January 30, 1989 12:00 PM

by Bruce Chatwin

Set in modern Czechoslovakia, this brief, delicate and involving novel raises inevitable comparisons with Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Utz, however, touches only obliquely on subjects that Kundera addresses with feathers-flying, head-on élan, such as sex and the nature of totalitarian states. Chatwin approaches questions of survival and control through his main character, a Prague art dealer. Kaspar Utz is obsessed with a huge collection of rare porcelain he has kept intact through World War II and the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia. The porcelain treasures have in fact become a kind of universe in themselves in which Utz is the sole protector. (In some ways the novel resembles Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., whose protagonist gradually subsumes his own identity into a baseball game he has invented.) Utz hates museums—”in any museum the object dies—of suffocation and the public gaze”—and he is apolitical. “Wars, pogroms and revolutions,” he says, “offer excellent opportunities for the collector.” While he is part of a marriage of convenience—the government allows him to keep his two-room apartment if he shares it with a wife—the appreciation and protection of his collection dominates his life. His story is one of grim determination informed by a stern belief in his peculiar theory of aesthetics. “Things will never get better,” he says at one point. His story is told in flashback by a narrator who has learned of Utz’s death and goes to Prague to discover what happened to the porcelain collection. Chatwin resolves the mystery with a dash of fanciful romance. A former director of Sotheby’s auction house in London, Chatwin is nothing if not eclectic. His books include novels set in West Africa (The Viceroy of Ouidah) and Wales (On the Black Hill) and travel-anthropological volumes on Australia (The Songlines) and South America (In Patagonia). Then again, when it comes to eccentricity, porcelain collecting doesn’t have writing beaten by all that much. When Utz’s mother asks the family doctor to explain her son’s mania for porcelain, he answers, “A perversion. Same as any other.” (Viking, $16.95)

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