Sitting now in the empty staff room of my high school, I have just finished Bruce Chatwin’s On The Black Hill. I picked it up in a used foreign-language book store in Kyoto several weeks ago and have since then been consuming it reguarly with the same kind of avid attention one might give to a good cup of tea. I was able to soar through the final seventy-or-so pages that remained and I can say that On the Black Hill is one of the best works of fiction I have read in some time.
Chatwin’s 1982 novel follows the life of two identical twins born in Wales at the turn of the century and chronicles their lives in spare images: births and deaths, quarrels and wars, the poignant, brief invasions of their hermetic siblinghood by sexual energies, feminine and masculine, through the twentieth century. In a way, the twins, Benjamin and Lewis Jones, are intentionally wrought anachronisms, crafted by their willful parents and their own echoing reflections in the other. Chatwin drags these two innocents through the human experience, regardless of how they protest and shirk from the modern, in order to illustrate that change is not inevitable. The prose sculpted from raw material fitting for the rural landscape of a harsh pre-war Wales draws one in completely to the time capsule of The Vision farm where the twins grow old.
At one point near the end of the novel, the twins now in their seventies take a walk up the hill to lunch with their neighbor, a hippie living in a yurt, and find the new century breaking into their worlds from above:
A pair of jet fighters screamed low over the Wye, reminding them of a destructive world beyond. Yet as their weak eyes wandered over the network of fields, plotted and painted red or yellow and green, and the whitewashed farmhouses where their Welsh forbears had lived and died, they found it hard—if not impossible—to believe what Kevin said: that it would all go, any day, in a great big bang.
Chatwin’s images, painted broadly and saying more with what they do not say, envince a Fauvist’s impression of the universe; lines are drawn, but carelessly, and colors bleed into each other. The twins themselves struggle with indentities shaped by different desires and experiences, and the excitement of a changing world which threatens to dillute their bond.
Little effort is made to brighten the cloudy atmosphere on Black Hill. Lives follow Flauberian trajectories, made desperate for a place in the new century, yet Lewis and Benjamin remain rocks, tied to eachother and to the memory of a childhood which refuses to fade between the two of them. On their eightieth birthday their nephew surprises them with an airplane flight, a life-long dream for Lewis and a nightmare for Benjamin. However, as they pass low over the earth which they have worked all their lives, seeing in one omniscent gaze their farm, their house, and their entire lives, Benjamin relaxes, his nose pressed to the window. It is perhaps the closest a person can come to seeing his whole life flash before his eyes. Chatwin builds to this moment, and lands us safely on the ground (depsite Lewis’s portentious obsession with airplane disasters), whereupon the twins are presented with an aerial photo of their farm. In the realism of Chatwin’s novel, there is no solace past the grave. Infinitely more precious, he illustrates through Lewis and Benjamin, is what is held by the living.