Winged Messenger

Bruce Chatwin, English novelist and travel writer, was the first author whose death, twenty-one years ago, made me sad. A devoted reader, I thought we could have been friends.

I liked his work, admired his storytelling. I was intrigued by his life. And I learned from him.

A free man, he could take off on the idle suggestion of a near-stranger. A one-line telegram— Have gone to Patagonia—served as notice at work. He had a large social crowd, arty friends, some of whom he met where he began, at Sotheby’s London. By the time he quit, he was a director and an expert in Impressionism. And only after that, he began to write.

As if with wings, he took off—Africa, South America, Australia. To lose a passport was an inconvenience, he said, but to lose a notebook—the small, black Moleskines to which he was devoted—was a catastr


A bookish wanderer, his stories told of distant lands. The people he met, the places he’d been—it was as if he did my dreaming for me.

And if, as some say, he blurred the line at times between fantasy and reality, I put it to his wings.

They took him places, allowed him to see the world with his stranger’s eyes. What could have been, what might have been, what maybe even was if you looked at it from a certain perspective—Chatwin laid it out.

“[N]ot a half truth, but a truth and a half,” said his biographer, a perfect description of what a free man can write.

He died in 1989 in southern France, at age 48, of AIDS.

When I think of him, when I come across, say, a Mercury dime, I ask myself: How free am I?

Although most commonly referred to as the Mercury dime, the coin does not depict the Roman messenger god but the goddess Liberty wearing a Phrygian cap, a classic symbol of liberty, with its wings intended to symbolize freedom of thought.