by an English narrator; a man who dabbles in historical oddities, and has come to Prague to study an Austrian emperor, Rudolph II. Rudolph was an insatiable collector, an amateur alchemist and a patron of the astronomers Kepler and Tycho Brahe. Utz, introduced to the narrator by a friend, is a Rudolph of the present day.

He is an anomaly, to say the least. He holds an obscure job and lives in a scruffy two-room apartment. The apartment is filled, wall to wall and floor to ceiling, with 1,000 figurines made of Meissen porcelain.

Heir to a wealthy prewar family, with holdings in Dresden and a castle in Bohemia, Utz has been a fanatical collector all his life. The private owner is the only proper owner of porcelain, he insists.

In museums, "the pieces die of suffocation and the public gaze." The collector, fondling his possessions, restores to them "the life-giving touch of their maker."

This dry, mysterious original, this historical absurdity, managed to survive the Nazis who investigated his part-Jewish ancestry. He brandished his Aryan father's war medals and shouted at them.

Previously, foreseeing that Hitler would overreach, he had moved his porcelain from Dresden to his Czech castle. Until the bombing of Dresden, he wore an English tweed jacket to spite the Germans. When a BBC announcer declared that "there is no china in Dresden today," Utz gave the jacket to the Gypsies.

After the Communist takeover, Utz prudently donated all his property to the state, except for his collection. There was no clear Marxist-Leninist line on private collections, the authorities find. Private property is subject to confiscation; on the other hand, porcelain may perhaps be considered household goods.

"To start confiscating ceramic statuettes could turn into an administrative nightmare," it is explained to the narrator. "Imagine trying to confiscate the infinite quantity of plaster-of-Paris Lenins."

And so, Utz and his collection shelter in a bureaucratic crevice. More than that, he is allowed to go abroad from time to time. His family had left funds in Switzerland. Utz uses the money to buy more Meissenware and smuggle it back into Czechoslovakia. The authorities are perhaps baffled by such a strangely backward approach; conceivably there is more to it. Possibly the state and Utz make use of each other.

This is one of many wry ambiguities in Chatwin's story, but he places no special emphasis on it. Utz is a comical and exotic figure; as is his friend, Dr. Orlik, a paleontologist who has turned from the study of mammoths to the study of houseflies. Unlike ants and bees, declares the irascible Orlik, who also practices dissidence by private obsession, flies are anarchists.

But as the narrator gradually discovers more about Utz--beneath each answer is another question--a deeper, more suggestive figure emerges. Utz's attachment to his figurines is more than simple collecting.

He speaks of Adam, created out of clay, as "the first ceramic statue." The Golem--assembled from dust by Rabbi Low of Prague and given life by him--is another kind of figurine.

Does Utz believe, then, that his figures are alive, the narrator asks. "They are alive and they are dead," Utz replies. "But if they were alive they would also have to die. Is it not?"

Utz's collection is only one of his lives. Other lives move in the shadows, amid conflicting versions. He has been a formidable seducer of women; particularly, opera stars, whose throats he tickles with his mustache. Or perhaps he is sexually incapable. Late in the book, we learn that Marta, the taciturn woman who serves as his housekeeper, is in fact his wife.

And after Utz dies, his collection, which was to go to the state museum, vanishes. The narrator tries to investigate. He talks to the local garbage collectors. In the wake of the 1968 repression, most of them are former writers and intellectuals.

Perhaps Utz and Marta have smashed the entire collection and thrown it into the garbage. If the figurines are alive, they must die, Utz had said. His seemingly aseptic mania for amassing art is simply one more form of struggling life, or one more surrogate for it. Art is as mortal as the artist.

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