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The songlines are the invisible pathways that criss-cross Australia, ancient tracks connecting communities and following ancient boundaries. Along these lines Aboriginals passed the songs which revealed the creation of the land and the secrets of its past. In this magical account Chatwin recalls his travels across the length and breadth of Australia seeking to find the tru The songlines are the invisible pathways that criss-cross Australia, ancient tracks connecting communities and following ancient boundaries. Along these lines Aboriginals passed the songs which revealed the creation of the land and the secrets of its past. In this magical account Chatwin recalls his travels across the length and breadth of Australia seeking to find the truth about the songs and unravel the mysteries of their stories.


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The songlines are the invisible pathways that criss-cross Australia, ancient tracks connecting communities and following ancient boundaries. Along these lines Aboriginals passed the songs which revealed the creation of the land and the secrets of its past. In this magical account Chatwin recalls his travels across the length and breadth of Australia seeking to find the tru The songlines are the invisible pathways that criss-cross Australia, ancient tracks connecting communities and following ancient boundaries. Along these lines Aboriginals passed the songs which revealed the creation of the land and the secrets of its past. In this magical account Chatwin recalls his travels across the length and breadth of Australia seeking to find the truth about the songs and unravel the mysteries of their stories.

30 review for The Songlines (Vintage Classics)

  1. 5 out of 5

    PattyMacDotComma

    4.5★ “He knew he was dying and it enraged him. One by one, he had watched the young men go, or go to pieces. Soon there would be no one: either to sing the songs or to give blood for ceremonies. In aboriginal belief, an unsung land is a dead land: since, if the songs are forgotten, the land itself will die.” Bruce Chatwin was a highly regarded English writer and traveller with a deep curiosity about nomadic people. He was fascinated by the idea of songlines around the world that tell the story of t 4.5★ “He knew he was dying and it enraged him. One by one, he had watched the young men go, or go to pieces. Soon there would be no one: either to sing the songs or to give blood for ceremonies. In aboriginal belief, an unsung land is a dead land: since, if the songs are forgotten, the land itself will die.” Bruce Chatwin was a highly regarded English writer and traveller with a deep curiosity about nomadic people. He was fascinated by the idea of songlines around the world that tell the story of the land, and he wrote this book as a fiction, but using his own name as the narrator. How much is first-hand experience, or researched or simply imagined, I have no idea. Our narrator, Bruce, teams up with Arkady Volchok, a young man of Russian background who is working in the various remote, hot Aboriginal communities, where he knows and is trusted by the people and their families. He is genuinely fond of the individuals and adapts easily to their non-European sense of time and urgency. When Bruce and Arkady pull up in the Toyota to meet people who are scheduled to meet them to visit the next community, they find the people asleep in the heat of the day. Bruce is a bemused by their casual attitude, but he’s equally bemused by the fact that an Aboriginal woman can simply wake up, grab a hat (maybe), and be ready to go. He knows how long he’d have to wait for any other woman of his acquaintance to get ready to travel, possibly spending the night away from home. Arkady says Australia would have been a very different place had it been settled by Russians or Slavs, or, indeed, any people with an understanding and appreciation of open spaces. Instead, it was the English, island people, who came with their insular ways, thinking only of colonial settlements in Sydney. This reminded me of a Nicolas Rothwell book of short stories, Quicksilver, which I read last year (and reviewed: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) Rothwell’s background was Australian and Czech, and I got the impression he might have agreed with Arkady. The storytelling and anecdotes are most entertaining for anyone interested in this side of Australian history and life. It fascinates me how much has changed in the last few generations of the families of Aboriginal friends and how much is so rapidly being lost, in spite of some real efforts to keep the knowledge alive. It may be impossible because of the restrictions on which people are allowed to hold which knowledge (which tribe, which age group, male or female), and how this information is allowed to be shared between tribes. [I use the term “tribe” because Chatwin does. There are many words used to describe different Aboriginal groups, but each has a different emphasis on who belongs to it. And there are even more language groups.] Language and lore and laws are all being diluted. Not only is “civilisation” bulldozing and concreting over sacred sites and landmarks, the young people are so immersed in European ways that they have not learned the law and the lore. The Mabo land rights case was going on when this was written (from 1981 to 1992), and it was pivotal because it “proved”, through the oral tradition, the continuous connection of different groups of people to different parts of the island from who-knows-how-long-ago. "From time immemorial" is an overused phrase, but perhaps it's appropriate here. Very simply, in my probably fractured understanding, the island itself is, or is topped, by a giant squid or octopus with tentacles running down to the sea. People belonged to each triangulated area between the tentacles, or as Europeans would say, each area belonged to someone. Phenomenal! But what will happen if the knowledge isn’t passed on? If there’s nobody left to sing the country, will the land die? To give you some idea of how Arkady explains songlines to Bruce, I’ll quote some excerpts. “The mystery was how a man of Tribe A, living up one end of a Songline, could hear a few bars sung by Tribe Q and, without knowing a word of Q’s language, would know exactly what land was being sung. . . There were people who argued for telepathy . . . Regardless of the words, it seems the melodic contour of the song describes the nature of the land over which the song passes. So, if the Lizard Man were dragging his heels across the salt-pans of Lake Eyre, you could expect a succession of long flats, like Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’. If he were skipping up and down the MacDonnell escarpments, you’d have a series of arpeggios and glissandos, like Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsodies’. Certain phrases, certain combinations of musical notes, are thought to describe the action of the Ancestor’s feet. ‘So a musical phrase,’ I said, ‘is a map reference?’ ‘Music’, said Arkady, ‘is a memory band for finding one’s way about the world.’” From his notes, Bruce the narrator ends by saying: “Yet I felt the Songlines were not necessarily an Australian phenomenon, but universal: that they were the means by which man marked out his territory, and so organised his social life. All other successive systems were variants – or perversions – of this original model. The main Songlines in Australia appear to enter the country from the north or north-west from across the Timor Sea or the Torres Strait – and from there weave their way southwards across the continent. One has the impression that they represent the routes of the first Australians – and that they have come from somewhere else. How long ago? Fifty thousand years? Eighty or a hundred thousand years? The dates are insignificant compared to those from African prehistory. And here I must take a leap into faith: into regions I would not expect anyone else do follow. I have a vision of the Songlines stretching across the continents and the ages; that wherever men have trodden they have left a trail of song (of which we may, now and then, catch an echo); and that these trails must reach back, in time and space, to an isolated pocket in the African savannah, where the First Man opening his mouth in defiance of the terrors that surrounded him, shouted the opening stanza of the World Song, ‘I AM!’” It’s a fascinating book, although I’d have preferred that Bruce (whichever Bruce) had skipped the inclusion of so many extraneous excerpts from his notebooks, many of which seemed there just to show us how well read and educated and thoughtful “Bruce” is. The story was enough. [That’s the reason I docked it half a star, stingy as I am.] For a proper NY Times book review, see http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/03/19... For a recent article about how people are trying to preserve culture, see http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-04... There's plenty of information about the Mabo case, but I like the history here. Read the short, second italicised section, the joyful account of ringing the island to announce the decision. "I have to go and tell my Mum." Wonderful! https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articl...

  2. 4 out of 5

    Trevor

    This is a book that is a personal response to whatever it is for white people to think about nomadic peoples with layers of meanings. It seemed to me to be a very honest book - the person telling the story does not try to make himself seem better than he is. I had never heard of songlines before reading this book - the fact that I've lived in Australia for most of my life and did not know this perhaps says as much about me and as much about the life of a white person in Australia as it does about This is a book that is a personal response to whatever it is for white people to think about nomadic peoples with layers of meanings. It seemed to me to be a very honest book - the person telling the story does not try to make himself seem better than he is. I had never heard of songlines before reading this book - the fact that I've lived in Australia for most of my life and did not know this perhaps says as much about me and as much about the life of a white person in Australia as it does about anything else. It would be too easy to say that white Australia knows nothing about the history of black Australia - too easy to say anything interesting. Actually, white Australia knows nothing about the history of white Australia, so black Australia shouldn't feel too left out. We are much more likely to know American history than our own, much more likely to know about Native Americans than our own Aboriginal peoples. The idea of songlines is fascinating, that by learning a song you are learning a map that might be enough to show you the way half way across a continent. People who don't live in Australia think it is a smaller place than it actually is - it is actually as big as the USA without Alaska. That you could learn a song and that would be enough to guide you across such a distance seems utterly remarkable to me. A very dear friend of mine bought me this book. Ironically, neither of us proved to be very good nomads.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Jan-Maat

    Despite the title this isn't really a book about the Australian outback, it is another book about Bruce Chatwin. We journey in search of him through the fictions he put up as defences. Everything else is background. I read this and was utterly impressed by it when I was a teenager. If I was to give this book a rating today it would be a very low one, but possibly my reasons for this could justify rating it very highly as well (view spoiler)[ but since I don't rate books on the whole this is neit Despite the title this isn't really a book about the Australian outback, it is another book about Bruce Chatwin. We journey in search of him through the fictions he put up as defences. Everything else is background. I read this and was utterly impressed by it when I was a teenager. If I was to give this book a rating today it would be a very low one, but possibly my reasons for this could justify rating it very highly as well (view spoiler)[ but since I don't rate books on the whole this is neither here nor there (hide spoiler)] . From The Songlines I went on to read a pile of other books written by Chatwin not really noticing that the function of Australia and the Aborigines in the story is to prove that Chatwin's beliefs about the role of a nomadic lifestyle and men at the height of their physical prowess defending the home fires from predators in the evolution of humanity are right. Reading this book we are not objective observers of the words on the page instead the author uses the format of travel writing and the illusion of reportage to engage us in the narrative. As co-conspirators in his fiction we partake in the deception of ourselves. Chatwin never claimed that his work was true. Indeed after Chatwin's death it came out that parts of In Patagonia had been either invented or substantially misrepresented. Fact blurs into fiction in Chatwin's travel writing, perhaps it is better to say that the journey is inside his head, to pull the fact and fiction apart would be to pull the man's head apart. The form of the book is a mixture of reportage and sections labelled as being from his notebook. The impression is organic, but of course a book is a created thing, designed to create a reading experience. The most egregious example of this (view spoiler)[ at least in my opinion, you'll have to read it yourself to see if you agree, perhaps an even worst example will leap out of you like a sabre toothed tiger and will need to be skewered in your own review (hide spoiler)] is when Chatwin describes himself stopping to give an old tramp some money outside his club and the tramp quickly describes his nomadic existence and philosophy of life using the same metaphor of a bird that lies long distances over seas, lands briefly, before turning round to fly long distances over many seas again, a behaviour that Chatwin himself had discussed only a few pages earlier. In the odd way that life and fiction do come together, the depressed existence of the Aborigines that Chatwin meets in hindsight seems to foreshadow his own death. Here where the people who, he felt, were closest in their traditional nomadic lifestyles to prehistoric man, cut off from their traditional routes and as a result dying in every way as though the circulation of the blood in the body and the person through the landscape were one. Two years after the publication of this book his own journey was also to come to an end. In line with the rest of his life while dying of AIDS he claimed that the symptoms he was suffering from were in fact the result of being bitten by a Chinese bat. The truth was perhaps just a little too prosaic for Chatwin.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Manuel Antão

    If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review. Dreaming Tracks: "The Songlines" by Bruce Chatwin (Original Review, 1988-05-15) I’ve been reading “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin for the past couple of days, which I’m really enjoying at about the halfway point. It’s a travel book, I suppose, about Chatwin’s experiences in the Australian Outback learning of Aboriginal culture and their belief in ‘songlines’ or ‘dreaming tracks’, or “to the Aboriginals as ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’ o If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review. Dreaming Tracks: "The Songlines" by Bruce Chatwin (Original Review, 1988-05-15) I’ve been reading “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin for the past couple of days, which I’m really enjoying at about the halfway point. It’s a travel book, I suppose, about Chatwin’s experiences in the Australian Outback learning of Aboriginal culture and their belief in ‘songlines’ or ‘dreaming tracks’, or “to the Aboriginals as ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’ or the ‘Way of the Law’.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Lisa (Harmonybites)

    There was plenty in this book that irritated me, and at times, yes things that fascinated me. Indeed, this book is saved from a one star rating for the simple reason that I found what was conveyed about Australian Aborigine culture and their “Songlines” fascinating. When Chatwin kept to his personal observations of the people of the Outback, whether of European extraction or Aboriginal, I was riveted. I have to admit this book did what the best books do--inspire me to read more on the subject--b There was plenty in this book that irritated me, and at times, yes things that fascinated me. Indeed, this book is saved from a one star rating for the simple reason that I found what was conveyed about Australian Aborigine culture and their “Songlines” fascinating. When Chatwin kept to his personal observations of the people of the Outback, whether of European extraction or Aboriginal, I was riveted. I have to admit this book did what the best books do--inspire me to read more on the subject--but alas even fifteen years after this book’s publication there’s blessed little to be found on the subject of Aborigine culture easily accessible to the general reader--that you can find by browsing the neighborhood bookstore or library. This book is easily the best known. I recently read Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country and Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and both spoke of the Aborigines of Australia as one of the oldest cultures; it was claimed they had been basically unchanged since humans became a behaviorally distinct species--at least until European settlement ended their isolation. As such, they’ve long fascinated anthropologists as a possible window into human pre-history. Chatwin believed they’re a key to a past when humans were constantly on the move, prey to the “Great Beast,” a sabre-tooth cat for whom we were their favorite meal. The “songlines” or “dreaming tracks” are songs that mark routes which the Aborigines believe were walked by the Ancestor totems and must be followed and sung to keep the land alive. The very melody and rhythm of the song can mark direction and distance. Chatwin described songlines as "the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known ... to the Aboriginals as the 'Footprints of the Ancestors' or the 'Way of the Law'.” So songlines are myth, law, trade routes and maps--even land deeds. Chatwin believed all cultures had their songlines, often preserved in their myths. All good. The problem is I find Chatwin maddeningly meandering and unreliable. He himself said that. “To call The Songlines fiction is misleading. To call it non-fiction is an absolute lie.” He doesn’t distinguish clearly in his text between one and the other. Worse, according to the introduction by Rory Stewart, who admired Chatwin’s books, “he inserted images and symbols, from other poems, painting, and myths, copied other people’s sentences and structures”--and without attribution. Stewart doesn’t use the word, but by any other name this is plagiarism--to me a writer’s greatest sin. According to Stewart, Chatwin wouldn’t hesitate to distort and invent in the stories of his travels in order to call up parallels and allusions to classic works. The people who appear in the book are mostly based on real people--but let’s just say that even according to the man who wrote the introduction to this book, well, you shouldn’t judge the people by the portrait, and it’s probably kind that in many cases Chatwin changed their names and personal details. The other thing that drove me batty was the section “From the Notebook” which took up about a third of the book. Chatwin carried his notes in moleskin notebooks, and considered them more precious than his passport. Unfortunately he felt the need to share excerpts with us--at length--that mostly consisted of quotations from other books, what comes down to lecture notes, and vignettes from other travels. This is mostly where he details his anthropological theories about the origins of language, the nomadic nature of humans and our predation by the “Great Beast” and what it meant for human culture. Stewart called Chatwin “erudite” but for me especially here he comes across to me as a poseur. He never really pulls his theories together. It’s all very scattershot. So, is the book worth reading? Sorta. I’m rather glad I did because the picture of the Aborigines intrigued me and left me wanting to know more, but I was constantly wishing I was reading a more solidly factual book on them.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Robyn

    The Songlines is, on the surface, an auto-biographical travel narrative. Under the surface, it's none of these things and so much more. The door in is that the "Bruce" of the book may or may not be the Bruce who is writing. The narrative Bruce's clumsy attempts to interrogate the Australian aboringine's sacred knowledge smacks of neo-colonialistic cultural tourism. Is the real Bruce Chatwin really this gormless or is he positioning his narrative Bruce to point out the problems of such a quest? T The Songlines is, on the surface, an auto-biographical travel narrative. Under the surface, it's none of these things and so much more. The door in is that the "Bruce" of the book may or may not be the Bruce who is writing. The narrative Bruce's clumsy attempts to interrogate the Australian aboringine's sacred knowledge smacks of neo-colonialistic cultural tourism. Is the real Bruce Chatwin really this gormless or is he positioning his narrative Bruce to point out the problems of such a quest? The reader is led around in these rhetorical circles the same way Bruce is lead around in circles by his aborigine guides. We want to know about the mythical dreaming animals that dot the aborigine view of their land as much as Bruce does. "What's that over there? That landmass?" he asks his guide. "That's Shit. That's Shit Dreaming," the guide replies and breaks into hysterical laughter.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Marc

    I had great expectations about this book, it is one of the favorites of my wife and for years it stood temptingly staring at me in our library. But I'm afraid it turned out to be a disappointment. As in "In Patagonia" Chatwin reports about one of his journeys, a meandering quest, not in Fireland this time but in Australia where he went looking for the key to the Aboriginal-culture. This is a quite interesting topic of course, and the information he gives about the Songlines and everything that's I had great expectations about this book, it is one of the favorites of my wife and for years it stood temptingly staring at me in our library. But I'm afraid it turned out to be a disappointment. As in "In Patagonia" Chatwin reports about one of his journeys, a meandering quest, not in Fireland this time but in Australia where he went looking for the key to the Aboriginal-culture. This is a quite interesting topic of course, and the information he gives about the Songlines and everything that's related with them, is very intruiging and challenging. But Chatwin has made a very dull affair of his report, it is not more than a chronicle of his interviews with Aboriginals and other people. It could not charm me, especially because it was so self-centered: Bruce Chatwin is all around, and his seemingly easy way to gain the confidence of the Aboriginals wasn't really credible to me. And of course it doesn't help when you read in other reviews that he had the habit of inventing some of the stuff he wrote about (also in other books). Already before page 100 I noticed I began to read diagonally, and that is lethal. What a pity. But if I ever succeed in getting to Australia, perhaps I'll make another attempt.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Shovelmonkey1

    I am picky when it comes to travel literature. The curious thing about my pickiness when it comes to travel books is that I don't like to use travel literature as a way of broadening my horizons - I like to read it to narrow my world view and back up what I already know. To clarify, because I suspect I have just made a strange and confusing statement, I only normally read travel literature which deals with places I have already visited because I want a back up opinion from the author. What did t I am picky when it comes to travel literature. The curious thing about my pickiness when it comes to travel books is that I don't like to use travel literature as a way of broadening my horizons - I like to read it to narrow my world view and back up what I already know. To clarify, because I suspect I have just made a strange and confusing statement, I only normally read travel literature which deals with places I have already visited because I want a back up opinion from the author. What did they think of this village/town/city/country, desert, marsh or mountain? Did they love it? Or loath it? Did they find something to admire or abrogate the memory of the place which was missing in my own observations? I'm not sure about this approach or why I do it. Is it cheating to back up your own observations with someone elses? What if their observations were written many years before your own visit? Does that then change your opinion with hindsight, but not just the hindsight of a year... maybe the hindsight of 50 years and it's not even your hindsight but someone elses? And this brings me back round to The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. This book took me outside of my normal travel read parameters because I've never been to Australia so I have no basis for comparison. This amazingly insightful and brilliantly written book examines the dusty centre of Australia and the invisible Songlines which criss-cross it. Not a conventional travel book by any means as Chatwin combines observations with philosophy, spirituality and dialogue while contemplating the nature of travel and mans desire to move around in a landscape which is increasingly more determined to ensure that we are sedentary. Because I have never been to Australia this book was a songline in its own right for me. Australia sung into being by Bruce Chatwin. I can't think of a better introduction to a place.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Rosemary Atwell

    Rereading ‘The Songlines’ after thirty years is a moving experience. I had forgotten how beguiling Chatwin’s writing is and how his unreliable narration perfectly suits the type of tale that he wishes to tell. His characters are Dickensian, his protagonist both charmingly arch and ferociously erudite. His death, a mere two years after publication, came as a shock, as did Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography (still one of the best that I’ve read). The book’s middle and latter sections - quotations, mu Rereading ‘The Songlines’ after thirty years is a moving experience. I had forgotten how beguiling Chatwin’s writing is and how his unreliable narration perfectly suits the type of tale that he wishes to tell. His characters are Dickensian, his protagonist both charmingly arch and ferociously erudite. His death, a mere two years after publication, came as a shock, as did Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography (still one of the best that I’ve read). The book’s middle and latter sections - quotations, musings, anecdotes, memories and theories about the origin and development of man, are even stronger than the main travel narrative, and, arguably, more rewarding. Although at the time they could be viewed as self-indulgent literary and anthropological posturing, it now becomes clear that this was very likely to be Chatwin’s last opportunity to sift and clarify his thoughts for posterity. Whether his posthumous life has revealed a master or monster must be the individual reader’s decision.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Bloodorange

    I am in love with the structure of this book; initially, it describes a series of encounters with black and white Australians living in the nearly uninhabitable Central Australia. Chatwin's guide on this journey is an Australian of Russian descent, one of the many striking figures we meet - and I must add here that Chatwin was accused of the same sin as Kapuściński, apparently taking too much liberty with the degree of 'literariness' of his reportages. Chatwin quite delicately (at least to my eye I am in love with the structure of this book; initially, it describes a series of encounters with black and white Australians living in the nearly uninhabitable Central Australia. Chatwin's guide on this journey is an Australian of Russian descent, one of the many striking figures we meet - and I must add here that Chatwin was accused of the same sin as Kapuściński, apparently taking too much liberty with the degree of 'literariness' of his reportages. Chatwin quite delicately (at least to my eyes) approaches the description of the Aboriginals (although they frequently come across as eluding understanding, before Chatwin starts to comment on his narrative). He does not mention the crimes perpetrated by white Australians on the blacks - the massacres, the unpunished killings, the taking away of children to 'reeducate' them. The whites he describes are a strange mix, representing a variety of attitudes toward the Aboriginals - sometimes greed, exasperation, and cruelty, but he mostly focuses on those who offer them nearly unconditional friendship and support. The eponymous Songlines allow the book's 'surface level' to point to the connection between nomadism, land, language and mythology - all the scenes Chatwin recorded featuring the Aboriginals and their traditions serve to present them as a present-day model of the original nomadic society, which we fully comprehend later on: at some point, when the protagonist's/Chatwin's guide disappears for a few days, Chatwin turns to discuss the relation between people and the space they're in, people and predators, the nature of humans and human families, and the fears, needs, and coping mechanism we inherit from our distant ancestors. Chapter 30 alone - his musings on nomadism and human aggression - makes the book worth reading.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Annette

    If I was given a choice of 3 people to invite for dinner from any age, Bruce Chatwin would be one. I only wish I could sit down (probably in a pub) and watch him drink a pint and tell stories of his travels. He writes in such a compassionate way about the people he comes across in his travels, he has a way of explaining and understanding histories and events that is so intriging to me. This book is so loved and well worn...I underlined almost the entire copy. It is not only about the aboriginal If I was given a choice of 3 people to invite for dinner from any age, Bruce Chatwin would be one. I only wish I could sit down (probably in a pub) and watch him drink a pint and tell stories of his travels. He writes in such a compassionate way about the people he comes across in his travels, he has a way of explaining and understanding histories and events that is so intriging to me. This book is so loved and well worn...I underlined almost the entire copy. It is not only about the aboriginal peoples of Austrailia, but about all of us...it alludes to most every time and place and those things that unite us all and make us human

  12. 5 out of 5

    James

    Bruce Chatwin's book is ostensibly an examination of the Australian Aboriginal notion of the Songline: a song that relates a series of geographical locations ranging from one coast to another, tied to the (mythical) creation of an animal, that in a variety of languages unified by tune sings out the geography of the route. He explores this abstract concept through the agency of Arkady and a cast of other Whites who live and work amongst the Aborigines in the harsh heart of Australia, defending th Bruce Chatwin's book is ostensibly an examination of the Australian Aboriginal notion of the Songline: a song that relates a series of geographical locations ranging from one coast to another, tied to the (mythical) creation of an animal, that in a variety of languages unified by tune sings out the geography of the route. He explores this abstract concept through the agency of Arkady and a cast of other Whites who live and work amongst the Aborigines in the harsh heart of Australia, defending their rights and interpreting their rites. That, apparently, is what Songlines is about. It really is a rambling, discursive, ultimately brilliant exploration of territory, nomadism, and the the origin of violence in humans. Perhaps it is presumptuous, but I find it both entrancing and intriguing. While Chatwin repeatedly engages in pop-anthropology of dubious quality, he displays a breadth of imagination and a willingness to share it with the reader. Some may consider his views a little arrogant, but this does not detract from their scope. As a book, this is a rather strange concoction, but that is to be expected from Chatwin. I had no expectations and found a clear account of Australian travels. He adapts to his environment by plundering his accumulated notebooks when trapped by rains, setting down what is effectively his own Walkabout, the episodic meditations that become the real form and focus of the book. Chatwin's worldview, based on Rousseau and amateur anthropology, does not appeal to all and the book has been controversial for his sometimes-fictitious accounts of the Aborigines. Despite that this is a readable and ambitious book that is also compelling as a travel book of uncommon style.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    I am a horrible reader sometimes. I read to just read, not because I like what I am reading, which at this point in my life defeats the purpose of it all. I am getting better at putting down boring books, mainly cause I use the library and I don't have to feel guilty about not finishing them because I didn't invest any money in the first place. But school kind of killed that for me and I hate not reading something that I started, no matter how boring it is. Two books I picked up from the library I am a horrible reader sometimes. I read to just read, not because I like what I am reading, which at this point in my life defeats the purpose of it all. I am getting better at putting down boring books, mainly cause I use the library and I don't have to feel guilty about not finishing them because I didn't invest any money in the first place. But school kind of killed that for me and I hate not reading something that I started, no matter how boring it is. Two books I picked up from the library a few weeks back are this and The Songlines is one of them. Not that it wasn't a good book, it was just soooo boring! And dated. And it went off on a path that had nothing to do with the rest of the story, or title for that matter! Basically, it was about how Aboriginals in Oz follow the lines of the land that their ancestors lived through songs. (Or something like that). It was kind of interesting to read about the different peoples the writer met in the Outback, but like 3/4 of the way through the author is like, "Here is what I wrote in my journal in other parts of the world" and I was like, What the hell is this? 100 pages later, the book was over and I breathed the sweet sigh that it was finally over. grade: N/A (I don't feel it's fair to grade the books that I find boring. There is a huge difference between bad and boring.)

  14. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Hittinger

    I'm curious that Chatwin considered this book fiction; perhaps by today's standards we'd brand it "creative nonfiction" the "creative" part being perhaps invented or doctored dialogue, some bending of facts to get at a more truthful narrative, etc. As a travel document, though, it maintains Chatwin's compressed ability to sketch a character or paint a landscape in a few deft strokes. And the book continues what appears to be his life-long thesis: that humans are meant to be in motion, to be migr I'm curious that Chatwin considered this book fiction; perhaps by today's standards we'd brand it "creative nonfiction" the "creative" part being perhaps invented or doctored dialogue, some bending of facts to get at a more truthful narrative, etc. As a travel document, though, it maintains Chatwin's compressed ability to sketch a character or paint a landscape in a few deft strokes. And the book continues what appears to be his life-long thesis: that humans are meant to be in motion, to be migratory, to travel, mirroring the own way he lived his life. The book takes an interesting turn just past the half-way mark when Chatwin as his own character is holed up in his caravan due to the rains and decides to finally tackle his "Paris" or moleskin notebooks: "I had a presentiment that the 'travelling' phase of my life might be passing. I felt, before the malaise of settlement crept over me, that I should reopen those notebooks. I should set down on paper a resume of the ideas, quotations and encounters which had amused and obsessed me; and which I hoped would shed light on what is, for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness." And indeed most of the rest of the book are his quotes and musings from his notebooks, at times a philosophical inquiry into our evolutionary origins, the evidence that our early adversaries were the big cats, why babies quiet down when they are walked given they were carried in slings on their mother's backs, that we are not murderous by nature reflecting on the Cain and Abel myth-story, and so on through language and poetry, the naming of the things of the world as we pass them on our journeys and sing them into being. There is plenty more in this book for a reader: the colonial and post-colonial undertones of the British and American empires vs. the aboriginal tribes, their "progress" of train lines and mining and for the Americans military sites coming into conflict with the sacred spots, the "dream sites" and "dream lines" of the land; the quite complicated and sophisticated means of communication between the different tribes based on their dream songs; and Chatwin's own memories of his other travels, in Africa and elsewhere around the world, illuminating the connections and similarities within the very different human experiences that coexist on the planet. And there's plenty of room to analyze Chatwin's own positions and relationships to his subjects; as sympathetic and open as he portrays himself in character-narrator form to the "other", he is white and from the empire center, and so there's room to question his framing and way of seeing. To end, a great book; only thing I found jarring was the sudden shift from the narrative of his travels to the philosophical inquiry into his notebooks. There are moments where he returns to the characters and narrative he set up in the first half of the book throughout the journal musings, and the two parts clearly speak to each other, but by the end I felt like I was reading two different books. Still, there's so much good stuff here I'd recommend to all.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jeanette (Again)

    The wandering words of a wandering writer. The "songlines" were a sort of Aboriginal GPS. The people could find their way unerringly across vast territories simply by "singing" the ancient stories of the Dreamtime creatures. The stories contained landmarks, and were meant to be sung at a walking pace of about 4 mph. Thus, as he walked and sang, the singer encountered the sacred sites and knew he was following the correct "line" to his destination. As I came to understand the concept, I was moved The wandering words of a wandering writer. The "songlines" were a sort of Aboriginal GPS. The people could find their way unerringly across vast territories simply by "singing" the ancient stories of the Dreamtime creatures. The stories contained landmarks, and were meant to be sung at a walking pace of about 4 mph. Thus, as he walked and sang, the singer encountered the sacred sites and knew he was following the correct "line" to his destination. As I came to understand the concept, I was moved by the perfect combination of reverence for the land, remembering the ancestors, and avoiding getting lost in a harsh and unhospitable landscape. The timeline of Chatwin's experiences was scattered, so it was sometimes hard to keep track of all the people and their stories. Also, I was puzzled by the inclusion of all the fragmentary pieces from the author's old notebooks. Most of the notes had nothing to do with Australia, and a clear connection never formed between the notebooks and the book's topic. Still, The Songlines is an excellent contribution to the ethnographic record of Australia's native people.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Chris Kaeff

    This book blew my mind. I never considered geography as song, until I stumbled through the bush recreating the Dreamtime with this chap. You'll never glance an odd shaped rock or peculiar growth again, without conducting a epic myth in song, attempting to explain in language a landscape we are all foreign to but responsible for.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Robert Wechsler

    This book is three things: a travel book about part of Australia’s outback, with a focus on Aborigines; a quest for what “songlines” are (they are a central part of Aboriginal culture); and a series of italicized quotations and stories that involve such things as the Beast that is at the center of our fears. The quest was what attracted me to the book, and what I liked best. The travel book is pretty good, too. Only the italicized chapters let me down, partly because they seemed to pull the book This book is three things: a travel book about part of Australia’s outback, with a focus on Aborigines; a quest for what “songlines” are (they are a central part of Aboriginal culture); and a series of italicized quotations and stories that involve such things as the Beast that is at the center of our fears. The quest was what attracted me to the book, and what I liked best. The travel book is pretty good, too. Only the italicized chapters let me down, partly because they seemed to pull the book away from the songlines I was seeking to understand.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Gordon

    Written a generation ago, in the 1980's, The Songlines has achieved considerable fame in the world of travel literature. Along with In Patagonia, this is one of Bruce Chatwin's two best-known works. Chatwin was an English travel writer in the mold of the highly educated, multi-lingual amateur, who could write about all manner of things historical, cultural, anthropological, architectural, linguistic and so on, with great eloquence and wit, and a dash of devil-may-care daring thrown in for good m Written a generation ago, in the 1980's, The Songlines has achieved considerable fame in the world of travel literature. Along with In Patagonia, this is one of Bruce Chatwin's two best-known works. Chatwin was an English travel writer in the mold of the highly educated, multi-lingual amateur, who could write about all manner of things historical, cultural, anthropological, architectural, linguistic and so on, with great eloquence and wit, and a dash of devil-may-care daring thrown in for good measure. In this genre of writing, brushes with death are frequent but are never to be taken seriously. Oddly enough, there are no close brushes with death in The Songlines, which I can only assume was an oversight. The concept behind this book is that the Aborigines of Australia navigate their way across the landscape, over hundreds and perhaps even thousands of miles, using song. Embedded in the lyrics of the song and even the melody of the song are the landmarks that enable them to find their way from water-hole to water-hole across that arid territory. If you string several songs together in the right geographical sequence, you have a complete songline, which might take you from one coast to the other. Songlines are also associated with animals (kangaroos, wallabies...) that became the totem of that singer, man or woman, and define a sort of "clan" with a common totem. Different members of the same family can belong to different clans, so these are not clans in the conventional tribal sense. The survival value of these songlines is clear if you consider that Australia is a mostly bone-dry country with irregular rainfall. This is the sort of treacherous climate that periodically forced aboriginal peoples to migrate to find food and water -- or die. Having several members of each family knowing different songlines gave them that much more flexibility in navigating to wherever they needed to go. Given how central the songlines were to survival, lots of mysticism grew up around them -- i.e. concepts of sacred routes and sacred places -- along with considerably secrecy about revealing them to outsiders. All of this made the process of learning about songlines all the more interesting and challenging for Chatwin. Whether he got his facts straight about the whole concept, I don't know. According to Wikipedia, he was not a man with a reputation for scrupulous adherence to boring facts when there was a better story to be had by using some creative license. In fact, the long stretches of recreated dialogue in the book, which are rendered as it they had been recorded verbatim even though he had no means of actually doing so, make clear that the book is semi-fictional. Chatwin makes use of an unusual technique: he incorporates many pages taken from his writing notebooks, including notebooks with material for an earlier book about nomads which he was never able to complete. Not one to let good and interesting material go to waste, he includes it in The Songlines. Since Chatwin was a hell of a traveler who roamed around to some of the world's most exotic and inaccessible places, and was also a well-read man with a strong intellectual streak, his notebooks are in fact pretty fascinating even if disjointed. Some of the material is loosely relevant to the book if The Songlines is viewed under the the larger theme of nomadic peoples; some of it is interesting but largely irrelevant, such as his rambling discussion of paleontologists' discoveries about the evolution of early man. I am sure that most of the paleontology included in the book has been superseded by new data and new theories over the last 30 years, and can be happily ignored by readers who find that section dull. Where Chatwin is really at his best is in carefully crafted miniature stories, such as those having to do with his dealings with Aborigines artists, art dealers and their clients. Since Chatwin was an art expert from his early years working at Sotheby's auction house, he was particularly at home in writing howlingly funny stories about these encounters, as suitable background stories were quickly whipped up by artists and dealers to satisfy the demand of clients for a good, colorful, yet deeply symbolic tale to go along with their newly-acquired art pieces. One of Chatwin's traits as a writer and as a human being that I most admired was his willingness to talk to just about anyone, including a stinking derelict on a London street, an Aboriginal story-teller, a body-builder cop or a Saharan nomad. He did not follow a very conventional path through life. He died too young, at age 48, in 1989.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Gijs Grob

    The Aborigines' way of navigating, communicating and negotiating by 'Songlines' is absolutely intruiging, and I thank this book for shedding some light on this subject. For example, between chapter 14 and 15 there's a beautiful creation myth. I wish Chatwin had written more text like that. However, most of the book is not about the songlines, but about Chatwin himself, eating and drinking with Australians, most of which have nothing to do with the Aborigines and their plight. Chatwin paints a vi The Aborigines' way of navigating, communicating and negotiating by 'Songlines' is absolutely intruiging, and I thank this book for shedding some light on this subject. For example, between chapter 14 and 15 there's a beautiful creation myth. I wish Chatwin had written more text like that. However, most of the book is not about the songlines, but about Chatwin himself, eating and drinking with Australians, most of which have nothing to do with the Aborigines and their plight. Chatwin paints a vivid, if very shallow picture of the inhabitants of the outback, but is often close to simplification (racist white trash vs. noble savages). Moreover, as he insists this book is a work of fiction, I cannot grasp why he didn't write anything more interesting than this plotless book. But it becomes worse: after 160 rather aimless pages, the book suddenly disintegrates in loose jottings, as if Chatwin had lost interest in making something more ambitious out of his travel notebooks himself. At that point I left it, without finishing it.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Lemar

    Chatwin invests everything in this moving account of his research into the Songlines of Australia. Any relevant experience or research that might add to his examination of man's inclination towards a life of migration versus the sedentary life if carefully included. Going back to Cain and Abel, myths and archeology point out that ever since man first pursued a sedentary life and created the villages and monuments we prize in museums, there has continued to exist the nomadic people who just may b Chatwin invests everything in this moving account of his research into the Songlines of Australia. Any relevant experience or research that might add to his examination of man's inclination towards a life of migration versus the sedentary life if carefully included. Going back to Cain and Abel, myths and archeology point out that ever since man first pursued a sedentary life and created the villages and monuments we prize in museums, there has continued to exist the nomadic people who just may be less depressed and anxious than city dwellers. Chatwin further argues that man's defining event is his victory, using only his brain, over the deadly predators that stalked our species during most of our history.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Mckenna

    Seldom is there a book that strikes at the core of your being. Chatwin uses the "Songlines" of Australian aboriginal culture to explore an intellectual, philosophical and metaphysical world of the human condition. The book is wildly original; simultaneously a thoroughly entertaining travelogue and also an almost stream of consciousness exploration of history, psychology, natural history, and more. Truly an instant favorite...

  22. 5 out of 5

    Bryn Hammond

    This kept reminding me of Jack Weatherford’s Savages and Civilization, which is my handbook on nomads and the city. Both books scattered, personal and flawed, but the testaments of inquiring minds. If you follow nomadology you won’t want to miss them.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Eileen

    Beautiful earth Song...

  24. 5 out of 5

    Yigal Zur

    amazing journey. must

  25. 5 out of 5

    Sairam Krishnan

    With certain books, you are only halfway through and you know you have to read them again. As I read Songlines, I knew I'd be reading it several times. It spoke to a version of me I had forgotten about, and I'm grateful. There's not much to be said about such a book that hasn't been said before, but I was struck by all the possibilities it brought forth, all these paths the mind could take from almost any page. If I understood the book as it was meant to be, I think that would make the old explor With certain books, you are only halfway through and you know you have to read them again. As I read Songlines, I knew I'd be reading it several times. It spoke to a version of me I had forgotten about, and I'm grateful. There's not much to be said about such a book that hasn't been said before, but I was struck by all the possibilities it brought forth, all these paths the mind could take from almost any page. If I understood the book as it was meant to be, I think that would make the old explorer happy.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Edalma

    The book is very awesome.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Oceana2602

    the book that made me love Chatwin, who shares the place with Paul Theroux and Douglas Adams as my favourite author of all times. It was also the first book of Chatwin that I ever read, so you can see that loving Chatwin wasn't a hard sell. What can I say about Chatwin that hasn't already been said? Not much, I guess. I'll say that this book is outstanding in the way it combines travel-writing, philosophy, history and fiction, but I doubt I'm the first one to say this. So let me tell you this: I k the book that made me love Chatwin, who shares the place with Paul Theroux and Douglas Adams as my favourite author of all times. It was also the first book of Chatwin that I ever read, so you can see that loving Chatwin wasn't a hard sell. What can I say about Chatwin that hasn't already been said? Not much, I guess. I'll say that this book is outstanding in the way it combines travel-writing, philosophy, history and fiction, but I doubt I'm the first one to say this. So let me tell you this: I know that some of you will be hesitant to read Chatwin because he is something of a "legend" among readers. At least that's what I heard. And I can understand that. I'm always weary about the "cult" authors, because often loving their books stems more from the wish to belong among their (lonely) fans, than from the quality of writing (see my review of Neil Gaiman). When I discovered Chatwin, I was sixteen or seventeen. I had never been online. I didn't have the slightest idea that there were people out there considerign Chatwin an idol in whose footsteps they wished to follow. I did not know the first thing about Chatwin, the man, and now that I do, frankly, I don't care. "Truth blends nicely with untruth", or so Norman Douglas said, and while I admire Theroux for turning reality into fiction, I admire Chatwin for writing fiction that becomes reality, at least for as long as you are reading it. It's books, people. You can love them for all sorts of reasons. And I love this one for every single one of them. I simply loved this book. And then loved every other Chatwin book I read. (this was also the beginning of my love affair with book stores. Where before, I was more of a library kind of girl, now I wanted to OWN the books. Fortunately, this phase also fell into a time where I actually had the money to start buying books instead of just getting them from the library. So this book is actually the book with which I became an "adult reader". but I'm going OT) Where was I? Oh yes, I simply loved the book. And I'm rather sure that most other people will love it as well, if they care about Chatwin or not. It's simple: this is one of the best books in its genre that was ever written.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    I had been wracking my brains for a way to introduce the topic of Australian Explorers to my students that was respectful of Aboriginal history and culture when I suddenly remembered that I had a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines on my TBR… The new Australian Curriculum requires that students learn something about the courageous European explorers who mapped this country and its waters – but the topic needs to be studied in the context that of course the indigenous people of this country alre I had been wracking my brains for a way to introduce the topic of Australian Explorers to my students that was respectful of Aboriginal history and culture when I suddenly remembered that I had a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines on my TBR… The new Australian Curriculum requires that students learn something about the courageous European explorers who mapped this country and its waters – but the topic needs to be studied in the context that of course the indigenous people of this country already had a sophisticated knowledge of every square metre of it. As a nomadic people they travelled all over Australia, hunting and gathering, and trading all kinds of things including the ochre that was used for body decoration. (I learned about this trafficking of ochre from Ochre and Rust by Philip Jones). So I wanted to start my unit of work by acknowledging the way that Aborigines ‘mapped’ their travels. They navigated across our vast continent by using Songlines. I did not, however, know much about Songlines, and much to my surprise the reference books I use when planning any lessons to do with Aboriginal art, history or culture didn’t include them in their indexes at all. We have a copy of The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture and Australian Dreaming, 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History and when including Aboriginal Perspectives in our curriculum, I’ve used these to find out about Aboriginal names for the stars and planets, bush tucker and medicines, and various Dreaming stories. They’re wonderful books full of really interesting stuff even if you’re not a school teacher. But since I drew a blank with them I decided to read Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines instead. To read the rest of my review pleased visit http://anzlitlovers.com/2013/04/30/th...

  29. 5 out of 5

    Russell George

    I absolutely loved this for the first 200 pages. Chatwin, a sort of literary ethnologist, aims to understand Aboriginal song lines. In Aboriginal mythology, song lines mark the journeys taken by the first animals – the first kangaroo, the first hyena, the first cat etc. – upon their creation. The song lines essentially map the whole continent. When aboriginal people go ‘walkabout’, they are retracing these journeys, essentially a pilgrimage to the land that sustains them. Chatwin is escorted by I absolutely loved this for the first 200 pages. Chatwin, a sort of literary ethnologist, aims to understand Aboriginal song lines. In Aboriginal mythology, song lines mark the journeys taken by the first animals – the first kangaroo, the first hyena, the first cat etc. – upon their creation. The song lines essentially map the whole continent. When aboriginal people go ‘walkabout’, they are retracing these journeys, essentially a pilgrimage to the land that sustains them. Chatwin is escorted by various friends into the heart of different Aboriginal settlements, and it’s the warmth and humility that makes this so easy to read. We gradually understand the tension between the indigenous tribes and the Australian government, and this narrative is interspersed with explanations of Aboriginal mythology, nuggets of etymology, and a sharp-eyed awareness of landscape and character. Bruce Chatwin doesn’t just do travel writing . . . But the story suddenly stops. Chatwin’s companions move off to negotiate a settlement between an Aboriginal elder and the national railway company aiming to lay track across a song line, leaving him to write a sometimes insightful but rarely focussed treatise on man’s capacity to migrate. It’s interesting but unwieldy, and would have kept my attention better if weaved within the narrative of the original travelogue. After zipping through the first two thirds of the book, I found this last section more intellectually challenging, but rather stodgy. It deals with very big ideas about how man developed, and why, but by the time Chatwin\s friends return from negotiating the settlement, I had gone walkabout.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Isern

    Returning to this work after a lapse of years, I rediscovered why I never finished it before. There is, of course, the problem that Chatwin's biographer, Shakespeare, has disclosed the considerable faults of Chatwin as traveler and as narrator. That is an issue for serious readers, but I also share the pique of casual readers who are perplexed when Chatwin begins the document dump from his commonplace books. I don't think I'm perplexed by this, though. Chatwin has written what is, in several way Returning to this work after a lapse of years, I rediscovered why I never finished it before. There is, of course, the problem that Chatwin's biographer, Shakespeare, has disclosed the considerable faults of Chatwin as traveler and as narrator. That is an issue for serious readers, but I also share the pique of casual readers who are perplexed when Chatwin begins the document dump from his commonplace books. I don't think I'm perplexed by this, though. Chatwin has written what is, in several ways, a rather conventional travel narrative undergirded by a personal quest--in this case, to learn about aboriginal songlines. It is not unprecedented for a travel narrator to find his quest thwarted--in this case, by the difficulties of penetrating aboriginal culture in a vast land. For comparison and contrast, consider Parkman in The Oregon Trail, who never managed to catch up with wild Indians at war. Parkman, however, sets the standard for the frustrated travel narrator--he finds something else, some other insight, in lieu of his original quest. My sense is that Chatwin found nothing in the Australian desert, and so he resorted to cut and paste.

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