The Songlines

Bruce Chatwin

Read September, 2006

Bruce Chatwin's book is ostensibly an examination of the Australian Aboriginal notion of the Songline: a song that relates a series of geographical locations ranging from one coast to another, tied to the (mythical) creation of an animal, that in a variety of languages unified by tune sings out the geography of the route. He explores this abstract concept through the agency of Arkady and a cast of other Whites who live and work amongst the Aborigines in the harsh heart of Australia, defending their rights and interpreting their rites.

That, ostensibly, is what Songlines is about. What it really is is Chatwin's rambling, discursive, ultimately brilliant exploration of territory, nomadism, and the the origin of violence in humans. Some have labeled his account presumptuous, but I find it wholly intriguing. While Chatwin repeatedly engages in pop-anthropology of dubious quality, what impressed me was the breadth of his imagination and his willingness to set it down in prose. He may give his views a little too much importance, but this does not detract from their scope.

As a book, this is a rather odd concoction. I expected it to be a spiritual ramble, but it is in fact a direct account of his travels in Australia. When he is trapped by rains, he plunders his accumulated notebooks, and sets down what is effectively his own Walkabout, the series of episodic meditations that are the real focus of the book.

Chatwin's Rousseauvian worldview (pg. 133) and rough-and-ready anthropology are not to everyone's taste, his exchange with Konrad Lorenz (!) is odd, and the book has been controversial for his sometimes-fictitious accounts of the Aborigines. Despite that this is an ambitious book, and if you ignore that the Aboriginal veneer, it is at once more compelling than almost all the travel writing that populates bookshelves put together.