Cazzo ci faccio qui?
In 1990, during my first trip to Italy, I discovered one of the first books in translation from English to Italian that I was able to recognize as such: Bruce Chatwin’s essay collection, What Am I Doing Here?. I’d read the book in English a few months before, thus beginning a passionate and loyal attachment to Chatwin that has survived to this day and which even overlooked, as true love will, his rather uneven novel, Utz. To say that Chatwin was a “travel writer” or that his articles and occasional pieces were “travel essays” is reductive—it’s like calling M.F.K. Fisher a “food writer.” Chatwin was always on to something more.
Nowhere, in fact, is Chatwin’s gaze wider and his draft deeper than in What Am I Doing Here? The title alone suggests the state of Chatwin’s heart and soul (in Italian, Cosa ci faccio qui?). Though he was married, he could barely stand to stay at home (his wife, certainly, had her own tale of sadness to tell). He apparently had affairs with men he met all over the world, and he eventually died of AIDS—though it was not until several years after his death that this fact was widely acknowledged. When he fell ill, Chatwin reported that he was suffering from a “Chinese fungus,” an odd and slightly sinophobic fiction. After his death, Chatwin was first said to have succumbed to a “rare blood disease”—which is technically what AIDS is, I suppose—exactly the same term that Alvin Ailey’s family insisted upon using and which is, if I remember correctly, still the official explanation for Ailey’s death.
But what Chatwin was always writing about, really writing about, was loneliness and alienation. The habitual traveler—the one who can’t stay home because he doesn’t really know what home is, for whom movement becomes a habit in all the senses of the word (a garment, a cacoëthes, a regimen)—intimately knows solitude and isolation. These are as much a part of travel, of the being elsewhere as are the epiphanies, the small daily beauties, the shocking intimacy of brief bonds.
“What am I doing here?” means: in this place, but also in this body, in this mind, in this reality. The question evokes both the disorientation and the sense of drift that travel brings, along with images of futility, of treacherous ground, of the ingenuous panic of temporarily lost children. It suggests the terrible, helpless optimism of the eternal search for what is most inchoate and inexpressible in this breathing world. For who would move if there were no hope?
“Papa was a rolling stone,” goes the song, and papa comes out the weak and faithless villain in the piece. But consider for a moment papa’s demons, the way that travel and flight and quest describe identical activities, but with varying degrees of moralizing. Maybe papa shouldn’t have left everyone behind, but maybe he was no good to them if he stayed. Maybe he ought to have conquered his fears, ought to have figured out some way to be content—and maybe he was trying to do just that. Sometimes there isn’t enough time in one life to work everything out, and sometimes, as Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) says in Little Big Man, the magic just doesn’t work.