Backpacking in Greece, pre-internet, my boyfriend and I heard of a small island off the Peloponnese reachable only by a walking bridge. The island had no cars, no electricity, and no phones. On the south-east coast of this island, was a walled village of ancient stone houses and narrow laneways. The locals often moved to the mainland during the quiet months but those who remained would, we were told, rent rooms to travellers and, if both tavernas had closed for the winter, feed us. The island was the stuff of legend. A place of dramatic cliffs, with an eerie domed church, and a mysterious past. We circled it on our map, drew a line of our journey with a fingertip, and set off. How could we not?
Everything we’d been told was true. We knocked on weathered wooden doors until we found an elderly couple who agreed to rent us a cave-like bedroom with a single square window. We had candles for light, multi-coloured knitted blankets for warmth, and thick rugs underfoot. The black-clad Mrs of the house fed us thick yoghurt topped with honey and walnuts for breakfast and coffee strong enough to fuel hours of rambling through the village streets and rocky hillsides above us. We read, took photographs, and sat in the cold sunshine with many cats.
One afternoon, in the empty town square, we met Grace. She lived in Manhattan and had come to Greece with her boyfriend Steve, who she affectionately described as curmudgeonly. Grace had travelled extensively, but said this was Steve’s first trip overseas. It struck me as a strange destination for someone who’d never left home, an island so remote, so sparsely populated. She told us he was a philosopher, and didn’t much like people. I heard this as a warning; my boyfriend heard a challenge. Grace invited us to visit their house – they’d rented a one-bedroom house, were older and wealthier than us. She said Steve would stay upstairs if he didn’t feel inclined to company.
But we did meet Steve that night, and he unwittingly led me back to Bruce Chatwin’s 1987 book The Songlines. It is impossible for me to think of this book without thinking of him, the American philosopher who met two Australians in Greece and learned about an Englishman who wrote about Aboriginal belief systems. Chatwin would surely have approved of our cross-border connection.
In Steve and Grace’s pretty white-walled house – a building no wider than our cave bedroom, with robin egg-blue doors and cypress ceiling beams – we crowded around a table covered in checked cloth, drank red wine, shared life stories, warmed our hands in front of the fireplace, laughed. Well, we three laughed and Steve smiled. He was tall and lanky – a giant in this dollhouse – long-haired, long-faced, sardonic and slouchy. He was reading Wittgenstein, he said, in preparation for writing a book about him. Where are you studying, my boyfriend asked. In my apartment, Steve replied, deadpan. We asked Steve why he’d never left New York. Why would I, he said. Why wouldn’t you, we replied. Grace, a first-generation American with Chinese parents, sighed.
On their last night on the island, Steve said if ever we were in New York we could stay with him. (They lived separately. Grace said we would understand when we saw his apartment.) We told him this was a dangerous offer to extend to Australians if you didn’t really mean it. He said he meant it, that most people annoyed him but we didn’t annoy him. My boyfriend was thrilled. We could find places to stay, had done so across Europe, but hard-won approval was gold.
Some months later, we went to New York, and stayed with Steve. He lived high-up in a large, union-owned, rent-controlled apartment that had belonged to his mother. He’d been there for years but had no furniture in his living room – not a couch or chair or television. Towering piles of books lined the walls and Manhattan’s night lights shone on his polished parquetry floor. His bedroom held a bed, desk, and crammed shelves, with more piles of books along the walls. We slept on an inflatable mattress in his second bedroom. In his galley kitchen, Steve taught us how to cook tater tots in a toaster oven. He was amazed we’d never heard of them before. Not so worldly after all, he said.
By day, we explored New York, following his advice about which buses to catch, what to see, and where to eat. We visited Grace in her studio. She and Steve had broken up.
At night, we sat on Steve’s cushions and talked. We scoured his book piles and he answered our questions about his studies. He wasn’t yet ready to put pen to paper, but he was happy to talk us through some basic Wittgenstein.
From memory, it was when Steve mentioned Wittgenstein’s prodigious musicality and the relationship that bore to his study of the limits of language that I thought of The Songlines. Seriously. At first blush, Chatwin’s ruminations on the invisible dreaming tracks that cover Australia have nothing to do with Wittgenstein, but the Aboriginal idea of singing things into existence and navigating the land through sound fascinated Steve as much as it had me. The songlines suggest, as Wittgenstein had, that for something to be known it must be said, or sung.
Aboriginal origin myths – Dreamtime stories – hold that the Ancestors created themselves from clay (one Ancestor for every animal), then walked across the country singing the name of everything in their path, bringing them to life. In The Songlines, Chatwin writes that each totemic ancestor ‘was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints… these tracks lay over the land as ways of communication between tribes… A songline is both map and direction-finder. Providing you knew the song, you could always find your way across country. In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score.’ There is danger involved in the songlines, too. Dreaming tracks, which can also be described in paintings and dance, have a set sequence and direction, and veering from them is a crime.
Because these ideas are so unfamiliar to white Australians, and because we were accustomed to carving land up into square blocks of ownership, the issue of land rights and sacred sites was doomed from the start. Again, Chatwin: ‘Before the whites came…no one in Australia was landless, since everyone inherited, as his or her private property, a stretch of the Ancestor’s song and the stretch of country over which the song passed.’
Bruce Chatwin spent much of his short life (1940-1989, he died of an AIDS-related illness) interested in nomads. His infancy was one of constant movement. He writes of ‘the fantastic homelessness of my first five years’ (his father was in the Navy, his mother and siblings lived with various friends and family), and says his most treasured possession was a conch shell his father brought him from the West Indies. As an adult, Chatwin travelled throughout Africa, South America and Europe, across England and Afghanistan. In 1983 and 1984, he went to outback Australia. Chatwin’s books In Patagonia (1977, an experimental travel writing book of 97 parts set in South America), The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980, a novel set in West Africa in the 1800s), On the Black Hill (1982, a novel set in England and Wales) and Utz (1988, set in Czechoslovakia) are inspired by, and borrow from, the stories of far-flung lands. They are all, in one way or another, about travel and borders.
Chatwin believed his ‘restlessness’ and fascination with nomads was connected to something larger than his backstory, that a nomadic existence was the natural state of mankind and that our walking paths across the earth are as important to our essence as migratory paths are to birds. He writes: ‘I have a vision of the songlines stretching across the continents and 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!’ ‘ Even if you don’t buy his thesis in full, there is something undeniably interesting in it.
The Songlines is part fiction and part nonfiction, a combining of the embellished story of Chatwin’s travels in Australia and excerpts from his notebooks (which contain text he’d written for an earlier failed book on nomads). Using spare and elegant sentences, he mixes anecdote, conversation, anthropological observations, and tales of previous journeys. He writes about the lives of modern Aborigines, describing drunkenness, poverty, and lack of opportunity. He witnesses art dealers exploiting indigenous painters. He visits Maralinga, the site of secret nuclear tests by the British government in the 1950s and 1960s. He takes part in a bumbling and gruesome kangaroo hunt. He seems – this version of himself, at least – endlessly curious, open-minded, confident and magnanimous, the perfect guide to a strange land.
The first time I read The Songlines I was spellbound. I’d never heard of songlines – not at school, not at university, not anywhere. It took an Englishman to introduce me to something that had existed in ‘my’ country for thousands of years. The novelist Thomas Keneally recognised Chatwin’s achievement: ‘It’s a dangerous thing to say, but I think he did Aboriginal Australia a service. If there were ten books I had to set to every Aussie to read not for the sake of nationalism, but for the sake of coming to terms with who we are on earth, The Songlines would be one of them.’
The book has its critics, and has fallen from fashion. Chatwin has been criticised for fictionalising much of his visit to Australia (not the songlines themselves, which he explains to the reader as accurately as an outsider can), for the short amount of time he spent here (nine weeks), and for relying on white experts in Aboriginal lore rather than Aboriginal people themselves (his guide is a Russian mapping out sacred sites). He acted, critics said, colonial.
Last year, I travelled to Uluru with my two sons. We walked the ten-kilometre track around the rock, marveling at the colour and texture of the monolith, surprised by the thriving ecosystems at the base of its folds – the shady waterholes, clusters of mulga trees and river gums, the caves. We stood on flat red earth dotted with clumps of spinifex, and listened.
After our trip, my older son headed to India with friends, because that’s what Australians do, more than anyone. We roam. To England, to Greece, to America, to India. We fly to Bali. We hitchhike. We circumnavigate our country in camper vans. I’d never questioned why until I met Steve. No one I knew stayed still the way he had. Perhaps there is some answer to be found in the Montaigne quote Chatwin included in The Songlines: ‘I ordinarily reply to those who ask me the reason for my travels, that I know well what I am fleeing from, but not what I am looking for.’
When I came home from Uluru, I reread The Songlines as it neared its thirty-year publication anniversary. As with most books revisited, it struck me in entirely different ways. It is, still, enormously engaging. Chatwin is an energetic, skillful writer. He quotes anthropologists and academics but knows better than to imitate them. The characters he meets in the outback are fully formed. The pages turn themselves. But it’s a mark of how much the world has changed that the book seems so masculine in tone, so lacking in women (fictional or otherwise), so bereft of Aboriginal voices. Which is not to say Chatwin doesn’t meet with Aboriginal people – he does, many.
I hadn’t noticed on a first reading, either, how he’d failed to capture the landscape. That’s harder to fault than his white male lens: few writers have been able to convincingly describe outback Australia. That part of the country is vast, grave, parched and ancient, without easy beauty. It’s near-impossible to rein it into words.
And yet, despite any shortcomings, I love every page of this book. The Songlines is fascinating because of the topic, the author, the structure, and the way those three things twine together. I agree with Keneally that people should read it. Chatwin writes from a place of genuine interest and respect, with wit and grace. And while it would be better to learn about Aboriginal songlines from an Aboriginal person, there is something to be said for an outside eye, one that so desperately wants to understand and explain something near-inexplicable.