THE SONGLINES by Bruce Chatwin

THE SONGLINES

KIRKUS REVIEW

Chatwin, British author of books that blend travel, memoir, history, and philosophy (In Patagonia, The Viceroy of Ouidah), now goes to Alice Springs, Australia--for an investigation into Aboriginal culture, run-ins with assorted Aussies, and a fragmented meditation on larger anthropological issues. Chatwin's inquiry focuses on the Aboriginal ""songlines"": a labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia, the routes taken (according to Creation myths) by legendary totemic beings as they sang the world into existence. Each clan has its own elaborate, largely secret story-song, linked to a particular animal-totem; and the ""songlines,"" which include numerous sacred sites, give rise to complex taboos and rituals (e.g., the ""walkabout""). So Chatwin mostly tags along with Arkady, son of Russian immigrants--a local ""Do-Gooder"" among the Aboriginals who's been hired by railway officialdom to help prevent the desecration of sacred sites (invisible to white eyes) during railway construction. And, in and around the Outback via Land Rover, there are encounters with a wide range of quirky sorts: unpleasant redneck racists (the ugly flip-side of Crocodile Dundee); Aboriginal artists in the totem genre, with their white agents (one zesty, one greedy); sophisticated Aboriginal activists, arguing land-claims against the Church and mine-owners; even a teen-age rock-group--part-Aboriginal--whose first big concert has to be scheduled around circumcision/initiation rites. Though individually fascinating, however, these vignettes never accumulate shape, drama, or even much weight. In the book's second half, in fact, the pokey narrative more or less fades away--as Chatwin offers almost 100-pp. worth of disjointed notes taken for a book on mankind's essential nomadic quality. There are quotations from Pascal, Buber, the Bible, Darwin, etc. There are anecdotes from Chatwin's travels in India, South Africa, Mauritania, Niger, Afghanistan, China, and London (lunch with a worldly panhandler). Chatwin muses on evolution and war, arguing--not very persuasively--that man's basic nature is migratory, defensive, not aggressive (contra K. Lorenz and others). And though this idealized view of nomadic life is also seen in the Aboriginals (who are sometimes romanticized), the interplay of theme and specific subject-matter is awkward, blurry, repetitious. The least satisfying of Chatwin's explorations, then, but occasionally provocative in its ambitious reach--and crisply, vividly engaging as long as it sticks to first-hand Australia reportage.

Pub Date: Aug. 17th, 1987
ISBN: 0140094296
Publisher: Viking