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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 363

Bruce Chatwin's 1987 novel The Songlines tells the story of a trip Chatwin took to Australia and is partly fictional, while including many non-fiction events. Chatwin was a travel writer and went to Australia to gather first-hand knowledge of the Aboriginal culture, specifically the Songline that defines their nomadic travel patterns.

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Chatwin has the opportunity to discuss with both Australians and the Indigenous peoples of Australia, and through those conversations, he learns about their culture, religion, and struggles between the two groups, particularly within land rights.

In order to safely and effectively move throughout the region, Chatwin hires Arkady Volchok, an Australian-born Russian man who has spent his life befriending the Aboriginal people. Volchok is able to introduce Chatwin to Aboriginal people as they move from village to village and is instrumental in getting Chatwin enough access to the people to effectively develop his thesis.

Chatwin is fascinated by the idea of a Songline, a song that was written by the Aboriginal Ancestors as they moved across the lands. They used these songs to paint a picture of their world, community, and people. Chatwin studied nomadic people from around the globe and found that many languages had begun with songs. Through his research, he finds many similarities between the Aboriginal culture and that of many early groups. Chatwin is disappointed to find some Australians who are dismissive of the Aboriginal culture and want to see it destroyed.

Volchok is called away to help settle an argument between two Aboriginal groups, and Chatwin is left to spend time with fellow academics, Wendy and Rolf. Chatwin reflects on what he's learned so far from the Aboriginal people and begins to piece together his thesis. While he considers what he's learned, and how the Aboriginal culture seems to fall in line with other early peoples, Chatwin determines that people are meant to peacefully explore the earth. They are supposed to see the world and describe it using song. Instead, we have built civilizations, which we are quick to protect, leading to violence and a lack of understanding of the earth. Chatwin believes man has lost the connection he once had with his innate rhythms and nature itself.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 857

The Songlines is generally considered Bruce Chatwin’s masterpiece, even though its form is difficult to categorize. It certainly is an adventure story, but it is also a novel of ideas; it combines, although to a lesser extent than In Patagonia, many of the identical literary, historical, and philosophical techniques, such as anecdote, biography, autobiography, anthropological case study, and other similar methods of inquiry. The book includes a previously unpublished anthropological study called “The Nomadic Alternative,” which had arisen from Chatwin’s journeys to Africa and South America.

Some critics have labeled The Songlines a metaphysical novel that interweaves Chatwin’s experiences in the Australian outback with philosophical meditations on the dark future of Western civilization. It resembles In Patagonia in that it can be read as a long meditation upon the ruins of the prelogical civilization of the Aboriginals, who now dwell in the fallen world of time and permanent location and, as a result, have lost their visionary consciousness. Their reaction to being restricted to a particular space has resulted in alcoholism of epidemic proportions.

Readers familiar with Chatwin’s recurring concern will encounter it again in this work. As in In Patagonia, Chatwin believes that humankind’s original pristine state was as nomadic travelers rather than as settlers in a permanent location. What obsessed him for more than twenty years was the destructive territorialism that permanent ownership breeds. Mircea Eliade demonstrated in dozens of books that humankind has derived its sense of the sacred from symbolic centers in which the divine and the human intersect. These points of intersection (Calvary, for example) then become permanent centers of significance or shrines around which civilizations are built. People, then, derive their identities from their proximity to permanent sacred places.

What troubled Chatwin was that the definition of the sacred among the natives of the Australian outback differs radically from Christian theologians insofar as Aboriginal sacred places cover the earth and derive their sacred status and identity from the human imaginations that “sing” them into existence. The poetry of that idea and the idea of that kind of poetry drove him to pursue an arduous and sometimes dangerous trip into one of the world’s most remote and desolate areas.

The narrator finds a brilliant Russian, Arkady Volchok, an Australian citizen, to guide him through the outback. Arkady’s job is to map the sacred sites of the Aboriginals so that the national railroad system will not infringe upon those areas. Volchok becomes Chatwin’s highly informed guide throughout the journey. What he discovers is in enormous contrast to the usual Judeo-Christian creation narrative, and the narrator’s dramatic confrontation with these stunning differences becomes the energy that drives the story along. Volchok leads Chatwin through the elaborate cosmology of the natives consisting of the “Dreaming-tracks,” or “Songlines,” that are the footprints of the ancestors as they crisscrossed the land for ten thousand years singing the world into existence. As these ancient totemic ancestors traveled nomadically through the land, they scattered a trail of words and songs along their footprints, known as “Dreaming-tracks,” which became paths of communication among the most distant tribes. By naming in song all significant objects or features of the landscape, the ancestors called all things into existence. Chatwin found that, once again, nature followed art in that the Greek word from which “poem” derives is “poesis,” which means “to make or create.” The “Walkabout,” then, became a ritual journey to keep the land in its original condition and, thus, re-create Creation. Nothing was there until the Ancestors, the great poets and singers, brought it into existence from out of their own minds and souls. The narrator delights in both the similarities and the differences between the primary wisdom of the European Holy Grail quest (“The king and the land are one”) and the core of the Aboriginal cosmology (“The song and the land are one”).

Later, in talking to an ex-Benedictine Aboriginal named Father Flynn, Chatwin finally hears articulated what he has suspected for twenty years: Once people settled into one place, everything began to disintegrate. The people had to keep moving in such barren land: “To move in such landscape was survival: to stay in the same place was suicide.” A good third of the book consists of Chatwin’s notes from his journal, most of which are quotations from a range of philosophers, spiritual leaders, and writers such as the Buddha, Meister Eckehart, the biblical writers, Shakespeare, Martin Buber, Arthur Koestler, William Blake, and many, many others. He concludes the book with salient quotations from Giambattista Vico, the linguistic philosopher Otto Jespersen, and finally the great German existentialist Martin Heidegger. Arkady takes him to witness the final hours of three ancient Aboriginals who are dying together on their shared totemic songline behind a large rock in the middle of a desert. They are “going back” into the place of their conception so that they may become “the Ancestor.”

Chatwin was terminally ill as he finished this book, and though the book’s organization is weakest at its conclusion, his sensual writing style is as lucid as anything he ever wrote.

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