The Songlines

Wimsatt, Margaret

684: IN SEARCH OF THE GREAT WEB THE SONGLINES Bruce Chatwin Viking, $18.95, 293 pp. Margaret Wimsatt There are travel writers (Paul Fussell comes to mind for this generation, perhaps George...

...the specialist he consulted advised changing to "long horizons," an effective prescription faithfully followed...
...In any case, he was able to introduce this stranger (a "Pom" to the natives) and include him in expeditions to the back country, described in sometimes horrifying detail...
...Born in Australia of emigre Russian parents, Volchok was the divorced father of a six-year-old daughter, and owner, apparently, only of "a harpsichord and a shelf of books...
...He had by the time Chatwin arrived won considerable confidence from the (Walbiri) tribal leaders perhaps because he found their concept, singing the world into existence, so beautiful...
...Chatwin's mind is pictorial (perhaps the reason for his success at Sotheby's...
...There are a few nice descriptions of scenery, and lively char686 acterizations, of Arkady and Marian, the girlfriend he marries, of the old people and the new settlers, done with a firm touch...
...The kangaroo who refused to die though repeatedly killed reminds one of the beast in Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant...
...The horizons we briefly glimpse in this book include many of the less-inhabited places of the Old World, glimpsed or studied for longer periods...
...When old Alan tells and mimes the travels of the Lizard Ancestor, which ends with his becoming in death the hill they are all looking at, his white audience almost suspends disbelief, and the reader too is touched...
...He was at the time engaged in mapping the songlines (Dreamtracks, Footprints of the Ancestors) , along a 300-mile course from Alice Springs to Darwin so that they might not be disturbed, might at the least be recorded, when a proposed new railway came to be built on that route...
...Others may find many small pleasures in the reading, even while they wish the book had a center, and a completed idea to transmit...
...and he transmits strongly to the reader the eerie, cobwebby effect of this mesh over all Australia, and the sense of how real it is to the Aboriginals even the watered-down versions which are all they will allow the invaders to share...
...His job was to find the appropriate Aboriginals, drive them to various spots, and persuade them to tell him which places had been called into being by a Dreamtime hero...
...So readers who are expecting a treatise and like things neatly packaged will be dismayed by this book...
...Another group with at least as long a tradition in (not only English) letters, travels to extraordinary places, to land's end, to the rim of the world, and sends or brings back reports that few of us have the knowledge or experience to check...
...The Ladies Mary Wortley Montagu and Hester Stanhope, Doughty and Lawrence in Arabia, even E. M. Forster in imperial India how can we stay-at-homes even begin to assess the accuracy of their works...
...There his interest is not in the living but in the dead, in the development of homo habilis...
...Chatwin, arriving in Alice Springs, near the center of the country, was fortunate to find Arkady Volchok who became not only his guide but his friend...
...Chronologically, the last field to have been considered at length makes up the book's first half...
...They are, of course, visible only to believers...
...they resemble those Volchok expresses near the beginning of the book: "There were times, in the flyblown squalor of a Walbiri camp, when he suspected . . . that his vocation to help the blacks was either willful self-indulgence or a waste of time...
...Early in the book, Chatwin tells us of his lifelong urge to travel...
...It is partly owed, he thinks, to the fact that he and his mother, having then no fixed home, spent the years of World War II wandering from relative to relative across southern England, and partly to the fact that the men in his father's family included a number of voyagers to places more exotic than they sound now: Paris, Cairo, the Yukon, even (Cousin Charlie) to Patagonia...
...The Songlines, his latest, can best be described as quest essays, not very successfully linked...
...Luckily, she did...
...Obviously, I was not going to get to the heart of the matter, nor would I want to...
...and Chatwin pulls out the notebooks that record his reactions to southern Africa...
...Margaret Wimsatt There are travel writers (Paul Fussell comes to mind for this generation, perhaps George Orwell for the preceding) who visit wellknown places, familiar to some of us...
...My reason for coming to Australia was to try to learn for myself, and not from other men's books, what a songline was and how it worked...
...This charming but unlikely notion (it is not well enough developed to be called a thesis) is buttressed by innumerable quotations from a Sumerian text, Jeremiah, Blake, Verlaine and occasionally interrupted to return to doings in the neighborhood of Alice Springs...
...In spite of including interesting fragments, this weighty digression totally unbalances the book...
...Bruce Chatwin belongs to the second group...
...This does not account for walls lined with aerial photographs, not the tools necessary for mapping...
...Another possibility is the fact that after a few years appraising modern art for Sotheby's in London, he awoke one morning blind...
...His interest is in establishing that the human race was "intended" to be nomadic, and that its troubles began when it settled down in fixed dwelling places...
...he has also written a novel set in Wales and a satire on the African slave trade...
...His feelings about these objects of his study are decidedly mixed...
...He is best known for a straight book, In Patagonia...
...Songlines were also lines of kinships, of languages, of trade, and of something mysterious that Chatwin never quite penetrated, forming a giant web over all Australia...
...He talks with archaeologists and ethnologists, including Raymond Dart and Robert Brain at Witwatersrand University, and with the latter visits sites where relevant material has been gathered...
...Someplace along the way, a little more than halfway through the book, Volchok leaves his guest for a period of time in a lonesome but well-furnished caravan...
...I have asked a friend in Adelaide if she knows of an expert...
...The title refers to the Dreamlines, mapped by the first ancestors of the Australian aborigines, who in the Dreamtime named, tamed, and hallowed the land by singing their way across and again across it...

Vol. 114 • November 1987 • No. 20


 
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