Friday, 10 April 2009

The Songlines - Bruce Chatwin

Read: July 2008

In 1987, Bruce Chatwin published The Songlines. It went straight to number one and spent the next eleven months residing in the Sunday Times top ten. Part fictionalised travelogue, part metaphysical exploration of the nomadic lifestyle, Chatwin writes with real passion and conviction about one of the most fascinating and romantic of Aboriginal mythologies. The Songlines stretch across Australia, invisible pathways which criss-cross the land telling stories of ancestral journeys and the creation of the terrain itself. The Songlines charts Bruce Chatwin’s journey to unravel their meanings, and understand their significance.

We join Bruce as he arrives in Alice Springs. In an art shop there he comes across the commonplace perception of Aboriginal culture: the white westerner buying a piece of Aboriginal artwork to take home and demonstrate their romantic anthropological experience. But Bruce is having none of that. He meets a Russian/Australian man named Arkady who works for the railway company, and joins him as he journeys through various tribal lands, meeting elders and trying to find a way of building a railway which does not cross the songlines. Over the course of the journey, Bruce speaks with all sorts of Aborigines, as well as many of the people who work with them. The picture he builds of their amazing songlines both debunks some of the new age mysticism that surrounds them, and at the same time manages to make them even more remarkable than you could ever have imagined.

So that is where we are half way through the book. So far, so good. In fact, so far, great! The tale is involving, packed full of fascinating information, and human stories. But then Bruce Chatwin decides to tie in the lessons he has learnt about the songlines with his grandiose notions of the importance of nomadic lifestyle to the human psyche. So suddenly we get some sort of unedited slush pile of all the notes he has taken over the years for a book he never published. From a fascinating travel journal, the book becomes a dense socio-philosophical treatise on the glories of travel.

“Our nature lies in movement, complete calm is death.”
Pascal, Pensees

“To live in one land, is captivitie,
To Runne all countries, a wild roguery”
John Donne, Third Elegie

“He who does no travel does not know the value of men.”
Moorish Proverb

“This life is a hospital in which each sick man is possessed by a desire to change beds. One would prefer to suffer by the stove. Another believes he would recover if he sat by the window.
I think I would be happy in that place I happen not to be, and this question of moving house is the subject of a perpetual dialogue I have with my soul.”
Baudelaire, ‘Any Where Out of this World!’

There are some fascinating quotes, in fact there are hundreds of quotes gleamed from across history. These sort of musings infuse the notebooks completely. Through a mixture of cultural anthropology, personal experience, and philosophy, Chatwin advances the argument that man originated as a nomad, and that is how he is happiest. Just as babies are calmed by the motion of their parents’ walk, so the human psyche at all ages, finds contentment and peace in movement. And this movement, not just in Australia but across the world, has left its mark on the earth, in stories and songs and culture. It is our collective history, and a lesson in our future.

However, his theories do go on. When I picked up The Songlines, this is not what I really expected. It is hard work at times, and the logic of the argument isn’t completely convincing. But no-one can deny the passion of his argument, nor the energy with which he conveys it.

The Songlines is a celebration of travel and the constant search for experience, and beauty, and meaning. If you have the travel bug, then you will love this book, it is an absolute must read. Or if, like me, you don’t but are fascinated by the almost vicelike grip it holds on some people, then it is an equally fascinating investigation into the mindset of travelling. The Songlines is a book that many, many people have absolutely loved. And with a beautiful set of newly issued jackets, Bruce Chatwin is ready for a whole new generation of readers to discover him anew.

Not just a fascinating investigation into the Aboriginal Songlines, this is Bruce Chatwin’s treatise on the imperative to travel which is common across humankind. Passionately argued and packed full of great quotes, this is one of the biggest selling travel books of all time.

7 out of 10

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