Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 30, 2013

The Songlines (1987), by Bruce Chatwin

The SonglinesI had been wracking my brains for a way to introduce the topic of Australian Explorers to my students that was respectful of Aboriginal history and culture when I suddenly remembered that I had a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines on my TBR…

The new Australian Curriculum requires that students learn something about the courageous European explorers who mapped this country and its waters – but the topic needs to be studied in the context that of course the indigenous people of this country already had a sophisticated knowledge of every square metre of it.  As a nomadic people they travelled all over Australia, hunting and gathering, and trading all kinds of things including the ochre that was used for body decoration.  (I learned about this trafficking of ochre from Ochre and Rust by Philip Jones).  So I wanted to start my unit of work by acknowledging the way that Aborigines ‘mapped’ their travels.  They navigated across our vast continent by using Songlines.

Australian Dreaming The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and CultureI did not, however, know much about Songlines, and much to my surprise the reference books I use when planning any lessons to do with Aboriginal art, history or culture didn’t include them in their indexes at all.  We have a copy of The Oxford Companion to Aboriginal Art and Culture and Australian Dreaming, 40,000 Years of Aboriginal History andwhen including Aboriginal Perspectives in our curriculum, I’ve used these to find out about Aboriginal names for the stars and planets, bush tucker and medicines, and various Dreaming stories.  They’re wonderful books full of really interesting stuff even if you’re not a school teacher.  But since I drew a blank with them I decided to read Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines instead.

The Songlines is a controversial work.  Controversial because it espouses a theory described at eNotes as ‘nutty’ in Magill’s Survey of World Literature, i.e. that all the world’s evils are a result of man abandoning a nomadic lifestyle for a sedentary one.  Controversial because (according to Wikipedia) the book is ‘masculinist, colonialist, simplistic and therefore unreliable as both a source on European Australians and Aboriginal culture’.   On the other hand, this strange text, a melange of travel writing, notes, and novelistic narrative pays some respect to Aboriginal culture in a way that was uncommon in popular culture at the time of writing (1987).  And while it does seem sometimes as if either Chatwin, his characters or their Aboriginal informants are sometimes ‘taking the Mickey’, the book does explain what Songlines are:

the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as ‘Dreaming-tracks’ or ‘Songlines’; to the Aboriginals as the ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’ or the ‘Way of the Law’.   Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic being who wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path – birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes – and so singing the world into existence.

The plot is a simple one.  Bruce (who might be Bruce Chatwin himself or some other narrator also called Bruce) is a journalist who wants to find out about the Songlines because he admires the nomadic lifestyle.  He teams up with Arkady whose job it is to identify possible sacred sites that might cross a planned Alice Springs-to-Darwin access route for a mining company.  They travel together from Alice Springs to Middle-Bore Station surveying the land, and this enables Arkady to  take on the role of explaining the complex system of Songlines to Bruce:

He went on to explain how each totemic ancestor, while travelling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints, and how these Dreaming-tracks lay over the land as ‘ways’ of communication between the most far-flung tribes.  (p. 15)

This part of the book is interesting.  The characterisation is lively, the settings in remote Australia are beautifully realised, and Chatwin seems to have captured the Australian ‘voice’ in all its diversity.  Sure, there are not a lot of female characters, and they’re not as well-drawn as the men, but the art dealers who sell the work of the Aboriginal artists of the desert are dynamic women who represent both sides of the coin – providing a market and an income for the artists, but also exploiting them.  Chatwin depicts a multi-facetted view of Aboriginal life: the sophistication and integrity of their culture; the discrimination against them; and the social problems caused by alcohol abuse.   The road journey has its share of travails, and the novel maintains a compelling momentum.

But there are signs that Chatwin knew that his research for this book would cause offence, and that he didn’t care.  A character called Kidder is easily dismissed:

‘Aboriginals are sick and tired of being snooped at like they were animals in a zoo.  They’ve called a halt’.
‘Who’s called the halt?’
‘They have,’ he said.  ‘And their community advisers.’
‘Of which you are one?’
‘I am,’ he agreed, modestly.

This Kidder with his ironic name goes on to explain that ‘the sacred knowledge was the cultural property of the Aboriginal people.  All such knowledge had been acquired either by fraud or by force’   (p. 47) and that this sacred knowledge needed to be ‘de-programmed’:

which 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.

I heard him out, gasping with disbelief. (p. 47)

This Bruce, whether Chatwin or a character, is only interested in learning about Aboriginal culture on his own terms.  He does not care that viewing a tjuringa (a sacred object not meant to be viewed by anyone uninitiated) is sacrilegious.  And that’s another problem with this book.  While in some sections it’s obvious that Chatwin’s Aboriginal informants are inventing things (a) for amusement, poking fun at their interrogators, and (b) to deflect interest in the location of a genuine but secret site; in other cases it’s not clear at all.

But then the novel (if that’s what it is) falters. The latter third of the book is not a success.  ‘Bruce’ is marooned in the wet, so he goes through his Moleskines to make sense of notes he’s taken about his pet theory, the one about the joys of the nomadic lifestyle in assorted societies of the world.  So there are pages and pages of tenuously connected notes about all kinds of stuff: it’s very tedious to read.

It’s an odd book altogether.

Still, for my purposes, I think I’ve grasped the concept of a Songline at its most simple.

Aboriginals, when tracing a Songline in the sand, will draw a series of lines with circles in between.  The line represents a stage in the Ancestor’s journey (usually a day’s march).  Each circle is a ‘stop’, ‘waterhole’ or one of the Ancestor’s campsites.  But the story of the Big Fly One was beyond me.

It began with a few straight sweeps: then it wound into a rectangular maze, and finally ended in a series of wiggles.  As he traced each section, Joshua kept calling a refrain, in English, ‘Ho! Ho! They got the money over there.’

I must have been very dim-witted that morning: it took me ages to realise that this was a Qantas Dreaming.  Joshua had once flown into London.  The ‘maze’ was London Airport: the Arrival gate, Health, Immigration, Customs and then the ride into the city on the Underground.  The ‘wiggles’ were the twists and turns of the taxi, from the tube station to the hotel. (p. 173)

I do like the idea that there might be Songlines in London too!

Author: Bruce Chatwin
Title: The Songlines
Publisher: Picador, 1988, first published 1987
ISBN: 9780330300827
Source: Personal library, purchased second-hand from Diversity Books* $6.00


Fishpond: The Songlines (new, Vintage) or The Songlines (Second-hand, Picador Books)

* I have been a customer of Diversity Books for a very long time, so I was saddened to see that it has closed down, but they are still trading on the internet and they have a great collection of literary fiction and other treasures so be sure to check them out if you are looking for secondhand books.


  1. I remember enjoying and admiring this novel way back when it was first released, but being disappointed to hear that Chatwin had never been to Australia and so his voice was not authentic. Looking back, I suppose this was not fair. Writers can’t go to every destination and if that was a requirement, we wouldn’t t have any historical novels etc. However, although his research is extensive, I wonder if problems in the novel are a result of his not experiencing Australia in person.


    • It’s hard to know, Jan, there are so many sensitivities around the appropriation of culture in postcolonial times.
      I’m sure that many authors today rely on internet research for background info to write about places they’ve never been to!


    • Where did you hear that Chatwin never visited Australia? I understood that he’d met Rushdie at a lit festival in Adelaide and they’d headed out together, into the countryside.


      • I just looked up Wikipedia and it says he visited Australia. WP of course could be wrong. I don’t know where else to look to verify this…


      • History tends to be rewritten, but I do remember Chatwin being criticised at the time. I would be pleased to hear he had been there prior to writing Songlines.


  2. I read Songlines while backpacking around the Northern Territory. It was a great experience to read it then. I totally agree with you, Lisa, about the final third of the book, though. It quickly went from being a wonderful read to being a tedious one…


    • I expect it would be even better to read it in the same sort of environment as he describes…


  3. I have read both The Songlines and In Patagonia by Chatwin. The Songlines, went on too long, but still an interesting read. In Patagonia, was a great read even though I thought that Chatwin may have been exaggerating some of his experiences. Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography on Chatwin is very good. Shakespeare seems to have had a very good understanding of Chatwin. Chatwin was a complex man. Bruce Chatwin wrote engrossing stories based on some facts and some untruths.


    • Hi Meg – does it say in the bio if he actually came to Australia, and to the parts he writes about in particular?


    • Chatwin was a writer of fiction and as I used to say to my students, a story doesn’t have to be true, but the reader must believe it to be so, then you have written a successful story.
      Chatwin seemed to have managed a hastily arranged visit to Australia, after he had written Songlines, but that is pretty difficult to verify now.


  4. Shakespeare does say Chatwine did travel to Australia and did write about some parts he visited. I can’t remember the exact details. Chatwin had me believing The Songlines was based on his travels in Australia; the people he met who told him the stories about the Aborigines and their songs and myths. He took me there.


  5. Oh my, I had forgotten about this book. I read it about a year or so after it was published as part of my “getting ready for Australia reading”. A quick scan of my bookshelves and it appears sometime over the last 20 odd years I have discarded the book, so I have added it to my “check in library list”


    • The kids at school were enchanted by the concept of Songlines. I took them outside into the yard, and we created our own Songline, tracing a route past a water source (the drinking taps) and a food source (our school orchard) and we made up our own song as we went along, noting ‘landmarks’ as we walked. I think that if they ever travel into remote parts of Australia they will have increased respect for how the Aborigines travelled across what looks like a featureless landscape. I hope so.


      • I hope so to Lisa. It sound as though the kids enjoyed the experience and hopefully they will reflect on it. How old are the kids?


  6. Lisa, whilst I was adding a few books to my forever growing wish list I came across a book which might help – Being Aboringinal by Bill Bunbury and Ros Bowden. The book I think is essential quotes, comments and observatons from Aboringinal Australians living in “white” Australia. I don’t like the white bit, so I would read that as modern Australia.


    • The kids are 8-9 year olds, in Years 3 & 4. So they’re very open to new ideas and still have that childlike curiosity about the world. A lovely age group to teach. (But I love all my classes, from Preps to Year 6 *smile*)
      I’ll have a look for the book you recommend, are you going to sign up for Indigenous Literature Week again this year? I must get the promos going for that soon!


      • A nice age to teach, still curious about the world. Yes, I shall sign up for Indigenous Literature Week again. I ought to start thinking of my book choices.


        • That’s great, Julie, I’ll get the sign-up widget set up when I’ve finished midyear reports. *sigh*


  7. […] The characters ‘sing’ the routes along which they travel in a way perhaps similar to Aboriginal songlines described by Bruce Chatwin.  If the Booker is still demanding so-called accessibility for its winners, The Chimes may […]


  8. […] about the term ‘songlines’ was from the English author Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines because I wanted to include the concept in what I was teaching about Australian exploration.  I had […]


  9. […] about the term ‘songlines’ was from the English author Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines because I wanted to include the concept in what I was teaching about Australian exploration.  I had […]


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


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