Despite World War II and the later challenges of a repressive Communist state, Kaspar Joachim Utz has managed to collect over 1,000 pieces of Meissen porcelain and cram them into his tiny two-room flat in Prague. The novel begins with Utz’s funeral in 1974 and the tale unfolds through the recollections of the narrator who interviewed Utz once in 1967 and whose knowledge of Utz’s life is less than perfect or complete.
At the heart of the story is Utz’s decision to stay in Communist Czechoslovakia despite having the opportunity and financial means to defect to the West on his yearly state-approved pilgrimage to the healing waters of the spas in Vichy. His reticence to leave Czechoslovakia is largely based on not wanting to leave behind his collection, but he also harbors a secret and seemingly intense love for his housekeeper. The luxuries of the West also seem to Utz to have lost their attractiveness and he seems rudderless at the prospect of choosing somewhere new to live.
Switzerland? Italy? France? Three possibilities. None of them inviting. Germany? Never. The break had been final. England? Not after the Dresden raid. The United States? Impossible. The noise would depress him dreadfully. Prague, after all, was a city where you heard the snowflakes falling. Australia? He had never been attracted to the colonies. Argentina? He was too old to tango.
The more he considered the alternatives, the clearer the situation seemed to him. Not that he would be happy in Czechoslovakia. He would be harassed, menaced, insulted. He would have to grovel. He would have to agree with every word they said. He would mouth their meaningless, ungrammatical formulae. He would learn to ‘live within the lie’.
But Prague was a city that suited his melancholic temperament. A state of tranquil melancholy was all one could aspire to these days!
I liked Utz quite a bit. But for me, if you are only going to read one book by Bruce Chatwin, make it On the Black Hill. (Recently Cornflower has been writing glowingly about On the Black Hill as well.)