Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines is a book that’s like many good trips: suddenly, you find yourself navigating an unfamiliar, confusing and even intimidating region, but by the end you realize you’ve had an irreplaceable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
For students of my COMM 373 Australia winterim course, a trip that begins with our departure from Chicago Dec. 27, this may be especially true. Chatwin’s work isn’t always easy to read. At times, it might seem to less patient readers that Chatwin’s writing is like the Australian outback.
Many would perceive the outback as vast, substantially flat, incomprehensible in its sameness, and tough to find one’s way through; a look in any direction might show more features that are hard to distinguish from the last set. One might not see the small details that differentiate one apparently barren spot from another. Even when discernible, these features might not promise anything substantially different in an interminable landscape beyond.
That’s where the genius of this book lies, because at its core, it’s about the “dreaming tracks” that might be one of the most defining characteristics of traditional Aboriginal culture. Chatwin reportedly struggled to describe these tracks, or songlines, that were essentially poetic or musical maps of virtually the entire landscape of Australia. Individuals would both walk and sing these tracks on their journeys, marking in extraordinary detail the locations, descriptions and relationships of rocks, trees, water sources, and other physical features of the landscape both large and small. (Side note: to see how one well-known musician was inspired by Chatwin’s descriptions, see my previous post on Derek Trucks’ album “Songlines.”)
Regardless of Chatwin’s struggles, his book ultimately does a spectacular job of explaining the basic workings of songlines, their importance to Aboriginal culture, and how contemporary non-Aboriginal culture clashes with the original Australian culture. He makes it easy to understand how a group whose unfettered walkabouts over traditional songlines, which depend on continuity and intricate connections over distance, would conflict with those who value private ownership of land.
Aborigines’ sense of “ownership,” Chatwin points out, may be best understood as mastery of these musical descriptions and a clear connection to the places described, with each Aborigine’s heritage being different from all others — and certainly different from that of latecoming Europeans who would fence or otherwise demarcate and close off lands.
Most of the basic accomplishment of this book — the explanation of songlines — is dispensed with early. That could make much of the remainder of the book (Chatwin’s fourth) less interesting to some readers, as a good deal of it might seem mundane or even trivial. Chatwin describes many workaday events and interactions among both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures in a way that enthralls some readers but might make others ask, “So?” He often writes about conversations and ideas rather than describing events, places and things.
Chatwin also fills an increasing amount of his later chapters with lengthy and apparently random notes collected in previous years of his international travel. They often seem only tangentially related to each other, although there generally is a thread related to nomadism woven throughout.
Many readers would find it helpful to know a little more about Chatwin beforehand, such as the fact that his first book was to have been about nomads, but the manuscript was rejected. His interest in nomads remained and much of that shapes The Songlines to positive effect. His overall style can be thickly literary and even scholarly for substantial periods, although his prose often has been described as spare and simple. It may seem to be wandering and even confusing to some readers. This is often a result of the complexity of ideas that fascinated Chatwin, or the depth of his reading and interests.
I will confess to skipping increasingly larger portions in the latter part of The Songlines because I did not find it rewarding part of my summer reading. On the other hand, I have re-read early portions of the book with a renewed appreciation for Chatwin’s life and work (he died in 1989) and I am almost certain to include one or two chapters as required reading and discussion for our upcoming Australia trip.
MORE ON CHATWIN & THE SONGLINES
What made Chatwin tick? There’s an excellent Wikipedia summary of his life and work that introduces a decent number of other sources that one can explore to learn more about Chatwin. While it is based primarily in an extensive citation of Nicholas Shakespeare’s 1999 biography of Chatwin, the Wikipedia piece also explores other useful works, such as Andrew Harvey’s 1987 review of The Songlines in The New York Times and a 1999 review of the Shakespeare biography by Blake Morrison in The Independent. The Chatwin page appears well-updated, with citations coming from works as recent as 2014 and the latest modification to the page done only hours before I started this review.
A piece that isn’t in Wikipedia but which I also found useful — it notes, for instance, that Chatwin considered The Songlines a novel — is Thomas Mallon’s “The Wanderer,” a review of Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin, co-authored by Shakespeare and Elizabeth Chatwin, Bruce’s wife of 25 years.
For those who like reading lots of reviews, The Songlines gets a 4.0 on more than 6,000 ratings on Goodreads.
Many thanks to Dr. Tim Halkowski for pointing out that The Songlines has central ideas in common with my blog Words Are Roads — an observation that first brought the book to my attention.