Monthly Archives: August 2014

Patterns: Wilde, Kerouac, Baudelaire

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things I enjoy most about reading literature is spotting patterns across genres, cultures and times. It’s fascinating to see how great writers and poets, separated by wide chasms of every manner, are struck by the same abstract thought, and then crystallise into words, depending upon the dictates of their own personal voice. Yesterday, I was reading Oscar Wilde’s bitingly funny The Importance of Being Ernest, when I came across this line:

“It is always painful to part from people whom one has known for a very brief space of time. The absence of old friends one can endure with equanimity. But even a momentary separation from anyone to whom one has just been introduced is almost unbearable.”

When spoken by a character who bears more than a passing resemblance to Harry from The Picture of Dorian Gray, these words are more than half-jest. I’ve found that quite a few of Wilde’s most profound insights are delivered in the language of jest. In any event, this immediately reminded me of two other writers, each as different from the other as they are from Wilde.

In On the Road, Jack Kerouac writes: “A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.”  These words are written (or perhaps more accurately, spoken) about a woman he has met, quite literally, on the road, two minutes before. Kerouac’s spontaneous prose is a world away from Wilde’s clipped, manicured and elegantly-constructed lines, and yet the sentiment is quite identical.

The unique tragedy of a transient meeting, where – paradoxically – the depth of feeling depends upon its very transience (because of the supreme scope it leaves to the imagination!), is – in my view – most beautifully described by Baudelaire, in the famous A Une Passante (‘To a Passerby”). The last six lines of the sonnet – which is about a single glimpse of a woman, which the poet catches in a passing crowd – are:

A lightning flash… then night! Fleeting beauty
By whose glance I was suddenly reborn,
Will I see you no more before eternity?

Elsewhere, far, far from here! too late! never perhaps!
For I know not where you fled, you know not where I go,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!

Previously, I’ve discussed how this poem’s sentiment resembles the troubadour concept of “amor de lonh” (“love from afar”), where the very strength of desire is founded upon the impossibility of its fulfillment. Walter Benjamin, writing about this poem, says that “this is the look… of an object of a love… of which one might not infrequently say that it was spared, rather than denied, fulfilment”, and that “the never marks the high point of the encounter, when the poet’s passion seems to be frustrated but in reality bursts out of him like a flame.”

Benjamin also says that “it is a farewell forever which coincides in the poem with a moment of enchantment.” The idea of an eternal parting, that follows upon a moment’s communion, is the other, dominant sentiment of A Une Passante, and this is where the obvious similarities with Kerouac and Wilde come in. In many ways, this is akin to non-fulfillment. Both situations involve a paradox – things that we think are antithetical to love or desire here become their apotheoses. Both are, ultimately, about the failure of passion to achieve its goal – and that is exactly the point. And yet, the sentiment is subtly different. In amor de lonh, and the first reading of A Une Passante, desire is defined by the very impossibility of fulfillment. In Wilde, Kerouac, and the second reading of A Une Passante, it is, on the other hand, the tantalising possibilities that a moment’s meeting allow the imagination to play with, that form the core of the feeling. Both, in their own way, count pain as an essential component of true depth of feeling.

The richness of A Une Passante – and how it gives one new things to think about on each reading, and how so many diverse writings seem to lead back to it – never ceases to amaze me!

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Filed under Beat Generation, Charles Baudelaire, England, French poetry, Jack Kerouac, Oscar Wilde

The Tempest and A Tempest

I’ve always been drawn to Caliban. From an early reading of The Tempest, I came away with the impression that he was wronged and misunderstood, more sinned against than singing. The impression was reinforced last year, when I watched a fabulous performance of the play at Shakespeare’s Globe. Caliban stole the show. “… that when I waked/ I cried to dream again…” was delivered with all the captive longing and pathos that I had always imagined. Caliban’s outrage at his treatment by Prospero seemed both genuine and justified, and his desire for revenge founded on good cause (if a trifle disproportionate). I began to wonder if it was possible to interpret the play (within the constraints of its text and structure) as an indictment of colonialism, even though Shakespeare himself might not have intended it to be so.

Recently, however, I read Aime Cesaire’s postcolonial retelling, titled A Tempest, before going back and re-reading the original. It is only when you read Cesaire’s version that the colonial tropes and prejudices in Shakespeare’s play actually begin to stand out. Cesaire takes almost every scene that is steeped in stereotypes about the colonial native, and then “writes back” to Shakespeare. The juxtaposition makes for some fascinating reading.

In The Tempest, Caliban features prominently in four scenes. He is first mentioned in the middle of Act I, Scene II, when Prospero refers to him (off-stage) to Ariel as “a freckled whelp hag-born–not honour’d with/ A human shape.” Prospero next speaks of him to Miranda, observing that  “we cannot miss him: he does make our fire,/ Fetch in our wood and serves in offices/ That profit us.” When Caliban does enter – unwillingly – and insults Prospero for calling him out, Prospero’s response is that of a petty and vindictive slave-master: For this, be sure, to-night thou shalt have cramps,/ Side-stitches that shall pen thy breath up; urchins/ Shall, for that vast of night that they may work,/ All exercise on thee; thou shalt be pinch’d/ As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging/ Than bees that made ’em.” Caliban’s response is defiance. He insists that the island belonged to him, and that Prospero took it from him by deceit, before shutting him up in a rock, to be let out only to serve his masters.

At this point – in the mind of the reader – Prospero seems to be having the worse of the exchange, at least in moral terms. The prejudice seems to be in his mind, and he has more or less admitted to practicing extractive colonialism – exploiting the resources of the colonised land by making the native work it. Caliban himself has used the vocabulary of the coloniser to lay claim to the land by virtue of being its original inhabitant.

The moral tables are then turned very abruptly, through two exchanges. In response to Caliban, Prospero insists that he treated him well, until Caliban tried to rape Miranda. Caliban’s answer is a proud acknowledgment – “O ho, O ho! would’t had been done!/ Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else/ This isle with Calibans.” A disgusted Prospero then points to his attempts to teach Caliban language, to which the latter replies: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t/ Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!

I am reminded here of Byron’s lines from The Isles of Greece: “You have the letters Cadmus gave/ Think you he meant them for a slave?” Language is ever the first marker of the transition from savagery to civilisation. Sex and language – the two most effective tools possible – have been used to dehumanise Caliban. He is the savage native who has no idea about sexual propriety – going so far as to attempt to rape the white man’s daughter – and nor can he be bothered to educate himself into civilisation, except under duress.

In A Tempest, Prospero makes precisely the same claims. That Caliban (who is a black slave) makes, however, a very different response: “In the first place, that”s not true. You didn’t teach me a thing! Except to jabber in your own language so that I could understand your orders: chop the wood, wash the dishes, fish for food, plant vegetables, all because you’re too lazy to do it yourself.” Here, language is no longer the universal market of civilisation, but an alien imposition upon a local inhabitants, who were fully able to communicate before the arrival of the coloniser – in their own language. The point is driven home by Caliban later in the scene, where he renounces his own name – “Caliban” – as a creation of Prospero’s.

“Call me X. That would be best. Like a man without a name. Or, to be more precise, a man whose name has been stolen. You talk about history… well that’s history, and everyone knows it! Everytime you summon me, it reminds me of a basic fact, the fact that you’ve stolen everything from me, even my identity! Uhuru!”

Only, of course, “everyone” doesn’t know it. The readers of Shakespeare’s The Tempest certainly don’t. Caliban’s lines go beyond simply rejecting Prospero’s claims to language, but are about reclamation: the reclamation of a history that the coloniser is determined to destroy in order to justify his rule, going so far as to assume the God-like prerogatives of (re-)naming his subjects – but which the colonised is equally determined to preserve.

The response to the rape claim is considerably more ambiguous. Caliban does not deny it explicitly. He says, instead:

 “Rape! Rape! Listen, you old goat, you’re the one that put those dirty thoughts in my head. Let me tell you something: I couldn’t care less about your daughter, or about your cave, for that matter. If I gripe, it’s on principle, because I didn’t like living with you at all, as a matter of fact. Your feet stink!”

So, did or did not the Caliban of A Tempest attempt to rape Miranda? I think Cesaire deliberately leaves the question hanging, because he is concerned to address another colonial trope: the European woman as an object of uncontrollable fascination for the native (which is what leads to the attempted rape). Here, Cesaire makes Caliban assert the contrary: “I couldn’t care less about your daughter.” Whether it is false or true is besides the point: the fact that Caliban is able to say it at all is what is significant.

Let us return to Shakespeare’s Caliban. We next meet him in Act II, Scene 2, where he comes upon the clowns Trinculo and Stepano, and persuades them to supplant Prospero by force. He does so by cozening up to Trinculo: “I’ll kiss thy foot; I’ll swear myself thy subject”, while presumable intoxicated. The image of the sly, ingratiating oriental, too weak to fight honourably from the front, is in full display here. When Caliban ends the scene with “‘Ban, ‘Ban, Cacaliban/ Has a new master: get a new man./ Freedom, hey-day! hey-day, freedom! freedom,/ hey-day, freedom!“, it is the pathetic cry of a drunkard, more to be pitied than anything else.

In the same scene in A Tempest, the nakedly colonial ambitions of Trinculo and Stepano are clear from the outset. On first discovering Caliban (asleep), Trinculo says: “Ah, an Indian! Dead or alive? Yóu never know with these tricky races. Yukkk! Anyhow, this will do me fine. If he’s dead, I can use his clothes for shelter, for a coat, a tent, a covering. If he’s alive I’ll make him my prisoner and take him back to Europe and then, by golly, my fortune will be made! I’ll sell him to a carnival.” When Caliban does wake, like his namesake, he recruits Trinculo and Stepano to his cause by promising them the rule of the island after they have dispatched Prospero. This, however, is not a drunk Caliban, but a very sober one, strategising how best to take back his lost land. The difference is illustrated starkly by the song Cesaire’s Caliban sings: it is a song about the beauty of the island – about the quetzal, the hummingbird, the ringdove, and the white blossoms; so when he ends – like his Shakespearean namesake – with “Freedom hi-day! Freedom hi-day!”, it is not the meaningless gibberish of a drunk, but an actual call for reclaiming all the freedom that was sung of and lost.

 In Act III, Scene 2, we meet Caliban again, leading on Stepano and Trinculo, playing one against the other in his sly way. This scene, though, shows Caliban at his most human: his discomfiture when Ariel arrives to play tricks upon the party cannot but evoke sympathy; here too, are his most memorable lines of the play:
“Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again…”
In a way, this reminded me of “Hath not a Jew eyes…?“, from The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare is never willing to dehumanise his characters entirely. Just like he allows Shylock a sliver of humanity by giving him that memorable speech, forged in white-hot anger, here he makes Caliban a poet. But ultimately, much like Shylock’s speech, this plays a scant role in the overall scheme of things. In Act IV, Caliban’s murderous plan is foiled by Ariel, and he, Trinculo and Stepano are discomfited. We see him for the last time in the final Act, in a position of abject surrender (another trope: the native, dangerous until defeated, and then begging for mercy). Prospero has a last crack at him, saying: “He is as disproportion’d in his manners/ As in his shape. Go, sirrah, to my cell;/ Take with you your companions; as you look/ To have my pardon, trim it handsomely.” Caliban’s response reflects his defeat, but goes beyond that: also an understanding that Prospero is his superior in every respect, and his resistance was futile to start with: “Ay, that I will; and I’ll be wise hereafter/ And seek for grace.”

In A Tempest, the confrontation takes an entirely different form. When Caliban comes to attack Prospero, the latter walks out unarmed, and dares him to strike. “Go on! You don’t dare! See, you’re nothing but an animal…you don’t know how to kill.” When Caliban refuses to do so, Prospero has him taken prisoner. Here, we have a fascinating reversal: it is precisely because Caliban is not “civilised” in the sense Prospero is (and there are references throughout the play to Caliban’s closeness with nature), he is unable to act like a “man” would, and kill an unarmed person – even if it means losing his one chance at freedom. There is almost a whiff of the “noble savage” here, and it’s something I’m not quite sure how to interpret. Is it an actual portrayal of the colonised as incapable of dissimulation? But surely, Cesaire is too sophisticated a writer to fall into that trap! Or is it a wry, ironical take on the concept of the noble savage itself – in tune with himself and with nature, and too gullible to resort to deceit or trickery? I think so.

The play ends with a dialectical exchange between Prospero and Caliban, Prospero insisting that he has civilised the island, while Caliban responds with the words of the dispossessed: “you ended up by imposing on me/ an image of myself:/ underdeveloped, in your words, undercompetent/ that’s how You made me see myself!/ And I hate that image…and it’s false! But now I know you, you old cancer/ And I also know myself!” What happens between them at the end is left unsaid.

There are many other scenes and references in Cesaire’s play (including a fascinating discussion between Caliban and Ariel – who appears as a mulatto slave – on the uses of violence), but in sum: the Caliban of The Tempest can at best be an object of sympathy and pity, mingled with shock and disgust at his fallen state. The Caliban of A Tempest commands our respect, and makes a claim upon our conscience as an equal human being. That is Cesaire’s enduring contribution in this retelling.

 

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Filed under Aime Cesaire, Postcolonial Writing

“… [she] passes over her personal memories as if writing them on water”: Danilo Kis, ‘A Tomb for Boris Davidovich’

I heard as if dazed, the murmur coming from the salon, accompanied by the din of silver utensils like the tinkling of bells, as saw as through a fog the world we had left behind, and which was irretrievably sinking into the past, as into murky water.”

Recently, I read two (extremely) dark European novels. The first was Danilo KisA Tomb for Boris Davidovich, a collected of seven loosely-connected short stories, which deal with the mental and moral degradation of men under communist totalitarianism. The central character in each story is akin to Koestler’s Rubashov (and indeed, one of the stories is quite similar to the basic theme of Darkness at Noon): a well-intentioned, well-meaning individual, who joins the Communist Party in a blaze of idealism, only to become either the agent of its crimes, or its victim, or – in some cases – both.

The one thing that strikes you about A Tomb for Boris Davidovich is Kis’ lyrical prose style, that could almost pass for poetry at times. For instance:

During the brief periods of my ‘freedom’ I watched, as in a movie theatre, the passing of sad Russian villages, towns, people and events, but I was always in flight – on a horse, on a boat, in a cart. I never slept in the same bed for more than a month. I’ve come to know the horror of Russian reality in the long tedious winter evenings when the pale lights of Vasilevsky Island barely blink, and a Russian village emerges in the moonlight in a false and deceptive beauty.

Joseph Brodsky, in his introduction to the novel, argues that this lyric detachment – almost, at times, rising to allegory (in fact, one of the short stories takes place during the Inquisition, which is clearly meant to mirror communism) is not only an aesthetic choice, but a political one as well. Brodsky writes:

“By virtue of his place and time alone, Danilo Kis is able to avoid the faults of urgency which considerably marred the works of his listed and unlisted predecessors [Koestler, Orwell]. Unlike them, he can afford to treat tragedy as a genre, and his art is more devastating than statistics… with his emphasis on imagery and detail, combined with ironic detachment, Danilo Kis’s obviously poetic prose puts his horrid subject matter into the most adequate perspective by alerting the reader to the prose’s own intelligence. Thus, the reader’s ethical evaluation of the phenomena described ceases to be merely a matter of his distraught sentiment and comes out as a judgment made by his profoundly offended supreme human faculties. It is not that the thought is felt but, rather, that the feeling is thought.”

The idea seems to be that aestheticising tragedy allows us – the readers – to detach ourselves from its immediacy, and to understand it clearly and understand it whole, in a way we could not otherwise. Kis himself describes this beautifully, in his last story, about a minor revolutionary poet-cum-functionary, when he writes:

“The poems dated 1918 and 1919 offer no hint of their place of origin; in them everything still occurs in the cosmopolitan region of the soul, which has no precise map.”

I am reminded here of Eliot’s approach to poetry. In Tradition and the Individual Talent, for instance, Eliot writes: “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.” Eliot goes on to excoriate the idea that strength or depth of emotions and feelings could bear any relevant to aesthetic quality, famously concluding with “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”

Which is all very well, but as Edward Said writes so eloquently in his introduction to Elias Khoury’s White Mountain, not every artist has the privilege of detachment, or the luxury of tranquilly sublimating his emotions into a work of art. The urgency of some situations has an inevitable effect on the urgency with which a writer treats her subject. Brodsky suggests that that is a shortcoming, but I’m not so sure. I am thinking, of course, of Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa, a searing political novel whose prose screams out “lived experience!” from every line. Kanafani’s novella remains was my first window into Palestine, and remains my favourite, primarily because of its unapologetically political tone, that brings home the Palestinian experience in a sharp and unforgettable way (and is no less aesthetically unpleasing, for that).

Kanafani’s writing might be profitably contrasted with Emile Habibi’s Saeed the Pessoptimist (and this is a comparison Saeed makes in his Introduction). Saeed the Pessoptimist is a Rabelais-ian, magical-realist approach to Palestine, that fills you with laughter and tears, sometimes at the same time. I view Kanafani and Habibi as complementary – ultimately, contra Brodsky, I’ve found that it is both detachment and immediacy – in writing – that serve to provide one with a holistic experience of the writers’ subject.

His style apart, Kis treats some familiar themes. The eponymous title story, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, is – in the line of Koestler and Orwell – about the totalitarian State’s logic that requires a disgraced functionary to publicly condemn himself before his liquidation: in Kis’ words, to “accept the premises as the living reality, more real than a jumble of facts, and… colour those premises with his own remorse and hatred.” Where it differs from – and goes beyond – Koestler and Orwell is in giving us a window into the mind of an inquisitor who is more of a low-level functionary than an O’Brien. In this way, we see how totalitarian logic infects the minds of its agents. The inquisitor Fedukin, for instance believes that:

“… it was better that the so-called truth of a single man, one tiny organism, be destroyed than that higher interests and principles be questioned… what provoked Fedukin’s fury and dedicated hatred was precisely this sentimental egocentricity of the accused, their pathological need to prove their own innocence, their own truths… it enraged him that this blind truth of theirs could not be incorporated into a system of higher value, a higher justice which demanded sacrifice, and which did not and must not care about human weakness. This was why for Fedukin anyone became a blood enemy who could not comprehend this simple and almost obvious fact: to sign a confession for the sake of duty was not only logical but also a moral act, and therefore worthy of respect.” 

Themes like this abound.

In reading A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, I was reminded of another novel I’d read just a little while before: Leonardo Sciascia’s Equal DangerOstensibly a murder mystery, it is set in an indeterminate country that is very evidently Italy. The mystery is a vehicle to expose the political corruption at the heart of 1960s/70s Italian society: the detective investigating  a series of murders of judges, is asked to find a way to pin the blame on the political left. The entire novel is pervaded with a surreal atmosphere, and involves art galleries, disquisitions on the idea of justice, and an incomprehensible ending. Nothing is described – everything beyond the actual plot of the murder mystery is hinted at, alluded to, suggested. Much like A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, Sciascia relies upon creating an atmosphere through lyrical prose, that drives home his message, instead of describing it. The detached, ironical tone is perhaps best embodied in the detective’s reflections about some young revolutionary activists that he sees:

“He pitied them, he pitied all young people whenever he found them caged in their scorn, their anger. Not that there was nothing to be angry and scornful about. But there was also something to laugh about.”

Only towards the end does Sciascia permit himself the indulgence of direct political comment, again through the mind of his protagonist, when he sees two young lovers. The contrast is sudden, stark and effective – and somehow (for me at least), it seemed to effortlessly sum up the entire conundrum of the 20th-century political left:

“It’s the libertines who are preparing the revolution, but it’s the puritans who will make it. They, the two [lovers], the whole generation they belong to, would never make a revolution. Their children, maybe; and they would be puritans.”

Because, after all – as Sciascia astutely brings home at the very end of his book – the organised left will never do so. The closing dialogue is with a member of the “Revolutionary Party”, who is intent on hushing up the murders to avoid a political scandal:

“We are realists, Mr. Cusan. We cannot run the risk of a revolution breaking out.” And he added, “Not at the moment.”

“I understand,” Cusan said. “Not at this moment.”

I was suddenly reminded of the closing lines of Animal Farm. “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

 

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Filed under Danilo Kis, European Writing, Italy, Leonardo Sciascia, The Balkans

“Walk On!”: Bruce Chatwin’s ‘Songlines’

“I had a presentiment that the ‘traveling’ phase of my life might be passing. I felt, before the malaise of settlement crept over me, that I should reopen those notebooks. I should set down on paper a resume of the ideas, quotations and encounters which had amused and obsessed me; and which I hoped would shed light on what is, for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness.”

According to Australian creation myths, the world was sung into existence. In ‘Dreamtime’ – time before time, and time of creation – the Ancestors wandered all over the continent. As they walked, they sang the name of everything in their path: living beings, tree and leaf, wood and water, sand and rock – and their song created the world. The paths on which they walked are the “songlines” – a “labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia.”

Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines is a (quasi-fictional) quest for those invisible pathways that form such an integral part of the Australian aborigine mythos. Part travel-memoir, part historical and sociological enquiry, and part journey of self-discovery, Songlines is ultimately a work of translation: a translation of concepts and ideas from another imagination into something comprehensible to us. In that sense, it needed someone like Chatwin to write it: a man who travels and immerses himself into aborigine life, but is also able to write about it in a language that makes sense to non-aborigines.

The story is told through the prism of the Aborigine land rights movement. Chatwin’s friend – and guide – is the classic wanderer-between-worlds (like the half-breed and the mulatto), who must must discover the path of the songlines so as to advise a railway company where not to lay their tracks. The journey brings the travelers into close contact with the keepers of the songlines, and helps Chatwin discover the essence – or the meaning – of the songlines themselves:

Supposing we found, somewhere near Port Augusta, a song-man who knew the Lizard song? Suppose we got him to sing his verses into a tape-recorder and the played the tape to Alan in the Kaititj country? The chances were he’d recognize the melody at once – just as we would the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata – but the meaning of the words would escape him. All the same, he’d listen very attentively to the melodic structure. He’d perhaps even ask us to replay a few bars. Then, suddenly, he’d find himself in sync and be able to sing his own words over the ‘nonsense’… regardless of the words, it seems the melodic contour of the song described the nature of the land over which the song passes. So, if the Lizard Man were dragging his heels across the salt-pans of Lake Eyre, you could expect a succession of long flats, like Chopin’s Funeral March. If he were skipping up and down the MacDonnell escarpments, you’d have a series of arpeggios and glissandos, like Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies… certain phrases, certain combinations of musical notes, are thought to describe the action of the Ancestor’s feet. One phrase would say, ‘Salt-pan’; another, ‘Creek-bed’, ‘Spinifex’, ‘Sand-hill’, ‘Mulga-scrub’, ‘Rock-face’ and so forth. An expert song-man, by listening to their order of succession, would count how many times his hero crossed a river, or scaled a ridge – and be able to calculate where, and how far along, a Songline he was.”

Discovering the meaning of the Songlines helps Chatwin develop the central thesis of his book: the idea that all languages originally began in song, because “Music… is a memory bank for finding one’s way about the world.”

Somewhere near the end, the narrative breaks off suddenly, and Chatwin fills around fifty pages with quotations about wandering, that he has gathered from a lifetime of reading. The intermission is jarring, but some of the quotes leap out at you. The Kalevala, for instance, spoke of an “internal burning… the wandering fever.” Verlaine called Rimbaud “the man with the footsoles of wind.” Perhaps fittingly, one of the last quotes is that of the Buddha (his last words): “Walk on!

Because of its broken narrative structure, and its (often confusing) meanderings between fact and fiction, it is difficult to classify Songlines. At times, it reminded me of Kerouac: there is the same urgency about walking on and walking light, a vaguely similar stream-of-consciousness approach to the prose, and a similar disregard to symmetry, structure and form – both in the accumulation of experience, as well as in the writing. Ultimately, though, Kerouac leaves you with a clear sense of something – whether it is a romanticised vision of the hobo, or a shuddering relief at his return to ‘civilisation’. Songlines, however, is more difficult because of its lack of a conclusion. Perhaps it is best to read it as one would read a book by Nietzsche: as a series of aphorisms, to be soaked in rather than to be made sense of, and to be read for atmosphere and lyricism, nothing more.

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Filed under Aborigine Writing, Australian Writing, Bruce Chatwin