book review: the songlines, by bruce chatwin

Here is 1800 words about a book that Stephanie hated! The only thing that saved it being thrown across the train in disgust was that it was a library book, and she has her lines. (Plus Liz would probably tell her off)

The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin, 1987.

The Songlines is a book about discovery. It’s a travelogue and an adventure and an exploration. It’s fiction. It’s autobiography.

It’s a pretentious pile of racist drivel.

It’s beautifully written. There are some excellent turns of phrase, and it’s got a lovely style, but ultimately it’s about an English man, who believes we’re all nomads, coming to Australia and insisting on creating analogies for literally every element of the lives of the indigenous Australians that he meets. ‘It’d be like America and Russia agreeing to swap their own internal politics-’ he says, of a kin exchange between two different countries.

In chapter 2 he compares Indigenous Australians to Coyotito (a coyote) from Ernest Thompson Seton’s Lives of the Hunted.

Yet Coyotito grew up smart and, one morning, after shamming dead, she bolted for the wild: there to teach a new generation of coyotes the art of avoiding men.

I cannot now pierce together the train of associations that led me to connect Coyotito’s bid for freedom with the Australian Aboriginals’ ‘Walkabout.’ Yet somehow I picked up an image of those ‘tame’ Blackfellows who, one day, would be working happily on a cattle-station: the next, without a word of warning and for no good reason, would up sticks and vanish into the blue.

Bruce keeps comparing Indigenous Australians to fauna. Chapter 12, Flynn (an Indigenous man whose country is never stated, but who is a part of the Boongaree Council) describes allegiances and ‘totemic clans.’ “What this boils down to,” Bruce says:

hesitantly, ‘is something quite similar to birdsong. Birds also sing their territorial boundaries.’

Arkady, who had been listening with his forehead on his kneecaps, looked up and shot me a glance, ‘I was wondering when you’d rumble to that one.’

Here Arkady, a non-Indigenous Australian of Russian descent from Adelaide, who has lived for some time in and around the Northern Territory and serves as Bruce’s guide on this particular exploration, practically gives Bruce permission to describe Indigenous Australian songlines in this fashion, as if Indigenous Australians weren’t legally categorised as fauna until 1967.

Chapter 14, he writes “I was not drunk – yet – but had not been nearly so drunk in ages. I got out a yellow pad and began to write.” The audience is left with most of a blank page and upon turning finds

IN THE BEGINNING…

“In the beginning the Earth was an infinite and murky plain, separated from the sky and from the grey salt sea and smothered in shadowy twilight.” This page contains Old Man Kangaroo and Sky-dwellers and Ancestor and Cockatoo Man and Witchetty Grub Man and Bandicoot Man.

Here, drunk on the liquor condescendingly denied to indigenous people in the town and on his own privilege, Bruce begins to construct what he sees as his own story, coherent within a Dreaming (any Dreaming), as if this is a thing he has permission to do.

He writes the exchange of work between Old Stan Tjakamarra, a Pintupi elder who paints, Enid Lacey, a patronising older White Australian, and two American tourists. And he writes it like a con, coy and roundabout and in jokes and a triumphant ‘rrumpff’ of an Eftpos machine as Arkady comments ‘some nerve,’ without commenting if he talks about Stan, Mrs Lacey, or the demanding tourists. He tells of stopping off in Katherine, where an area was a designated National Park but a ‘loophole’ found by lawyers meant that the land was being claimed ‘back for the blacks,’ causing ‘ill-feeling’ in the town. In the men’s room of a pub in Katherine, a ‘black whore’ offers herself to Bruce, and in the time it takes for him to piss after rejecting her, she’s “attached herself to a stringy little man on a bar-stool.”

The 2012 edition begins with an introduction by Rory Stewart; perhaps a poor beginning, with Stewart mentioning that Bruce never portrays ‘Aborigines’ (in 2012!) as either ‘tragic victims or noble savages,’ but goes on to say that ‘he portrays them as almost unknowable;’ as if by saying that he avoids categorising and stereotyping Indigenous Australians means he doesn’t stereotype them.

Aborigines are often reluctant to trust outsiders, their secret songs are in archaic forms of obscure languages, and the traditional belief systems that underlie them are hard to grasp, categorize, or convey…It is difficult to know what exactly one is talking about here. But Bruce is confident that he does.

This view, both a reiteration of the audience (not Indigenous) and that Bruce is able to talk about it, remains unchallenged through the introduction.

Bruce is not just disrespectful and racist towards Indigenous Australians. Oh, no, quokkas. This beautifully written tome, interwoven with his adventures in other places and other times, with the lessons he’s learnt, is speckled with the disrespect he’s shown other people, too.

The picture I pieced together – true or false I can’t begin to say – was of a ‘scientific’ experiment at which an Aboriginal had sung his Dreaming, a Catholic monk had sung the Gregorian Chant, a Tibetan lama had sung his mantras, and an African had sung whatever.

Not even a fauna comparison for the African person earlier described only as “a black one, a fat one;” they sing a ‘whatever’.

In his series of self-reflective, pretentious notebook scribblings, Bruce notes of a Quashgai woman, perched upon a black horse: “She was also suckling a baby. Her breasts were festooned with necklaces, of gold coins and amulets. Like most nomad women, she wore her wealth. What, then, are a nomad baby’s first impressions of this world? A swaying nipple and a shower of gold.”

[Note that here, he probably means Qashqai, a peoples living across regions in Iran]

‘Alone and amid the nations’, masters of the raid, avid for increase yet disgusted by possessions, driven by the fantasy of all travellers to pine for a stable home – no people but the Jews have ever felt more keenly the moral ambiguities of settlement. Their God is a projection of their perplexity.

He witnesses a Bororo ceremony, described in mystical terms and describing an inexplicable event. Two boys fight, and paint, and wear womens’ clothes, and then return to the palace holding hands, with banknotes pressed onto their painted faces. Some of them are more ‘chic’ than others. Then there are drums, and jewellery glows like phosphorescence.

Bruce has an audience, and it is clear who that audience is. “He wanted to show how every aspect of Aboriginal song had its counterpart in Hebrew, Ancient Greek, Old Norse or Old English: the literatures we acknowledge as our own.” Here in chapter 14, it is clear that the audience is defined as Europeans and Anglo-saxons, with a shared history and linguistic tradition. This book, this exploration, then, is written for men like Bruce.

He uses the term frontier to describe Australia, as if it’s applicable and there was never terra nullis. Arkady uses his ‘reverberative Russian voice he usually reserved for women, to calm them,” because women need calming.

Like many travelogue writers, Bruce wants to know himself and the world around him. “The Pharaohs had vanished: Mahmoud and his people had lasted. I felt I had to know the secret of their timeless and irreverent vitality.”

Like many a western author before and after him, Bruce feels it is his right to demand answers of a people.

He folded his arms. ‘I want to. Yes,’ he replied with inconceivable insolence. ‘But not in a school run by racists.’

She gasped, wanted to block her ears, but he went on, mercilessly. The education programme, he said, was systematically trying to destroy Aboriginal culture and to rope them into the market system. What Aboriginals needed was land, land and more land – where no unauthorised European would ever set foot.

He ranted on. She felt her answer rising in her throat. She knew she shouldn’t say the words, but the words came bursting out, ‘In South Africa they’ve a name for that! Apartheid!’

Lydia, the she here, is the one with whom Bruce gives sympathy; Graham, the white man teaching Indigenous locals, leaves the house and her, and is constructed as the one who is wrong throughout his participation in Bruce’s story.

There are concepts he writes and shares beautifully but, due to what comes before and after, I don’t know if I can believe them.

‘All our words for ‘country,’’ [Flynn] said, ‘are the same as the words for ‘line.’’

For this there was one simple explanation. Most of Outback Australia was arid scrub or desert where rainfall was always patchy and where one year of plenty might be followed by seven years of lean. To move in such landscape was survival: to stay in the same place suicide. 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. Everyone hoped to have at least four ‘ways out’, along which he could travel in a crisis. Every tribe – like it or not – had to cultivate relations with its neighbour.

One could believe that; and it’s fun to read. But this narrator is untrustworthy; and more importantly, Bruce Chatwin is intentionally untrustworthy. It is an essential part of his schtick.

Later, on further reflection, having discovered the cause of our misfortunes, he wished to understand the reason for them, he found one very good reason: namely, the natural unhappiness of our weak mortal condition; so unhappy that when we gave to it all our attention, nothing could console us.

And then it ends, trite and all wrapped up and presented so neatly.

One was strong enough to lift an arm, another to say something. When they heard who Limpy was, all three smiled, spontaneously, the same toothless grin.

Arkady folded his arms, and watched.

‘Aren’t’ they wonderful?’ Marian whispered, putting her hand in mine and giving it a squeeze.

Yes. They were all right. They knew where they were going, smiling at death in the shade of a ghost-gum.

Isn’t that beautiful and evocative and absolutely terrible? And it is there that we leave Bruce and his adventure, his autobiography; the way he tears up everything and gives it back to you in a way you’re not sure you want, and completely misses the point.

Further reading: I found this essay by Robert Clarke, Star traveller: celebrity, Aboriginality and Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, very interesting.

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