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The Songlines – Bruce and Andy aren’t quite in tune

September 19, 2014

“They knew where they were going, smiling at death in the shade of a ghost-gum.”

songlinesSpoiler: That’s the last line of The Songlines. It’s not really a spoiler, but there are three dying Aboriginal guys on the last page of the book. You don’t find out about them until the last chapter so I’m not really spoiling anything. Among the countless stretches of Chatwin’s writing that impressed me, though, these final words, a magic combination of brevity and poetry, left me dumbstruck. You just don’t expect to find non-fiction this wondrous.

I put the book down, I swigged my beer, I picked up my iPad, and I wiki’d The Songlines. Arguably a bad move. Because apparently, as Netty mentioned, The Songlines isn’t non-fiction. It’s a combination of fiction and reportage. I’m not quite sure what that even means. I mean, as someone who has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and a reporter for some of that time, I think I know what reportage is. And as someone who has been writing stories since he could pick up a crayon I think I know what fiction is. And as a reader of fiction I think I know what autobiographical fiction is, and historical fiction, too. Contemporary fiction that involves current circumstances? Sure. Combinations of all of the above? OK.

But a book that presents itself as the record of a man who spends a significant amount of time in the Outback, among the Outback;s indigenous peoples, with many of those people’s friends and some of their enemies, that turns out to be partly fictitious? Err…

I could do my research. I am sure there are websites out there that sort out exactly what is reportage here and what is fiction. But I haven’t done my research. And I’m not saying The Songlines is a bad book. It’s not. It’s a pretty awesome book, actually. It’s just that it’s not what I thought it was. And if Netty is right, and you find it in the fiction section at bookshops, then perhaps what I thought it was is not what it was intended to be. (I found it in the fiction section of a secondhand bookshop, and simply assumed the staff at said secondhand bookshop were a bit shit at their jobs.)

There are so many people in this book, so many situations, to cherish. Arkady, the “Russian who was mapping the sacred sites of the Aboriginals”, first and foremost. Or Enid Lacey, the hard-nosed, canny owner of an Alice bookshop, broker of indigenous artists; or Dan Flynn, Aboriginal apostate from the Benedictine brotherhood. There’s the unpleasantness of Chatwin’s visit to the Katherine pub, an unappetising desert fry-up with a crazed old commie; and a couple of quite funny scenes, one in which an Aboriginal painter calls out a dealer on the money she’s paying him, as opposed to what she’s selling for in Adelaide, and another where Bruce is taken on a kangaroo hunt, and yet another, where he goes for a not terribly successful mountain walk.

And this is all fascinating, and enthralling, and beautifully written – my god, he could write – but how much of it is true? And how much of it did Chatwin make up? I get, I really do, that there is a school of thought that says that questiojn is irrelevant. Hey, I’ve read The French Lieutenant’s Woman. I get metafiction. I get post-modernism. I don’t agree, not remotely, with post-modernism’s philosophical underpinnings. But I get it.

Would that have been Chatwin’s excuse? There is no intellectual or philosophical distinction between fiction and non-fiction, therefore why should I make the distinction in my writing? Maybe. All I can say is a writer I was initially enamoured of is now I writer for whom I have a little suspicion. I was going to read something more of his in the very near future. I’m not so sure now.

PS: I read a big chunk of this in Vietnam, including the notebook sections, towards the end – and, like Netty, while I enjoyed them, I wonder if they needed to be edited back a bit. Anyhoo: In the notebook extracts that follow Chapter 31 Chatwin recounts a 1971 London dinner party attended by a “very tall American” who was on his way back to the US after a “fact-finding” mission in Vietnam that had included a bombing raid over Hanoi. “The North Vietnamese have lost between a half and a third of a generation of their young fighting men,” the very tall American smugly drawls at the dinner table, ” … which is why we anticipate a military victory, in Vietnam, in the course of 1972.” I’m not sure how Chatwin saw this relating to his narrative, or his thesis about human evolution and language and song. But I do know I have never visited a country as vibrant, a people as determined not just to make a go of it but to take that go into the stratosphere, as Vietnam. And so, verily, I say unto thee, O very tall American: Fuck You. Fuck You All All Your Kind.

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