Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Chatwin in Australia...


I have started reading Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines. This is the first Chatwin that I have read. The Songlines was first published in 1987 and apparently went straight to the number 1 position in the Sunday Times best seller list and stayed there for nine months. He has been called the greatest novelist since Hemingway and he also has the sad honor of being one of the first prominent British men to die of AIDS.

Chatwin is known for his novels and his travel writing and The Songlines has been described as a combination of both. There is a wonderful moment with the character/narrator Bruce pulls out his Moleskine to take some notes and comments that he brought up a pile of them in Paris, but they don't make them anymore. If only he knew how many Moleskines he has helped sell since they started to be remade.

I am only 72 pages in, but thus far Bruce is in Australia and he has traveled to the Alice Springs to meet a man, Arkady, who charts Aboriginal scared sites. Bruce is interested in the nomadic culture of the Australian Aboriginals and the songlines. Songlines cannot be easily explained, they are physical tracks, also called Dreaming tracks, that ancestors or creator-spirits walked while singing the world into creation. These lines and the songs are used for navigation and trade, but are a very significant, sacred and spiritual. By singing the songs of the Dreaming tracks, Indigenous people can navigate enormous distance and cross through different language groups; the songs are passed down and even swapped, but without the songs, the world cannot exist.

Being published in 1987 means The Songlines came out just a few year after the film Crocodile Dundee (1986). That film, starring Paul Hogan, did for Australia in the 80s with Steve Irwin did for Australia in the 00s. And while both can be credited with bringing some exposure to "down under", those stereotypical images of "Australian men" were also detrimental in many ways. Chatwin seems to be trying to look objectively at Australia, while still taking particular pleasure in things like thongs and barbecues, I think perhaps Crocodile Dundee wasn't too far from his thoughts. In some instances, the language is a little politically incorrect in comparison to what is considered kosher these days, I am sure no writer now would dare refer to Aboriginals as "abos". Not to say that the book is racist, because it isn't, but his enthusiasm is perhaps a little misguided at times.

These are my first thoughts and I have about 200 more pages to go, so I will post about this book again in the future.

1 comment:

  1. I bought this one recently, so I'll be fascinated to hear your conclusion. Though this was wildly popular on publication, critics in the UK seem to have revised their opinions of Chatwin, unfavourably.

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