A new documentary retraces Bruce Chatwin’s voyages. Written and directed by Werner Herzog, “Nomad” is a tribute to the late writer. Today, when many of us are leading more sedentary and restricted lives than usual, Werner Herzog has released a paean to 'getting out there'.
Chatwin and Herzog, courtesy of Music Box Films
Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin is a portrait of a legendary storyteller. Herzog narrates and acts as a guide, weaving together Chatwin’s writing, photographs and archival recordings with the testimony of those who knew him.
In 2019 the BBC approached Herzog about creating a tribute to his friend, 30 years after his death aged 49. Chatwin is still regarded as one of the godfathers of modern travel writing, someone who engaged with the world by walking through it. A product of English public schools, steeped in the tales of far-flung relatives, Chatwin fancied himself a modern version of the 19th-century explorer. He once told André Malraux, a French novelist, that he hailed from “an island of buccaneers and pirates.”
Handsome, charming and erudite, Chatwin encouraged myth-making - both about himself and the objects, people and landscapes of his stories (he was an infamous embellisher). Through spare but evocative prose, Chatwin tried to elicit eternal truths from all that he encountered. He made surprising connections between seemingly disparate things: in the film Nicholas Shakespeare, Chatwin’s biographer, fancifully remarks that this trait made him a kind of precursor to the internet. Mr Herzog, himself a polymath and seeker of wisdom hidden in plain sight, is a perfect interlocutor - a medium communing with Chatwin’s spirit for the viewer’s benefit.
“Nomad” is divided into eight chapters that together provide a map to Chatwin’s life and work. Each segment revisits a theme of his major journeys, such as “Landscapes of the Soul”, and travels to places including Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Wales and Australia - where Chatwin’s search for ancient truths found a natural subject in Aboriginal “Songlines”. In his famous (and controversial) book of 1987 of that name, he reflected upon the ancient practice of dreaming tracks: an oral tradition of songs, poems and stories that recount ancestral lore and creation myths. In “Nomad”, an Aboriginal elder describes how these function as a sort of GPS, as the tribes cross a vast area in both time and space. To Chatwin, “the whole of the land was covered in song”.
He saw himself not as a chronicler of fact, but as a raconteur; Mr Shakespeare says he offered not “half-truths” but “truth and a half”. As his death neared, Chatwin felt an urgency to finish his projects. Mr Herzog’s and Chatwin’s friend in Australia, the anthropologist Petronella Vaarzon-Morel, also saw in his writing a desire to find a meaningful way to die. Perhaps he also regarded narrative as a way to keep death at bay, in the manner of Scheherazade. “Man is a talking animal, a storytelling animal,” Chatwin wrote. “I would like to think that he talked his way out of extinction and that is what talk is for.”
Now, when most voyages are from the couch to the kitchen, his work, and this film, encourage a wanderlust that can be indulged anywhere. As Mr Shakespeare has written: “Bruce’s endeavour might seem to be old-fashioned, uniting him to the earliest fireside storyteller, but there is something prescient in his insistence that everything is linked. In his best stories, he gives us license to travel freely.” To read his books is to go on a voyage of the mind.