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A great, thoughtful read, stimulating, observing, searching for many answers.....
A mixture of philosophical thinking and suggestion, formed from insightful discoveries, and a real-life voyage of personal encounters into Australia. Fascinating revelations about the Aboriginees and their 'Songlines' - connected to mapping and navigating the country and territories. Also, their sacred mysteries, ancestors of the 'Dreamtime'.
The book holds Chatwin's passive, entertaining observations of characters + incidents, and revelatory thoughts about the nature of nomadism in mankind, across the world and back through the Ages. It finds much weight to support the memorable truth that we are not yet 'settlers' to any happy extent. Excellent body of quotations. Memorable accounts. The nature of song.
For someone not familiar with this topic, I was grateful for this intriguing introduction to these amazing, nomadic survivors, and some well-meaning, willing, attentive white friends. It's all quite loose and fragmented, but the mix is still interesting and demonstrates the insight gained from adventuring.
Last year I spotted a great item at a collectors fair; hidden underneath a table in a box containing all kinds of unusual items I found a beautifully framed work of art which, to the untrained eye, might just look like a pretty abstract arrangement of coloured dots. In actual fact it is a visual interpetation of a "songline" - a common theme in "aboriginal art" (for want of a better expression, as I believe correctness of the term is again under discussion)
WHAT IS A "SONGLINE"?
Songlines are inextricably linked to the aboriginal concept of "The Dreaming"; the Aboriginals believe that the world is created from the interaction of eternal patterns and forms. Aboriginals all over Australia know the story of the rainbow snake - this is the best known of the forms which make up The Dreaming - the legend holds that the rainbow snake left part of its spirit on earth and part of this spirit can be found in everything in the world.
An Aboriginal adult is responsible for a part of the dreaming potential and this is usually manifests itself as a "songline". In their most basic sense, the songlines connect good sources of water and places sacred to the Aboriginals. Australia is basically a complex web of these invisible songlines; some are short, others can stretch the length of the country.
A songline is a kind of musical map; the rhythms and cadences of the music represent the pitch of the land - it is possible also to represent lakes, stones, trees. So intricate are the songlines that it is possible to know - because you know its songline - a place hundreds of miles away that you've never been to. If you can interpret the song you will know that the place is the place of five rivers where there are two medium-sized hills just after the large collection of rocks - clever, huh? Similarly, if you find yourself lost, you can identify the landscape and then try to match it to a songline (assuming, that is, you know enough songlines).
The crucial thing is that in order for this tradition to continue Aborigines must continue to walk the land affirming the songlines and must ensure that they are sung regularly to pass them down for future generations. Furthermore, the real threat of development - industrial, recreational and residential, puts the songlines at risk. It is at this point that Bruce Chatwin's highly regarded work "The Songlines" begins.
It is important, before I discuss the book itself, to say a few words about the author. While many people know about Bruce Chatwin's untimely death, they know little about his background before becoming a successful author. Chatwin left an impressive career at Sotheby's because of a psychosomatic eye complaint and took this unexpected opportunity to study architecture. During his studies he made several field visits to Africa and Afghanistan and it was during these trips that he had the idea of writing a comprehensive theory of nomadology - his overwhelming interest. He believed that man's natural instinct is to be nomadic and that this has been put to the back of the human consciousness and people have become more settled.
"The Songlines" is the result of one aspect of the work Chatwin undertook to examine nomadic societies and ethnology.
"The Songlines" is not written in a conventional way and may challenge some readers; others hoping to read a straight travelogue which offers an insight into the reality facing Aborigines in Australia may also be disappointed. There is a travelogue element to the book but this is only a small part of it; intersperse it with verbal interpretations of the some of the songlines and stories from Aboriginal folklore, and a huge section based on Chatwin's many notebooks compiled on his numerous travels and you're just about there.
The travelogue part basically covers the time when Chatwin accompanied Arkady, a "white advocate" to the Aborigines, on a research trip to some of the communities; the aim of the trip is to work with the Aboriginals, using the songlines, to help oil companies map out where they can work without affecting sacred sites. At times they encounter hostility, but overall this is an account of how Chatwin learnt how technological progress has affected, and still does, the lives and traditions of Aboriginal people in Australia.
The verbal representations of the songlines are a delight to read and help the reader to better understand just what a songline is and how the various natural elements fit into the tradition.
But the notes section is perhaps the challenging part of the book. Here Chatwin has used the contents of the notebooks he filled whilst travelling to illustrate some of the themes running through the book. Some are his own musings - some he expands on, others appear just as the notes he jotted, others are from ancient and modern philosophers and others are from literary works. All are pertinent to the focus of "The Songlines" - some are easier to see than others: some become clear as Chatwin embarks on the conclusion to the book.
The use of these different styles is unconventional in a book of this kind which leans heavily towards the academic. I had expected something a little lighter but was pleasantly surprised to find the challenge of the philosophical aspects to the book. making it meatier than the travel writing I usually read. However, to make it easier to digest the jottings I would have preferred to have encountered them throughout the book and at times fitting each one than be bombarded with many pages worth and be left to organise the author's thoughts myself (I'm too lazy to do that , you see).
This book would certainly appeal to anyone interested in ethnology , history or anthropology. People who enjoy philosophy would also enjoy the challenges Chatwin poses. I was reminded of Alain de Botton's work "The Art of Travel" and I would consider it an excellent companion to this work. It is a book which requires concentration and the desire of the reader to stretch themselves a bit further. You want boomerangs, the Sydney Opera House and Ayers Rock - check out Bill Bryson. Chatwin really makes you think in a way Bryson never will. Go on, try expanding your mind Chatwin style.
This review is dedicated to Jill Murphy who is much missed here and who first suggested I should read some of Bruce Chatwin's work. Thanks Jill!
This review appears edited elsewhere under the name "fizzytom"
The songlines are invisible pathways that criss-cross Australia, ancient tracks connecting communities and following ancient boundaries. Along these lines, Aboriginals passed the songs which revealed the creation of the land and the secrets of its past. In this magical account, Chatwin recalls his travels across the length and breadth of Australia seeking to find the truth about the songs and unravel the mysteries of their stories.