The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

The Songlines by [Chatwin, Bruce]

As I loved On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin I was keen to read The Songlines when the publishers, Open Road Integrated Media, asked if I’d like to read and review this e-book edition. It includes an illustrated biography of Bruce Chatwin including rare images and never-before-seen documents from the author’s estate. The Songlines was originally published in 1987.

It’s set in Australia exploring the ‘Songlines’, the labyrinth of invisible pathways which cross and re-cross Australia, ‘known to Europeans as ‘Dreaming-tracks’ or ‘Songlines’; to the Aboriginals as the Footprints of the Ancestors’ or the ‘Way of the Law’.

On the one hand this is a fascinating account of Chatwin’s visit to Australia to find out about the Songlines and the myths of the legendary totemic beings who sang the world into existence as they wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime. It’s an account of Chatwin’s exploration of the Songlines, in the company of a Russian, Arkady Volchek who was mapping these sacred sites for a railway company so that they could work round the Songlines rather than obliterating them with the railroad.

On the other hand it is much more than that – and this is where I found the book a bit difficult – in the middle of his account of his travels Chatwin throws in a whole hodge-podge of ideas, quotations from numerous writers and philosophers, travel notes, speculations on the origins of life and anecdotes all thrown into the mix before he gets back to writing about his travels and the people he met. I marked lots of passages in the section ‘From the Notebooks‘, particularly on the subject of walking – for example:

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it … but by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill … Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.

Søren Kierkegaarde, letter to Jette (1847)

and on nomads and the nomadic life:

Psychiatrists, politicians, tyrants are forever assuring us that the wandering life is an aberrant form of behaviour; a neurosis; a form of unfulfilled sexual longing; a sickness which, in the interests of civilisation must be suppressed. …

Yet in the East, they still preserve the once universal concept: that wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe.

The Songlines contains beautiful descriptions of the Australian landscape such as this:

A pair of rainbows hung across the valley between the two mountains. The cliffs of the escarpment, which had been a dry red were now a purplish-black and striped like a zebra, with vertical chutes of white water. The cloud seemed even denser than the earth, and beneath its lower rim, the last of the sun broke through, flooding the spinifex with shafts of pale light.

I really don’t know whether this book fits into any particular genre. Chatwin was an author, a novelist and a travel writer – a skilled storyteller. It seems to me that this book combines all these forms of writing. I enjoyed both the account of Chatwin’s experiences in Australia and the long and loosely connected middle section of the book, but would have preferred these to stand on their own rather than be combined in one book.

My thanks to Open Road Integrated Media for a review copy via NetGalley.

  • File Size: 6061 KB
  • Print Length: 281 pages
  • Publisher: Open Road Media (October 18, 2016)
  • Publication Date: October 18, 2016
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B01K6GBLVY

Amazon US link

5 thoughts on “The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin”

  1. The one thing I remember so clearly about this book is Chatwin’s claim that Aboriginal babies rarely cried because they were always being carried at a steady pace and this was something that humans evolutionarily found comforting. When our oldest was born (she’s almost 24 now), my husband put this claim into practice by taking our daughter for long walks whenever she was fussy. It worked!

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  2. It’s a long time since I read ‘On the Black Hill’. I never could decide whether I liked that one! Bruce Chatwin was a complicated man. I am fascinated by aboriginal culture; Songlines should be on my list.

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  3. Never read anything by Bruce Chatwin, even though I like travel books. He’s kind of on my radar though so I must get around to him. Thought I had one of his books but it seems I don’t. Hmm.

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