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Last Reviewed 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...

(The entire section contains 1220 words.)

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