One of those books I’ve always intended but failed to read, I now know that ‘Utz’ is a strange and enjoyable novella that’s short enough to complete in a few hours. I read it twice in quick succession to try to get a better grasp of an elusive story.
That story is seemingly simple: Kaspar Utz is the last of an aristocratic German family living in late twentieth century communist Czechoslovakia. He owns an unrivalled collection of Meissen porcelain which he’s managed to protect through war, revolution and oppression thanks to his ability to twist and turn, apparently accommodating the demands of various authorities, even collaborating with them, for greater purposes: the survival of great art, the secret freedom of the mind and, surprisingly in his case, love.
He has the wherewithal to escape the restrictions of life in Prague and flees to France once a year, only to return voluntarily after being disgusted by the conspicuous consumption displayed in the ‘free’ West. Luxury is only luxury in the face of deprivation.
But if managing to outwit the authorities makes Utz a Harlequin-like trickster, so Chatwin is adept at sleight of hand. Just as the unnamed narrator only discovers the real truth about Utz and his death, so we are prevented from seeing the real Utz by misdirection throughout.
It’s all the more surprising because the writing is simple and unadorned with little imagery and no embellishments. The plainness of language is as deceptive as Utz himself.