Bruce Chatwin is justly famous for his celebrated travel book, In Patagonia (1977). In general, The Songlines follows the narrative patterns of memoir and travel description established by that book, but it differs markedly from In Patagonia by consciously employing certain fictional elements (as, for example, Chatwin’s deliberate invention of one aboriginal myth). This intentional blurring of documented reality and imaginary creation occurs also in Chatwin’s less renowned book, The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980). Chatwin has further complicated the difficulty of classifying The Songlines by insisting in a postpublication interview in The New York Times Book Review that “to call it [The Songlines] fiction isn’t strictly true, but to call it nonfiction is an absolute lie.” The ordinary reader, however, need not be deterred by these considerations; it is enough, perhaps, to recognize the uniqueness of The Songlines and to appreciate its rich blending of genres and narrative styles. Besides, Chatwin’s material is inherently fascinating, and he keeps this complex book under control by subordinating all of its various elements to the general theme of nomadism.
Traditionally, historians and anthropologists have argued that human civilization began roughly ten thousand years ago with the advent of the agricultural revolution—a massive redefinition of life-style that occurred primarily in the Fertile Crescent and in places such as the ancient city of Jericho. These scholars have maintained that the very condition of permanent residence allowed the free development of agriculture, laws, writing, occupational specialities (such as farmers, shoemakers, and potters), medicine, and astronomy. In this view, nomads (the people who preceded the farmers) were little more than Paleolithic tramps who wandered aimlessly from place to place without contributing anything substantial to the record of human accomplishment.
Chatwin turns this traditional view on its head by insisting that the end of the nomadic era marked the beginning of genuine human decline, as shown by the wars, famine, slavery, poverty, and pollution of “civilized” life. The Songlines is a beguiling mixture of ethnography, journalism, and polemical tract in which Chatwin shares his unique view of the world, a view that has to be taken seriously since Chatwin (a world-class travel writer on a par with such authors as Graham Greene and Paul Theroux) bases his thesis on his experiences in Patagonia, Africa, and Australia.
Chatwin’s fascination with nomads began when—at his doctor’s orders—he left his job as an art auctioneer in London and retreated to the desert fastness of Africa. After a series of adventures and misadventures, he found himself traveling with a Beja nomad named Mahmoud. From this one man, Chatwin has learned the mystique of the desert and the religious simplicity of the nomadic life:We had three camels, two for riding and one for waterskins, yet usually we preferred to walk. He went barefoot; I was in boots. I never saw anything like the lightness of his step and, as he walked, he sang: a song, usually, about a girl from the Wadi Hammamat who was lovely as a green parakeet. The camels were his only property. He had no flocks and wanted none. He was immune to everything we would call “progress.”
According to Chatwin, nomads are “the crankhandle of history”: All the great monotheistic religions—and all the great myths—derive from nomadic peoples, including the impoverished aborigines of Australia. Chatwin has read voraciously about them; his hunger for a deeper understanding of this last great nomadic people brings him to the outback of Australia and the dusty, hardscrabble town of Alice Springs.
In Alice Springs, he meets Arkady Volchok, a first-generation Russian intellectual whose rough exterior belies his fluent understanding of native languages and myths. Arkady is a kind of Renaissance man, one who can walk one hundred miles into the bush with only a canteen of water and a few sandwiches for sustenance, then return home and hammer out the neat progressions of Johann Sebastian Bach and Dietrich Buxtehude on his harpsichord. Arkady, a former schoolteacher, has become a kind of interpreter for the Walbiri tribe and a self-taught scholar of aboriginal myths in general. He offers to take Chatwin along as he tries to find a safe route for a new railroad line that will cut into the heart of the Australian bush. Arkady’s job is to identify the “traditional landowners” and discover if any mythological sites occur there. As Arkady explains to Chatwin, however, the undertaking is somewhat quixotic since, from the native point of view, “the whole of bloody Australia’s a sacred site.”
Chatwin’s odyssey takes him deeper and deeper into the Australian continent; in the process, he encounters a series of memorable and unmistakable Australian types, such as lonely and eccentric Jim Hanlon, a...
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