Monday, 13 April 2015

Book Review - The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

London : The Folio Society, 2010.    (First published in 1987)

There is no doubt that Bruce Chatwin was a very interesting man, although the deeper one looks into his life the less interesting he seems to become. That he was a man in search of something there is no doubt, but as to what it was he was searching for, I'm not sure that in the end even he knew. We can count ourselves lucky that in his searching he found enough material and time to write some fine books.

His major opus was to be a book called The Nomadic alternative, which would encapsulate his theory that nomadism was the natural state of mankind, and it was the nomadic urge that had in fact led to the great civilizations. As Nicholas Shakespeare points out in the forward to this edition of The Songlines, that book never came to fruition, but some of the bones of it can be seen here.

In fact when The Songlines came out there was much confusion about the genre of the work - even now it can be seen nestling on library shelves at classification numbers for Australia, or native religion. Chatwin was always firm in describing the work as fiction: "the journey it describes is an invented journey". Chatwin did in fact spend nine weeks in Central Australia, and Arkady, one of the main protagonists, is based on a real person. Bruce himself is the narrator.

Chatwin has used Bruce's journey in The Songlines as a metaphorical hat on which to hang some of his theories of nomadism and human development. He sets the scene in Alice Springs, a town on the frontier of Black and White Australia, with its casual racism and collection of odd people drawn to the desert. It's Arkady's job to check that the proposed route of the Alice Springs to Darwin railway doesn't disturb any sacred sites. This is the vehicle for Bruce to travel through country learning what he can about Songlines.

Bruce is fascinated by the idea that these songs can allow those that know them to travel over what looks to be trackless wilderness with uncanny accuracy, while also being a Genesis story, and a tribal totem. In fact they are much more than that, and it's possible that no whitefella can ever really delve into all the meanings of one of these songs. Bruce makes no real attempt to go much beneath the surface of any of the songs - whether from respect, or that it is because it is the surface meaning that fits with his theories, is hard to say.

Through the device of a large dump of rain, Bruce is stranded at the (fictional) bush camp of Cullen for a couple of weeks, where he begins to organize his notebooks (Moleskine, as he points out in one of his asides that tend to paint him as a bit of a narcissist). It is here, about halfway through the book, that he begins to expound on his theories, via excerpts from his notebooks: quotes, vignettes from his previous journeys, and his own thinking.

Chatwin's theories build to suggest that the nomadic urge is ingrained into human nature, and that our violence was engendered to keep us safe from our natural predators, the big cats. His notebook entries are eclectic, erudite, and thoughtful, but - to this reader at least - smack a little of hope rather than reason. This section of the book does inspire thought, especially about the primeval beast: why does it appear in every culture, even here in Australia where there were never carnivores that were a threat to man? Why too do civilizations reduce - by words and deeds - their enemies to the status of beast, except to make them easier to kill? Why do we feel the need to do that?

Bruce intersperses his writings with vignettes of life in Cullen, which are mostly there to show that the "noble savage", if he ever existed at all, certainly doesn't exist today in the deserts of Australia - his description of going on a hunting expedition is by turns hilarious and depressing. Apart from an early chapter that describes Bruce's early knowledge of Australia, we know nothing about him, although he likes to find out all about those with whom he comes into contact. Bruce is a cypher, Arkady a crusader, and most other white Australians boorish racists or holier-than-thou do-gooders. Bruce remarks on the strength of the women he meets on his journey: something that I too have noted about Australian women. The Aboriginals are in many ways unknowable - Bruce wants to get into their worldview, but can't.

I first read this book not long after it came out, and came back to it hardly remembering a thing, other than I thought it a deep work at the time. Thirty-odd years have passed, and this book no longer seems to have the gravitas I thought it had, or indeed perhaps that Chatwin sought to give it, and sections seem contrived (how anyone thought this was anything other than a work of fiction is beyond me now). However, it contains some thought-provoking ideas wrapped up in a good story, and is still worth reading, as just that.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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