The Songlines

Bruce Chatwin is well known as a travel writer, author of IN PATAGONIA; he has also written a novel, ON THE BLACK HILL, and a less easily categorized book, THE VICEROY OF OUIDAH, ostensibly a factual account of a nineteenth century slave-trader in Africa but actually a fabrication with a touch of Borges. THE SONGLINES, set in Australia, has something in common with all three of its predecessors. “To call it fiction isn’t strictly true,” Chatwin says, “but to call it nonfiction is an absolute lie.” Its premise is a search for the Songlines, the invisible pathways across Australia which the Aboriginals revere as the Way of their ancestors. Its ambitions are large: a picaresque travelogue which metamorphoses into a theory of the origins of human culture.

Prospective readers of this book should be warned that the theory it espouses is as nutty as any of the best-seller list’s current reports of contact with extraterrestrials. Man was originally nomadic; most of the evils attributed to “human nature” are in fact the result of a sedentary, settled way of life that denies man’s instinct to wander. It is that simple. Such arguments from origins are notoriously suspect (another theory holds that since we are descended from fruit-eating primates, we should maintain a diet that consists almost exclusively of fruit); when they involve a denial of man’s innate capacity for evil, they are not merely foolish but also dangerous.

Chatwin is a witty--if sometimes glib and condescending--social observer. He could easily have written a conventional novel with the material he has here. What he offers instead is a mix of fiction, reportage, and philosophizing, fueled by an enormous appetite for experience. Before he writes his next book, he should turn his sharp eye on himself. His excessive reliance on cliche (“Gasping with disbelief"; “arctic blue eyes"; “weak from laughter"; virtually every page yields a few) betrays an impatience, a restlessness, which may keep a traveler moving but which is fatal to anyone who calls himself a writer.