Bruce Chatwin's final novel before his early death presents an unlikely hero to us – one Kaspar Joachim Utz, an intriguing MittelEuropean character of petty nobility, of a Czech-German-Jewish background, an erudite man living in a two-room apartment in Prague in the 1960s and ’70s.
Utz is an unwilling witness of the 20th century, and when we meet him he’s already a vaguely disillusioned figure having participated in the cultural and moral decline of our civilization. “Politically, Utz was neutral,” Chatwin tells us. “There was a timid side to his character that would tolerate any ideology providing it left him in peace.”
However, the most noteworthy detail about this protagonist is his eternal obsession for porcelain. Through the Second World War and Czechoslovakia's years of Stalinism, Utz has collected over 1,000 pieces of Meissen porcelain cramming them inside his small flat and in this slim, layered book, finds himself hopelessly failing to part with them. Chatwin’s novel begins in 1974 with Utz’s funeral and unfolds in an art specialist’s voice who had interviewed Utz once in 1967 – a year before the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion that soon followed – as our narrator recollects about Utz using memory and scattered pieces of information he gathers along the way.
The central conflict rests on this surreal attachment of a collector with his lifelong collection. Despite being allowed to leave the country every year and offered the opportunity to defect to the West, Utz is unable to leave. A parallel plot involving his housekeeper Marta and the understated relationship of dependency and intimacy they share also runs through the narrative. Utz is selfish and often disloyal, and several sentences here might have got Chatwin cancelled on the internet if it had released today.
But it’s a work unlike any other, acting almost like an antidote to bohemian travel – something of particular interest to Chatwin himself. “Prague was a city that suited his melancholic temperament,” we are told. “A state of tranquil melancholy was all one could aspire to these days!” An irrational preoccupation, whether with a city or material possession, can be become a self-made prison itself. And Utz reminds us of both the beauties and the bindings of such a life.