Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Songlines is a book by English writer Bruce Chatwin. The first distinctive quality of The Songlines is Chatwin's hybridization of fiction and nonfiction. The first major theme of the book is the Aboriginal culture of Australia. The main theme of the book is Chatwin's reportage in the rural Australian territories in order to document the songs of Aboriginal peoples and those songs' relations to nomadic travel.
The other major theme of the book is the ethnographic study of the Australian Outback, mainly pertaining to the indigenous peoples, the Aborigines. Chatwin studied the indigenous culture in particular locales of Australia despite his original research only pertaining to songs. The more Chatwin traveled, the more cultural artifacts he recorded. For example, the book features details about the Aboriginal religion and customs. Chatwin attempts to trace the Aborigines' cultural roots back to Africa, and believes that their nomadic lifestyle lead to songlines and dreamlines, which were spread as they traveled eastward from the African Savannah.
Another theme of the book is the concept of the "songlines" themselves, which is what Chatwin had wanted to research when he arrived in the Outback. Chatwin explores the philosophical and religious importance of indigenous songs that have been passed down through many generations. Chatwin concludes that the songs are the indigenous peoples' way of establishing their reality. From the perspective of the Aborigines, their folklore and mythology are very much in harmony with physical reality—or the reality that we interpret through our senses—and that songs are a way to articulate that reality. In this regard, the songs are similar to bible verses and hymns that poetically articulate messages regarding human-divine dynamics.
Another theme in the novel is the Aborigines' land rights movement during the twentieth century. The indigenous people of Australia have been fighting—literally and politically—for their ancestral land from the European colonizers since the beginning of their land's occupation. Chatwin examines the history of political movements within the indigenous communities through discussions with interviewees, which Chatwin then incorporated into the fictional segments of the book.