“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

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