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The Songlines (1987)

by Bruce Chatwin

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
3,559593,627 (3.94)4 / 152
A story of ideas in which two companions, traveling and talking together, explore the hopes and dreams that animate both them and the people they encounter in Central Australia's almost uninhabitable regions.
  1. 30
    Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade (mercure)
    mercure: Wade addresses many of the issues that fascinated Chatwin from a scientific point of view.
  2. 20
    In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson (flissp, John_Vaughan)
  3. 20
    One for the Road: An Outback Adventure by Tony Horwitz (John_Vaughan)
    John_Vaughan: Bruce Chatwin was fasinated by nomads and wanderings, Tony Horwitz qualifies for both, and writes with engaging wit.
  4. 10
    Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins by Ian Tattersall (elenchus)
    elenchus: There is an intriguing overlap between Chatwin's thesis that human's have a nomadic instinct linked to our early history as prey to the big cats; and Tattersall's exploration of just when hominids moved out of forested areas and into the open edge areas and grasslands, and what implications that had for our diet, behaviors, group organization, and brain development. Each book focuses on other themes, but this overlap is moderately important to each and reinforces one another in useful ways.… (more)
  5. 10
    Utz by Bruce Chatwin (John_Vaughan)
  6. 10
    An intruder's guide to East Arnhem Land by Andrew McMillan (MiaCulpa)
    MiaCulpa: Both delve into the traditional beliefs of Australian Aboriginals, the oldest living culture on Earth. While neither provide an explanation about many Aboriginal customs (which is good as many of these customs are secret), they do provide a good starting point for people wishing to learn more about Aboriginal cultures.… (more)
  7. 00
    In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams by Tahir Shah (PatMock)
    PatMock: If you liked the concept of stories providing underlying connections
  8. 00
    Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache by Keith H. Basso (elenchus)
    elenchus: A remarkably similar use of story, myth, and nomadism among the Western Apache and Australian indigenous people. Basso's is an accessible scholarly take, but the stories and their use by Apache individuals take center stage. Chatwin's prose is more poetic and less rigorous (he insisted The Songlines was fiction), but highly evocative of story and myth.… (more)
  9. 00
    Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz (John_Vaughan)
  10. 00
    What Am I Doing Here? by Bruce Chatwin (John_Vaughan)
  11. 00
    Ghost milk: calling time on the grand project by Iain Sinclair (elenchus)
    elenchus: Both Chatwin and Sinclair blend fiction, non-fiction, and travelogue / memoir to get their ideas across. Chatwin's prose is more precise, Sinclair's more poetic, but both cast a wide net in terms of material incorporated into their essays.
  12. 00
    Walkabout by James Vance Marshall (KayCliff)

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English (48)  Dutch (4)  Spanish (2)  German (2)  French (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (58)
Showing 1-5 of 48 (next | show all)
Bruce Chatwin didn't actually spend much time out of his four or five decades on earth in Australia - so he is no expert on Australia and its cultures and landscapes. I was not entranced by this section of the book. However a large slab of the book is basically his 'commonplace book', his literary scrapbook, for fragments of writing, his own and others, that adumbrate why and how we humans are fundamentally restless and travel loving as a species. He recalls chatting with a nomad in the deserts of Sudan, and then quotes something about Cain and Abel from the bible, then gives us a bit of a letter by Flaubert. It is compelling stuff - for the same reason his best work is. He conjures the romance of travel through glimpses and images and mutterings, in the way only a mystically propelled and slightly misanthropic aesthete like himself could do.
  Tom.Wilson | May 27, 2024 |
This really is a book to get lost in, and it has had an immense influence overseas in popularising Aboriginal Australian culture. (Rory Stewart, for instance, recalls this book as the one that made English travel writing "cool".) A rambling yarn, tangents upon tangents, unpleasant viewpoints and hopeful ideas mingling together like dyes being poured into a vat.

The situation is more complex now - some would say problematic but I'd argue that's going too far. Chatwin's time in Australia was fairly brief, his subjects sometimes ironic or perhaps even outright false (to be fair, he acknowledges this), and his attempt to understand an issue that Australians themselves were still grappling with in the 1980s was always going to be deeply flawed. Still, it has its place in the history, and its rather basic overview of one particular aspect of Aboriginal life - even if it is drawn without any shadow or nuance - is an intriguing viewpoint on Australia from an outsider. ( )
  therebelprince | Apr 21, 2024 |
Very interesting read, fascinating, and quite wonderful. Chatwin interweaves his journey to observe a territorial issue between aboriginal tribes and a proposed train line, with thoughts, science, history, myth, lore, of all peoples origins in song. Life is a songline in which we doing ourselves, and all the things, into existence. Really interesting segue into the theories of human violence (innately offensive, defensive? A result of population and/or resources only—counter intuitively the less a people has the less violent they are, fascinating stuff). Personable and full of the quality I most love in humans and my limited ideas of "aboriginals": a sense of joy.
  BookyMaven | Dec 6, 2023 |
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.
  MatthewHittinger | Jan 1, 2023 |
Wonderfully written story of Australia. ( )
  CasSprout | Dec 18, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 48 (next | show all)
It engages the full range of the author's passions: his obsession with travel; his love of nomads and the nomadic way of life; his horror at the vulgarity and exploitativeness of the modern world; his hunger to understand man's origins and essential nature and so find some source of hope for the future. Part adventure-story, part novel-of-ideas, part satire on the follies of ''progress,'' part spiritual autobiography, part passionate plea for a return to simplicity of being and behavior, ''The Songlines'' is a seething gallimaufry of a book, a great Burtonian galimatias of anecdote and speculation and description, fascinating, moving, infuriating, incoherent, all at once
added by John_Vaughan | editNY Times, Andrew Harvey (Jul 12, 1987)

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bruce Chatwinprimary authorall editionscalculated
Shakespeare, NicholasIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In Alice Springs - a grid of scorching streets where men in long white socks were forever getting in and out of Land Cruisers - I met a Russian who was mapping the sacred sites of the Aboriginals.
Das Lächeln, sagte ich, sei wie eine Botschaft aus dem Goldenen Zeitalter. Es habe mich gelehrt, alle Argumente, die für die Schlechtigkeit der menschlichen Natur sprächen, unverzüglich zurückzuweisen. Der gedanke, zu einer "ursprünglichen Einfachheit" zurückzukehren, sei nicht naiv oder unwissenschaftlich oder realitätsfremd.
To "de-programme sacred knowledge meant examining archives for unpublished material on Aboriginals: you then returned the relevant pages to the rightful "owners". It meant transferring copyright from the author of a book to the people it described; returning photographs to the photographed (or their descendants); recording tapes to the recorded, and so forth.
In France, these notebooks are known as carnets moleskines: "moleskine" in this case being its black oilcloth binding.
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A story of ideas in which two companions, traveling and talking together, explore the hopes and dreams that animate both them and the people they encounter in Central Australia's almost uninhabitable regions.

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