Project Description

Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines

Introduction, by Nicholas Shakespeare

“And what makes you think you can show up from Merrie Old England and clean up on sacred knowledge?”

One autumn evening in 1983, Bruce Chatwin, then aged 43, joined Jorge Luis Borges and Mario Vargas Llosa for a televised discussion in London about South American literature. This parable by Borges kicked off their conversation:

“A man sets out on a quest to discover the world. Through the years he populates a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, fish, rooms, instruments, heavenly bodies, horses and people. A little before his death, he discovers that this patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his face.”

The person who had selected this parable and invited the three writers together was me. Never could I have guessed how accurate a thumbnail sketch it would prove to be of the book that Chatwin had just begun writing and for which he would best be remembered.

Ten months earlier, following the publication of On the Black Hill, Chatwin had arrived in Sydney on the first of two visits he made to Australia. His third book had been well received and he was faced with “a tremendous problem as what to do next.” On 12 January, 1983, he wrote to his parents: “I am clearing out of town with my rucksack, and will be more or less incommunicado for a month… I am hoping that the concept of the new book will begin to germinate, however blank I feel about it at present. With so many ‘cooked-up’ books knocking around, I don’t really believe in writing unless one has to.” On the same day, he revealed in a letter to his wife Elizabeth: “I have an idea – yes. A relatively outlandish one… I have a card index of the old nomad book to plunder – but God knows what’ll happen.”

Chatwin’s “outlandish idea” had been gestating in his system a long time, and stemmed from a conversation he had had, back in 1970, with the Australian archaeologist John Mulvaney at the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. Chatwin – then curating an exhibition of nomadic art – had sought out Mulvaney in the hope he might be able to shed light on what, for Chatwin, was the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness. In particular, “I wanted to know about the ‘walkabout’, but you can hardly find it in the literature.” Mulvaney, apparently – he has no recollection of the meeting – had pointed Chatwin in the direction of the anthropologist Theodore Strehlow, who had grown up and worked with Aboriginals. “He is the man who really knows. You ought to come and see him.”

After trotting the globe for a further thirteen years, Chatwin, the patron saint of restlessness, had made it, finally, to Australia.

Strehlow had died in 1978, but his widow Kath lived in Adelaide. On 28 January, Chatwin turned up at her house wishing to purchase a copy of Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia, a difficult book, long-ignored and virtually impossible to get hold of.

“When Bruce introduced himself on the phone, my words to him were: ‘Let me say hello to the first man in the world who’s read it.’”

Kath sold him an unbound proof. “I put a map in the back so he could see where the songlines were.” She also produced her husband’s daybooks and diaries for him to read. The next couple of hours defined Chatwin’s next three years. “I sat down, only for a morning,” he said, “and I suddenly realised everything that I rather hoped these songlines would be, just were.”

A songline is the term popularised by Chatwin for “tjuringa line” or “dreaming track”. It is not translatable in any sense. It is at once a map, a long narrative poem, and the foundation of an Aboriginal’s religious and traditional life; the marrow of his identity. For an outsider, the songline’s sacred truth is inaccessible, its mechanism fantastically complex. It is secret and there are penalties for those who transgress. But to a writer like Chatwin, searching for the essence of “wandering”, how attractive: to imagine that the meaning of a country could be established by the stories composed across its landscape. h

Prominent among those who assisted him was Anatoly Sawenko – “an incredibly moving character,” Chatwin wrote to the Sydney-born novelist Shirley Hazzard, “whose job was to map the sacred sites of the Aborigines, especially those which might lie in the way of the new Alice-to-Darwin railway. He was the son of Russian immigrants; and when a policeman discovered his origins, he said, of us both, ‘What did I tell you? A Pom and a Com.’ Anyway, I went with this Anatoly on a surveying expedition, together with a group of Aboriginals, and on three successive nights, we sat up by the campfire discussing everything that came into our heads.”

They talked about Aboriginal dreamings; about the importance of an Aboriginal’s conceptual site; and how, by spending his whole life walking and singing his Ancestor’s Songline, “a man eventually becomes the track, the Ancestor and the song.”

Sawenko recalls: “Bruce was in curiosity overdrive.”

One subject, oddly, did not come up for discussion. Around the same campfire, Sawenko, on whom he was to base the central character of The Songlines, tried to find out about Chatwin. “I asked him about himself, where he was from, his parents. He answered with a story about somewhere else. A quick, one-line answer. ‘I travel a lot. There are places I go back to.’ He didn’t say anything to give you a handle on his inner personal life.”

Still, Chatwin was so stimulated by his conversations with Sawenko and with the Aboriginals and anthropologists to whom Sawenko introduced him, that immediately upon returning to England he made a pilgrimage back to the landscape of his childhood, his own conceptual site as it were. He visited Sheffield, where he was born in 1940, and the small cottage at Baslow, one of a dozen cramped dwelling-places where he had lived during the war; and, as if to reaffirm his identity, he retraced the path – “my path” – up onto the moors, “which I walked with my grandfather when I was four,” to a bald outcrop of weathered rock known as the Eagle Stone. The “fantastic homelessless” of those early years ­­– he was convinced – had been responsible for seeding his lifelong “obsession” with the subject he was wrestling with when originally he met Mulvaney in Oxford.

Those who would see The Songlines as a fire-stealing raid by an uninitiated amateur are both right and wrong. Chatwin himself felt he had paid his dues. “The book is not just an ‘Australian’ enterprise,” he wrote to a friend in Adelaide, “but sets down a lot of crackpot ideas that have been going round my head for twenty years. So this is not three years work but 20.”

As he explained to Hazzard: “I have, left over from my foray into the academic world in the late Sixties, the draft of a projected book on nomadism. I had written an essay which discussed whether the nomads were necessarily the destroyers of Civilization, or whether they were the necessary impulse behind the First Civilizations; whether, in fact, the nomads gave to all Civilizations their restless and expansive character. It is not an angle that many historians have dared to tackle: I, of course, am completely incompetent to do so.”

That first project had petered out in frustration and disappointment. In November 1972, after struggling for three years, writing and rewriting The Nomadic Alternative, Chatwin had delivered a 268-page manuscript to his agent, Deborah Rogers, who waded consciensciously through it. “I remember the heart sinking.” Rogers found the writing leaden, the content plodding. Unable to see a way to salvage the book, she nevertheless sent it to Tom Maschler, Chatwin’s publisher at Cape, who read 50 or 60 pages and stopped. “They were terrible. They were completely sterile. They were a chore to read and I imagine a chore to write.” Maschler told Bruce his verdict face to face, saying: “Something’s going wrong here and maybe you should not be doing this.” He says, “I remember Bruce saying as he left: ‘I’ll think about it.’ I hoped I’d put him off.”

Now, among the sand ridges of Central Australia, a decade on, Chatwin believed he had found in the Aboriginal songlines a structure on which to hang the ideas of the manuscript he had thrown away (his mother had had to rescue it from the bin). His new book would be, if anything, more ambitious: nothing less than an attempt to explain the origin of humanity, even of religion. He enthused to Hazzard: “… the subject is so compelling, I cannot leave it alone. For once you enter the world of nomadism, you have to tackle Renan’s dictum, “Le désert est monothéiste” – and from there the search for nomads becomes the search for God.”

Chatwin’s battle to structure the resuscitated book lasted until July 1986. His initial idea was to write it in the form of a letter to his Italian publisher, Roberto Calasso, under the title, Letter from Marble Bar – the hottest place in Australia. The next idea was to cast the book, now called Of the Nomads, as a Platonic dialogue consisting of “the narrator (myself) and a Russian immigrant to Melbourne (loosely based on someone I met) having a long, drawn-out conversation in the shade of a mulga tree.” Excited, he wrote to Elizabeth: “I’ve never seen anything like it in modern literature, a complete hybrid between fiction and philosophy: so here goes.” But again the book changed shape following a visit to the Swartkrans cave near Johannesberg, in February 1984, while en route back to Australia. There in the dolomite cave, in the company of the palaeontologist Bob Brain, Chatwin was present when Brain’s foreman prised from the earth a cracked fragment of antelope bone that was speckled with dark patches as if burned, and “remarkably suggestive” of fire. To Chatwin, the discovery of this charred bone sparked off yet another fizzing trail of inter-connecting thoughts. It threw light on the origin of language; on our intrinsically peaceful nature; and on the attentive presence, prowling in the dark beyond the flame-circle, of a glitter-eyed cat that specialised in preying on humans.

When Of the Nomads was replaced as a title by The Prince of Darkness is a Gentleman, Maschler tentatively enquired: “I assume it is the book we talked about! i.e. in shorthand AFRICA.” Chatwin was guarded. In recuperation from a mysterious illness, he had started to comb his notebooks: half a lifetime of transcriptions, quotations, meditations, sketches, telephone conversations, encounters which had taken place all over the world whether in an Afghan bazaar, a Sudanese desert or a New York drawing-room – and yet he could not fathom how on earth to mine the material. He replied to Maschler: “It is, I suppose, a novel: though of a very strange kind; but as I have the most unbelievable difficulty slotting all the bits in, I’d really rather not talk about it.”

It was his American publisher, Elisabeth Sifton, who suggested the final shape of the book. “I said: ‘Instead of considering the notebooks as a problem, why not consider them as part of the solution? Why don’t you just use them?’”

So this is what he did. He took a hammer to his unreadable nomad book, a book of ideas, generalizations and theories, and sifted through the narrative rubble. The Songlines would be, in part, the story of his fieldwork for The Nomadic Alternative. It was a solution, interestingly, that he had predicted back at the start of his writing career, in a letter written in 1969 to the film director James Ivory: “One day I want to make a really long and slow trip right across Asia, by the most obscure frontier posts and along the least frequented routes. I would write the whole thing in a semi-imaginary picaresque journey, which is a form that has always appealed to me… It would be a way for me to incorporate all my fragmented diaries of episodes of my travels.” As well, his patchwork structure paid tribute to two commonplace books that he had revered since childhood: Edith Sitwell’s anthology, Planet and Glow-Worm, and, more significantly, Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave. In June 1978, Chatwin had written to a young Indian journalist he had befriended, Sunil Sethi:

“Quotation of the Month (from Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave):

‘The more books we read, the sooner we perceive that the true function of the writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence…’”

Chatwin urged Sethi: “Don’t leave it too late. I’ve left it far too late.” But he was mistaken. The Songlines, published in June 1987 –eighteen years after he had signed the initial contract – is Chatwin’s testament. It is, in Colin Thubron’s words, “his most considerable book and the one most central to his personality and interests.” It is, whatever its flaws, his masterpiece. “Reading your Songlines again,” Hazzard wrote to him, “I thought it one of those works destined to alter the plane of thought from which an important theme has long been surveyed and discussed. Things can never again be quite the same as they were ante-B.C.”

Chatwin was quite right, though, to suppose that The Songlines would tread “on one or two corns”. In Alice Springs, the book left a sour taste. There was a feeling that he had rediscovered Strehlow uncritically, that he had not sorted through the protocols nor given the Aborigines their due voice. Sawenko, on whom he had hung his narrative hat, was “floored” by it. Without telling him what he was up to – or even sending a copy – Chatwin had transformed a three-day journey into an unauthorised biography that it was disingenuous to call fiction. Nipping in and out, he had got certain things wrong. He had misjudged and caricatured as exploitative people who had devoted their lives to helping Aborigines. Plus, he had cast himself as his own best, most achieved character: observant, intelligent, sharp-witted, heterosexual, generous (always buying the drinks), intrepid (when there’s a problem he sorts it out). A consensus among those who had assisted him in Australia was that Bruce the Narrator was a character radically different from Bruce the Fleeting Traveller (in total, he had spent just nine weeks in the interior); almost as incompatible, in fact, as Bruce the Truckie. In short, he had driven at juggernaut speed through a fragile, private and fiercely sacred landscape rather as if it were the Bruce Highway.

Nor did every critic unite in praise of the book’s structure. Some argued that Chatwin, in his fever to make connections, had taken on more than he could integrate and set up an intellectual apparatus that he could not support. He had written, in essence, two books: one about songs, the other about cats. The concept of the songline remained a rug to sweep things under rather than a carpet to fly on; it remained a device.

That it was a structure created in the face of his illness, Chatwin was painfully aware, the last third, as he wrote to Cary Welch, being written “in semi-hallucination”. He had been determined to finish it before he found out what this illness was (Aids – though this was not widely known until after his death). Even so, friends detected a frustration that he hadn’t, maybe, got to where he wanted. A central mystery eluded him. “I still cannot fathom out the relation of site to track,” is but one of several telling entries in his notebooks. “He knew the mystery was there, and he didn’t understand it,” recalled the Queensland poet Pam Bell, with whom he stayed on the last leg of his 1984 journey. “He was desperately trying to go to the centre. It was the most important thing for him and he realised half way through he wasn’t going to be able to do it, he was excluded. You have to earn mystery. It’s only lovers who get there.”

As well, there was an intriguing absence of song.

I remember pressing him to tell me what a songline actually sounded like and the flicker of exasperation mingled with panic that tightened his face. “It’s a low, rather beautiful ‘aaah’.”

Not for another eleven years would I hear it, on a scorching afternoon in the red desert north of Alice Springs. Through bushes wreathed in glistening entrails of videotape, I followed Anatoly Sawenko to a waterhole, and there I listened to an old Aboriginal belt out a melody that sounded no less ancient than the landscape we were in. Clem’s personal dreaming was the emu, but he did not sing about this. He sang instead about the yellow seed of the dogwood tree, a song also involving, somehow, a dingo, a bush-mouse and a willie wagtail.

At some level, Chatwin must have understood Clem’s omission. “No Aboriginal paints his own dreaming,” explains a character in The Songlines. “It’s too powerful. It would kill him.” In Adelaide, Kath Strehlow had told him: “These are songs invented by sacred beings, and if sung out of order or incorrectly it could be punished by death.” And this, or so a number of people in Australia chose to believe, is what Chatwin had done. By making off with knowledge to which he was not entitled and using it in a “novel” to tell his own creation myth, he had transgressed.

For Aboriginals like Clem, it was no mystery why Chatwin should have finished up in a hospital bed like one of the dying men at the end of his book.

There was also his transgression of genres. To the bafflement of his publisher and of many critics and booksellers, he insisted that The Songlines was fiction. When it was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Award, he issued a statement. “The journey it describes in an invented journey, it is not a travel book in the generally accepted sense. To avoid any confusion, I must ask to withdraw it from the shortlist.” His point being: these were false fence-posts. “The borderline between fiction and non-fiction is to my mind extremely arbitrary and invented by publishers.”

The Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, whose own fiction is stimulated by history, is aware of the penalty for transgressing genres. It touches on Chatwin’s presence in the Swatrkrans cave at the discovery of the charred antelope bone, which he never wrote about, but which was later validated, on the cover of Nature magazine, as evidence of our Ancestors’ “earliest use of fire”.

Keneally says: “There is a link between all fine writers and Prometheus. Critics know that creative people have stolen fire, that is why they are so mean to them. Chatwin had stolen the fire – if you think of fire as the trigger for the tribal circle and stories. He had certainly plundered stories, but I mean, what do you want writers to do? That is almost the job description of writing. Chatwin correctly saw stories as paradigms of humanity.”

Keneally has no trouble recognising 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 Ozzie 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’s appeal is not confined to Aboriginal Australia, which Chatwin made accessible to many Australians for the first time. It is aimed at the heels of anyone who has become fed up with sitting too long in the same room. Another who travelled around the Outback with him was Salman Rushdie. “His thesis is nutty, but it has a poetic truth.” Colin Thubron goes further: “Maybe any third-year anthropology student would shoot it to bits, but what’s wonderful is the passion with which Bruce approaches it, his love of it, the way he writes it, the imagery, so that it involves you while you are in it, you inhabit it.”

And this is how it perhaps ought to be savoured: as a poem for those with itchy feet, not as a grand unifying theory.

As great books do, The Songlines will continue to ignite imaginations. It may not succeed on its original terms, but what it does achieve, in fiction, is to allow the world into the songlines. Chatwin’s ebullience, his obsessional vitality, his very intense intellectual involvement in his subject combine to make you believe in songlines – if not literally, then as a metaphor for each of our trajectories through life. It makes them tangible and available.

Borges died a year before it was published, but Vargas Llosa read the book “believing it was an anthropological work, like Borges.” This did not in any way diminish its value. “Because to pass off fiction as reality, or to inject fiction into reality, is one of the most demanding and imperishable of human enterprises – and the dearest ambition of any storyteller.” In Alice Springs, the Land Council received requests from the French Foreign Legion for permits and maps “to walk the songlines”. In Amsterdam, an art gallery opened in Prinsengracht calling itself “Songlines”. And in Leciester, a nine-year old reader from Avenue Junior School, Sirish Patel, was moved to write to Elizabeth one week after Chatwin’s death on 18 January, 1989: “We are very sorry about your husband Mr Chatwin. Our class (3F) has been thinking very seriously about one of his books called ‘The Songlines’. We did a play in our school about the Aborigines in the book and how the world began. It was very good. Your husband’s book made it all happen.”