Posts Tagged ‘Bruce Chatwin’

I have wanted to read Bruce Chatwin’sThe Songlines‘ for a long time. I finally got around to reading it.

Bruce Chatwin decides to go to Australia and do research on the songs of indigenous Australians and learn more about the history of the songs. It appears that the songs function as a map for indigenous Australians and when all the songs by the different tribes are put together, they describe the flora and fauna and the whole landscape of Australia. This is what I understood from the book.

The first half of the book is structured like a classic travelogue – Chatwin reads books on the songs and goes to Australia and talks to a few people and attempts to write the definitive history of the songs (which is next to impossible after talking to a few people). Suddenly, halfway through the book, it appears that Chatwin has run out of material and he suddenly starts sharing quotes from his notebook and his own notes, which are not at all related to native Australians or their songs. They are mostly about nomads in different parts of the world, quotes about nomads and travel by famous writers and stuff about human evolution. Towards the end he tries to make a link which is weak at best.

So the first part of the book is like a travelogue which anyone could have written and the second part is Chatwin sharing parts of his notebook.

The book was very disappointing. I had wanted to read it since my teens and maybe I had built up too high an expectation, but I felt that the book didn’t stick to its theme and even when it did, it wasn’t great. The native Australian characters all look similar (unlike Sally Morgan’s memoir where each person is distinct) and though Chatwin makes all the right liberal noises (‘The aborigines are great. I love them’ kind of thing), it sounds extremely unconvincing. The book was a bestseller when it came out and it got great reviews. I don’t know why.

But there was one silver lining. There was one page in the middle of the book which was absolutely beautiful. I am glad I read that page. I’m sharing it below. Hope you like it.

“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 résumé 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.
      Pascal, in one of his gloomier pensées, gave it as his opinion that all our miseries stemmed from a single cause: our inability to remain quietly in a room.
      Why, he asked, must a man with sufficient to live on feel drawn to divert himself on long sea voyages? To dwell in another town? To go off in search of a peppercorn? Or go off to war and break skulls?
      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.
      One thing alone could alleviate our despair, and that was ‘distraction’ (divertissement): yet this was the worst of our misfortunes, for in distraction we were prevented from thinking about ourselves and were gradually brought to ruin.
      Could it be, I wondered, that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?
      All the Great Teachers have preached that Man, originally, was a ‘wanderer in the scorching and barren wilderness of this world’ – the words are those of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor – and that to rediscover his humanity, he must slough off attachments and take to the road.”

You can find Lisa’s (from ANZ Litlovers) review of the book here.

You can find Kim’s (from Reading Matters) review of the book here.

Have you read ‘The Songlines‘? What do you think about it?

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