Book Review: The Songlines (Bruce Chatwin)

Whilst Chatwin’s The Songlines (Vintage, 2003; Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1987) is not a story collection as it were, or a novel, it is a collection of tales of travel and study, and so review here seems fitting. Within the narrative drive that is Chatwin’s journeying of the sacred lands around Alice Springs, Australia, with Arkady Volchok — an Australian citizen of Russian descent — there is an exploration of Aboriginal culture, academic study and conjecture, myth and magic. Despite the notion, as quoted of a character known as Titus towards the end of the book, that ‘there is no such person as an Aboriginal or Aborigine. There are Tjakamarras and Jaburullas and Duburungas like me, and so on all over the country’, Chatwin expends much time and energy in the pursuit of what it is to be an ‘Aboriginal’ native of the land.

What results is a book containing deliberate vast vistas and the occasionally succinct description of place: ‘We forked right at the sign for Middle Bore and headed east along a dusty road that ran parallel to a rocky escarpment. The road rose and fell through a thicket of grey-leaved bushes, and there were pale hawks perching on the fence-posts.’ Chatwin’s direction is exploration of the Aboriginal Songlines (the land is literally sung into being), but his journey meanders. However, whilst it remains fine to meander so, some of the tellings appear, to this reader, questionable in authenticity.

Chatwin meets and references a great many people in his exploration, and although he makes noble attempts at drawing certain individuals with brushstrokes designed at impressing them into the memory (such as with the manner of their demeanour or the idiosyncrasy of their attire), the net effect is that of a general swathe and flow of a traveller’s acquaintances. Chatwin accompanies Arkady for a significant portion of the book, the latter’s role being ‘to identify the traditional landowners . . . and get them to reveal which rock or soak or ghost-gum was the work of a Dreamtime hero.’ Arkady is trusted of the Aboriginal ‘mobs’, working to map the land’s Songlines so that the new railway can’t be driven straight through it all.

Chatwin offers an eloquent account of what these Songlines are, as the exploration deepens, and as a thread to follow throughout the pages. He writes, at various stages, for example:

‘One should perhaps visualise the Songlines as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every episode was readable in terms of geology.’

‘Regardless of the words, it seems the melodic contour of the song describes the nature of the land over which the song passes . . . Certain phrases, certain combinations of musical notes, are thought to describe the actions of the Ancestor’s feet.’

‘By naming all the things in his territory, [the Aboriginal] could always count on survival.’

‘In Aboriginal belief, an unsung land is a dead land: since, if the songs are forgotten, the land itself will die.’

Chatwin’s travels to see various important local figures and their ‘managers’, tagging along with Arkady (acting as the hook on which the author can pin his studies), results in a plethora of stories about the land in which they drive. The characters he meets seem mostly reticent but Chatwin is able to relay their songline stories of the Lizard Man, the Tjilpa (native cat), and the like. As with all stories we must sink into them: there is a certain suspension of our learned understandings of the ways of the world to be entered into. Chatwin draws the tales well enough though, insofar as leaving us believing that a man who has never seen the land — which he reels off his learned ‘song’ about — can tell exactly where he is by navigation of the told nodal points of geology and the other nuances of that song.

Chatwin has a notion throughout The Songlines that he never deviates from — it is evident that he has already made up his mind about the assumed preferred state of the human species and now, in the writing, he returns again and again to justifying this idea: we are, he writes, nomadic creatures by nature. Chatwin offers up pages of excerpts from his previous notebook travels, some of which provide succinct pause for thought, but the overall effect rather spoils the narrative drive of the whole.

There are excursions into previous meetings with academics and writers, unearthing thought-provoking oddities such as via Chatwin’s conversations with Konrad Lorenz (the ‘Father of Ethology’), near Vienna, in which it is claimed that ‘war [is] the collective outpouring of [Man’s] frustrated fighting drives’; there are Chatwin’s tales of his love for notebooks (‘To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe’), specifically moleskine notebooks, and how the Parisian supplier could no longer furnish him with them because the manufacturer had died; there are moments of quoted poetic beauty (‘The most sublime labour of poetry is to give sense and passion to insensate things’ — Giambattista Vico).

Arkady departs from the pages for a substantial stretch of time, on business, leaving Chatwin holed up in the town of Cullen, collecting his thoughts and arranging his notebooks.  It is Arkady’s departure to prompt such meanderings, and despite instances as above, Chatwin must fill the pages with something, but the reader feels obliged to skip-read through plenty of these other offerings in order to return to the flow of the main exploration. When we do so, there is the feeling that some of the interactions and ‘plot lines’ may not be altogether authentic. That is to say, there are moments where Chatwin’s text seems all too contrived. Marian, a research accomplice, for example, who transpires to be Arkady’s love interest, and the latter are depicted in one scene, thus:

I heard the noise of the plane coming in to land. I ran across the airstrip and was in time to watch Arkady get out . . .The golden mop of Marian’s hair followed. She looked deliriously happy. She was in another flowered cotton dress, no less ragged than the others.

‘Hey!’ I shouted. ‘This is wonderful.’

‘Hello, old mate!’ Arkady smiled . . . [he] drew us both into one of his Russian hugs.

‘Let me introduce you to the memsahib?’

‘Married?’

‘Yes.’

‘That is a piece of news!’

‘Isn’t it?’ [Marian] giggled.

It is all a touch too Hollywood at the farthest extremity of the book. These minor misgivings aside, Chatwin’s main exploration of the Songlines offers the reader an insight, via the power of the tradition of oral stories, into ways of being and believing, other than our own. Citing Ted Strehlow, author of Songs of Central Australia, Chatwin writes that he, Strehlow, ‘once compared the study of Aboriginal myths to entering a ‘labyrinth of countless corridors and passages’, all of which were mysteriously connected in ways of baffling complexity.’

Chatwin adds that ‘what makes Aboriginal song so hard to appreciate is the endless accumulation of detail . . . structures of kinship reach out to all living men, to all his fellow creatures, and to the rivers, the rocks and the trees.’ Within The Songlines there is undoubted complexity, as well as the poetic, and there is that accumulation of detail. Chatwin’s legacy is, ultimately, to open up a beginning to our otherness of understanding.
 
 

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