peteg's blog - noise - books - 2021 05 18 BruceChatwin TheSonglines

Bruce Chatwin: The Songlines. (1987)

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Kindle. Wikipedia claims he hooked Robyn Davidson up with Salman Rushdie in the 1980s and wrote travel lit focusing on nomads. This book was pitched as the result of his time in Central Australia. It reads like non-fiction but Chatwin claims it is intended as fiction.

In any case it's thin gruel: apparently his travels through the Dead Heart and thereabouts yielded less than half a book, and robbed him of the will to process his notebooks of previous jaunts into reader-friendly coherence. Chatwin wears his erudition heavily; the language is often the opposite of George Orwell's unadorned English, and while he was at pains to exhibit his wide exposure to the Western canon, he paid little attention to Australian sources, preferring to recount personal history and self-aggrandising interviews/observations from his travels in Europe.

The central conceit is an attempt to universalise Aboriginal ontology, their connection to land, where (in his view) songs notionally act as some kind of map, to all of human development. We'd call that cultural appropriation now I guess. Another and more defensible theme is that we should walk everywhere, or at least more often.

Some clangers particularly stood out to me. He goes roo hunting with some locals, which quickly descends into the obscene ala Wake in Fright, or, you know, camel abuse. How could he be surprised? Are mulga trees actually "leafless in this season"? And it seemed implausible that "songline" fragments would be assigned before birth, given infant mortality, the possibility of failing initiation, and that the child's gender would be unknown at the time.

Some of it echoes Xavier Herbert, or perhaps the converse in the sense of being fictionalised didacticism rather than didactic fiction. For instance local man Flynn is some kind of genius, something like Prindy. But what is his dreaming? Similarly Ukrainian Arkady, who asserts that Australia would've been so much better off if it had been colonised by a people who weren't scared by expanses of land (i.e., not island people like the British) — leaving the place unexploited by Europeans is, however, not an option. John Hanlon here is Herbert's commie Pat Hannaford. But Chatwin shows no awareness of Herbert.

Reviews and commentary are legion. Goodreads. Many are also irritated by the commingling of fact and fiction. Walter Goodman and Andrew Harvey at the time. The latter speaks of how other Englanders were drawn to Chatwin, how rickety the whole show is, and pulls the choice quote that was stuffed into the mouth of Arkady: "The world, if it has a future, has an ascetic future."

More recent retrospectives: Richard Cooke expands on everything, and observes that Chatwin quickly passed into history. He says Flynn was based on Pat Dodson. Paul Daley also in 2017. Philip Jones too. There are plenty more.

Jones refers to A.P. Elkin's attempt to capture Aboriginal "Dreaming" but neither Jones nor Chatwin make the obvious connection to Plato's cave. There are also echoes of an unchanging Creation, an essential stasis, that is now strongly held by some Christians. It bothers me that no source I've yet found explains why the "songline" knowledge is so sacred or dangerous to share with the uninitiated; as presented here and elsewhere it is survival stuff. Similarly Chatwin's claims that "songlines" are the personal property of individuals that cannot be transferred but can be lent out etc. strikes me as metaphorical at best. Yes, the "songline" concept has never been particularly truthy.