I 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.
I 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
Source: Personal library, purchased second-hand from Diversity Books* $6.00
* 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.