It is difficult to believe today, as Chatwin’s contemporaries did, that he was simply an extraordinary man to whom extraordinary things happened. Perhaps critics couldn’t detect his inventions as easily, at the time of their publication, because in the last days of hippies on the overland trail, travels like Arkady’s in Asia, or Chatwin’s with nomads, were conventions of the time, which still seemed to have depth and vitality. Perhaps we didn’t want to detect them because myths about aesthetic tribes, or about erudite English Hemingways, were still so appealing. Perhaps we simply wanted to believe that the world was as replete with rich coincidences and meanings—as overdetermined—as Chatwin wanted it to be. Or perhaps the fault lies with the intervening years, in which his fantasies and style proved so addictive that a thousand imitations have marred the original.
Today, however, Chatwin’s fictions seem more transparent. We may not be too surprised to discover the journeys with nomads for which he “quit his job,” and which John Lanchester admired, were brief interludes in a period more accurately described as Chatwin getting married and becoming an undergraduate at Edinburgh University. And the passages, suffused with symbolic and literary resonances, that once seemed most impressive, no longer seem the most satisfying. His personality, his learning, his myths, and even his prose, are less hypnotizing. And yet he remains a great writer, of deep and enduring importance.