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8 June, 2005

Review: Utz (Bruce Chatwin, 1988)

I'm off to Prague next week, so thought I'd better read something relevant!

Overall, I was a little disappointed, as I remember enjoying Chatwin's 'On The Black Hill' a few years ago, particularly for his understated, yet clear, understanding of the characters. I thought 'Utz' to be rather slight by comparison, almost an outline for a larger novel rather than itself a complete, developed book. Likewise with the characters. Plot twists revealing unsuspected aspects of the characters fell flat, as one hadn't already become accustomed to their normal behaviour. Never mind the unexpected, the expected hadn't been established.

Another factor was somewhat beyond the author's control. 'Utz' was set in Communist-era Prague, and that regime was central to the plot, in particular the perception that it would outlive the protagonist, Kaspar Utz. Perhaps the story would have greater impact if the Iron Curtain was still in place, but subsequent events have made it more difficult for at least me to identify with the unending (and partly self-inflicted) claustrophobia of Utz's life.

I don't want to sound too negative; it's not a 'bad' book and the quality of the writing is well above average. It's just not as good as I'd hoped, and as 'billed'. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, apparently – I don't think I'd put it in that league. In fact, I have a suspicion that it might have achieved that status by happy circumstance.
It was published in 1988; by the end of 1989 the Velvet Revolution had ousted the Communist government. Presumably at the time the Booker judges were considering their choices, Czechoslovakia was major news, so they may have been particularly drawn to a book set there.
The fact that 'Utz' is only 120 pages long might also have endeared it to fatigued judges!

In short: it's okay, but not great. I'd recommend 'On The Black Hill', though.

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