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Saturday, 29 May 2010

Review: The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin (1987)

In this ground-breaking, experimental memoir, British social anthropologist Bruce Chatwin takes the reader to the dry, isolated Outback where we get to see as much of the local Westerners as of the local Indigenous people. Indeed, his survey shows up a contrast between apparent dysfunction among the former and wisdom among the latter.

Before going bush, Chatwin had already travelled to isolated places. He had runs on the board, too, in having read a number of books about Aboriginal songlines - the incantations used to realise through song the existence and the reality of the country the Aborigines live in. A songline is the way, Chatwin tells us, the Aborigines actualise the land. Without song, they believe, the land would cease to exist.

And it's almost every aspect of the vast country that requires song, we find.

To ensure an accurate rendering of the countryside, Aboriginal society has developed a complex web of obligations between individuals. These obligations give Aboriginal society its solidity. They make for meaningful relationships between people, and between people and the land.

Take the land away from Aboriginals and you remove the superstructure. But out here, in the bush and in the desert, this superstructure persists to a degree that is absent in urban centres where all land has been appropriated by Western cities.

It's the Westerners out there who are falling apart, tortured by their isolation and their inability to bring the Aborigines into the embrace of their own culture. Misanthropy, despair, racism, and alcoholism are rife among this small population of Anglos and immigrants.

Chatwin's mate Arkady is an exception, and there are others too. But strange behaviour is everywhere here.

But while Chatwin effortlessly underscores this dysfunctional society with his elegant and accurate renderings of everyday drama, he is less censorious when it comes to Aboriginal dysfunction. Published over two decades ago, the book was revolutionary. Given events that have unfolded in the interim, we are in a better position to assess some of the casual remarks he includes. The condition of some Aborigines, he remarks, is better than others'.

The problems we see nowadays existing within Aboriginal communities were already present, and alcohol was, and is, the main culprit when it comes to Aboriginal dysfunction. Chatwin never takes his eyes away from the underlying reasons for this degradation, however. Take away the land and you take away an Aboriginal's very soul.

For me, the book contains added drama. On the flyleaf, my father inscribed a birthday salutation. The year was 1988, when I was 26 years old and still confused by life. The book was therefore part of an attempt by dad to come to terms with me. It is clear that he read the book, but it is certain that we never talked about it, mainly because I didn't read it until now.

The memoir - the book chronicles a period of time in the writer's life, and he's an actor in it - is experimental because Chatwin breaks off the stunning narrative after a time and goes on a journey of his own. The last part of the book is a songline for an educated Westerner. It takes in snippets of prose extracted from a reader's reality: extracts and quotes from eminent and admired writers, short glimpses into lived experience, and rememberings.

But it doesn't work. A Western songline cannot divert from the novelistic form if it is to remain faithful to its core. Chatwin has tried to break the mold but, instead, merely underlines the importance of the elegant narrative form that has developed, in the West, over thousands of years starting in pre-history. In this sense, the second half of the book is a failure. But it is a useful failure because it tells us about ourselves and about the enduring power of our own narratives.

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