Sometimes someone on the outside looking in can tell a story better than those enmeshed in the very thick of it. Which may explain, in part, why the late English writer Bruce Chatwin is responsible for a book widely acknowledged as one of the finest on the uneasy truce between modern and ancient Australian indigenous culture – his 1987 fiction/non-fiction hybrid The Songlines.
More on that particular format later.
The widely travelled Chatwin visited central Australia, travelling between Alice Springs and Katherine, in the mid-1980s, specifically to explore an interest in our indigenous culture that had first been piqued in his boyhood and subsequently write about it. The Songlines recounts his time spent there, the people he met – both the indigenous and non-indigenous – and how he weaved what he learned into an over-arching theory, which he had been formulating for many years previously, about the nomadic nature of mankind.
His main guide to the red centre is thirtysomething Arkady Volchok, a first-generation Australian of Russian-Ukrainian immigrant parentage, who draws on a vast knowledge of, and empathy with, the local indigenous peoples to interpret tribal law within the context of the contentious Land Rights Act. He acts as a mediator between those who want to preserve the land and those who want to exploit it. A South Australian who has fallen in love with life in the desert, Arkady, an oft-victim of casual racism himself, bemoans the fact that “islanders” were the first to discover Australia – rather than land-bound Europeans such as Russians, Slavs, Hungarians or even Germans. “They never understood it,” he asserts. “They’re afraid of space. We could have been proud of it. Loved it for what it was. I don’t think we’d have sold it off so easily.”
Chatwin’s particular area of interest – which he readily relates to his time living in and travelling through Africa – is the indigenous concept of the “songlines”. That is, back in the Dreamtime, the ancestors had created themselves, in the image of a specific totemic species (Wallaby, Kangaroo, Snake, etc), and then scattered a trail of songs along their travels – in effect, singing the country into existence and forging an invaluable map of survival across its rough and inhospitable terrain, a “document” to be handed down, word of mouth, to future generations.
The writer neatly surmises the relationship between the indigenous and the land: “Aboriginals … could not imagine territory as a block of land hemmed in by frontiers: but rather as an interlocking network of ‘lines’ or ‘ways through’ … the definition of a man’s ‘own country’ was ‘the place in which I do not have to ask’ … Yet to feel ‘at home’ in that country depended on being able to leave it … “ It is fascinating stuff; it is the origins and the history of Australia’s first people, and it is a story I suspect very few of us immigrant Australians – that is, the vast majority of us who do not have indigenous ancestry – knows. Which is not just saddening, it’s an indictment, particularly on our political and educational sectors. End of soapboxing from me!
Chatwin relishes his time in the outback, and amongst the people, and finds parallels to the course of his own life in his learnings: “Man was born in the desert, in Africa. By returning to the desert he rediscovers himself,” he muses at one point. He digs out some notebooks he had started compiling in Africa: “What I learned there – together with what I now knew about the Songlines – seemed to confirm … that Natural Selection has designed us … for a career of seasonal journeys on foot (italics his) through a blistering land of thorn-scrub or desert”. A chunk of excerpts from the notebooks follows, and are periodically interspersed through the remaining 100 pages.
Just as interesting as Chatwin’s encounters with the indigenous are the Caucasians whom he meets – and their reasons and motivations for having relocated to the heart of the country, with all its assorted trials and tribulations, or being frequent visitors to the area. Arkady is a real gem – the heart and soul of the book – as is his (eventual) fiancée and female counterpart Marian; then there’s Cullen storeowner and caravan-dweller Rolf Niehart and his partner Wendy; comi-tragic old-timer Jim Hanlon; bookseller Enid Lacey and arts patron Eileen Houston; and the pastoral Fathers of the outback missionaries. Their stories overlap and intertwine and add to the book’s rich fabric of central Australian life in the latter part of the 20th century, of a sometimes tainted co-existence with its original tenants.
Now to my two quibbles: one minor, one not so. I felt the extracts from “the notebooks”, whilst interesting and providing both context and back story to Chatwin’s life and quests, were over-abundant, especially as they continued to pepper the latter pages of the book. I wanted more of the story itself – and here’s the rub. It turns out – and I am sort of glad I didn’t learn this until after I’d finished the book – that it is exactly that, in part: fiction.
To all intents and purpose The Songlines is presented as a non-fiction, so it was disappointing, and then some, to discover some of these characters may not have existed, might have been amalgamations, that some of the events portrayed may not have actually occurred. After heavily investing in the book, it was kind of like finding out there’s no Santa Claus. Although I suppose the fact it is housed in the fiction section might have been a bit of a giveaway …
As I said, it’s a quibble, of sorts. Because at the end of the day The Songlines is not only one of the books from which I’ve learned the most, but one of those I’ve most enjoyed reading. Chatwin was a renowned story-teller, and as a travel writer he is right up there with the likes of Paul Theroux, one of his peers and pals.
This is essential reading on so many levels, but with an added, especial resonance for Australians. If you haven’t yet made its acquaintance, get thee to a bookshop – stat. Or one of those newfangled Kindle-type whatsiemadoodles. Whatever floats your boat. Just read it, right? Right.