Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines (Franklin Press, 1986)

For Aboriginal Australians songlines are like ancient map routes, linking places in such a way that a person knowing the songline can track even the most barren landscape.

The Songlines is a travelogue in which Chatwin journeys across Central Australia trying to understand the songlines and universalising what he sees in Aboriginal culture to defend his theory that man is essentially a nomadic creature. He leans towards a Noble Savage view of the Aboriginal people, seeing their culture (at least, what remains of it two centuries after colonisation) almost as human culture epitomised. Unfortunately I know so little of Aboriginal culture that I couldn’t say how his descriptions measure up. In any case, it made me feel like I need to do my own road trip to the outback sometime.

Chatwin – a writer and former art critic with Sotheby’s who died of AIDS in 1989 – is an intriguing individual and perhaps the most entertaining part of the book is seeing how he reacts to the various situations in which he finds himself, such as running down a kangaroo for sport, encountering a pub full of occa racists, or trying to overcome the predisposition Aboriginal people have against him as an Englishman. But it is never clear how much of what is told is truth and how much is pure fiction (something that frustrated me all the way through). Large chunks are also non-fiction – the second half of the book has extended extracts from Chatwin’s notebooks, which include personal reflections, anecdotes and quotes from literature, religious texts, anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, evolutionary biology etc. While these may add something, the overall effect is to break the rhythm of the book and after a while they become tiresome.

As the novel goes on it moves further away from the narrative form and further away from its focus on Aboriginality. As it did so, I found it grew increasingly less enjoyable.

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