A book by Bruce Chatwin. A novel? A travelogue? An extended essay? A book, of indescribable nature, something like a novel, something like a travelogue, with extended explorations of evolution, aggression, and nomadism. Is it profound, or is it bollocks? Partly both, I think. He genuinely researched a lot of very interesting things, but didn't really achieve as deep an understanding of them as he thought he did. Bruce Chatwin was an egoist: he liked to write things like "when I was travelling with the nomads in Mauritania" and "we discussed the myth of eternal recurrence" (preferably in French). Borgesian without being quite so convincing.

The Songlines is the tale of Chatwin's stay in the Red Heart of Australia, in the town of Alice Springs and in nearby places in the harsh desert and sparse scrub of the Northern Territory. He plays himself, a writer, researching the songlines of Aboriginal mythology. Mostly this 1987 book is an account of his own viewing and discovery of what he's talking about: it's very specific, and most of the incidents must have had a basis in fact. He was a journalist, he went there, he took notes; perhaps the final product is a sort of novel, changing names and characters, but on the whole it reads biographically.

The Aborigines of Australia guard their land, and are bound to their land, by the legends of how their ancestors created it in the Dreamtime. These legends are passed down as songs, are passed down in the initiations of young men (and, to some extent, of women), and are kept as sacred and in part secret. Each totemic ancestor (lizard, wallaby, echidna, etc.) walked across the earth, possibly having adventures; each place where they did is commemorated by this outcrop of rock, or that waterhole, or another clump of spinifex. The Aborigines know these places because they know their songs.

The song lines go far beyond the territory of a single ethnic group. They can traverse the whole vast continent. An initiated man can go walkabout and use his knowledge of the song that describes the sacred landscape to travel into other tribes' territories and exchange knowledge and goods with them. With the coming of the white man, and cattle and farms and railways and missionaries, this whole system is threatened.

Bruce Chatwin interlards his realistic, sometimes humorous, account of his stay in the Alice and settlements around it, and of the simultaneously cunning and simple Aborigines, with out-takes from old Moleskine notebooks from when he was a journalist researching nomadism in the Sahara and in Iran and elsewhere. He picks up little bits of Pascal and Nietzsche, and meditates on them. He had interviewed Konrad Lorenz and Elizabeth Vrba about human nature, aggression, the rise of Homo habilis, the nature of our primaeval predators, the imprinted urge to nomadism...

I can't quite tell whether what he comes up with is very sensible, or shallow and ignorant. From what I know of these topics (evolution, linguistics, and so on), he's not really very profound, though his study is accurate as far as it goes. He's an outsider, picking up a bit (and so am I), but he doesn't really know enough to tell consensus science from wild speculation and wish-fulfilment. As a writer he likes putting these grand ideas together ("Nietzsche"!), and he likes being rebellious, and he likes being someone who's on the inside -- he can see the wisdom of the Aborigines, but the poor old white people and bureaucrats and police and scientists can't. But he also fairly clearly feels he hasn't really been let into any big secrets.

Is The Songlines worth reading? Definitely. An interesting portrait of Central Australia, a charming depiction of a lot of curious individuals, and quite a bit to think about in the possible roles of nomads and songs in shaping our world.

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