The Songlines

The Songlines - Bruce Chatwin There was plenty in this book that irritated me, and at times, yes things that fascinated me. Indeed, this book is saved from a one star rating for the simple reason that I found what was conveyed about Australian Aborigine culture and their “Songlines” fascinating. When Chatwin kept to his personal observations of the people of the Outback, whether of European extraction or Aboriginal, I was riveted. I have to admit this book did what the best books do--inspire me to read more on the subject--but alas even fifteen years after this book’s publication there’s blessed little to be found on the subject of Aborigine culture easily accessible to the general reader--that you can find by browsing the neighborhood bookstore or library. This book is easily the best known. I recently read Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country and Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and both spoke of the Aborigines of Australia as one of the oldest cultures; it was claimed they had been basically unchanged since humans became a behaviorally distinct species--at least until European settlement ended their isolation. As such, they’ve long fascinated anthropologists as a possible window into human pre-history. Chatwin believed they’re a key to a past when humans were constantly on the move, prey to the “Great Beast,” a sabre-tooth cat for whom we were their favorite meal. The “songlines” or “dreaming tracks” are songs that mark routes which the Aborigines believe were walked by the Ancestor totems and must be followed and sung to keep the land alive. The very melody and rhythm of the song can mark direction and distance. Chatwin described songlines as "the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known ... to the Aboriginals as the 'Footprints of the Ancestors' or the 'Way of the Law'.” So songlines are myth, law, trade routes and maps--even land deeds. Chatwin believed all cultures had their songlines, often preserved in their myths. All good. The problem is I find Chatwin maddeningly meandering and unreliable. He himself said that. “To call The Songlines fiction is misleading. To call it non-fiction is an absolute lie.” He doesn’t distinguish clearly in his text between one and the other. Worse, according to the introduction by Rory Stewart, who admired Chatwin’s books, “he inserted images and symbols, from other poems, painting, and myths, copied other people’s sentences and structures”--and without attribution. Stewart doesn’t use the word, but by any other name this is plagiarism--to me a writer’s greatest sin. According to Stewart, Chatwin wouldn’t hesitate to distort and invent in the stories of his travels in order to call up parallels and allusions to classic works. The people who appear in the book are mostly based on real people--but let’s just say that even according to the man who wrote the introduction to this book, well, you shouldn’t judge the people by the portrait, and it’s probably kind that in many cases Chatwin changed their names and personal details. The other thing that drove me batty was the section “From the Notebook” which took up about a third of the book. Chatwin carried his notes in moleskin notebooks, and considered them more precious than his passport. Unfortunately he felt the need to share excerpts with us--at length--that mostly consisted of quotations from other books, what comes down to lecture notes, and vignettes from other travels. This is mostly where he details his anthropological theories about the origins of language, the nomadic nature of humans and our predation by the “Great Beast” and what it meant for human culture. Stewart called Chatwin “erudite” but for me especially here he comes across to me as a poseur. He never really pulls his theories together. It’s all very scattershot. So, is the book worth reading? Sorta. I’m rather glad I did because the picture of the Aborigines intrigued me and left me wanting to know more, but I was constantly wishing I was reading a more solidly factual book on them.