The Songlines

by Bruce Chatwin

Paperback, 1988

Call number

919 C



Penguin Books (1988), 304 pages


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.

Media reviews

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
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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
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User reviews

LibraryThing member MeditationesMartini
Effete yet hardened Brit hits the colonies following the Aboriginal Songlines, the paths the Ancestors carved across the sky as they created the world; sends us back his observations, tries to prove his theories. I started out worried because Chatwin is a bad writer who is also trying to sell
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himself half-heartedly as an "old (fill in country here, as long as it's dry and hot) hand," which doesn't work because he's too effete (and also because it's 1988, you toffee-nosed fuck), and with the other half of his heart trying to sell himself as hapless/a fish out of water, which doesn't work because he takes himself too serious. So you end up idling for a while at the beginning listening to him lecture the locals about how "pastoral nomad" is a tautology like those horrible people who sneer at you for saying "the hoi polloi."

Luckily that doesn't last long, and it becomes clear, first, that Chatwin, much as he's far too awkward to render himself in a way that doesn't smack of overcompensating, has a decent hand at rendering the characters he meets--his local bro Arkady, a kind of tawny mannish guide for the pom out of water; Marian, his love interest, the magnificent blonde den mother for the Aboriginal children, which kind of makes you wish Chatwin had done her justice and not rendered her a cliche but is a stirring portrait nonetheless Alex the old man in the desert in the nightgown; lonely Communists with bad bellies, defrocked priests, iron-pumping Spinoza-reading rural cops, vivid encounters in endless tin shacks. This is worthwhile.

And it becomes clear also that much as he calls this "fiction," Chatwin's not here to post us his Oz tales per se, or even tell us much about the songlines in the end, which I rue (I craved an academic appendix for a while; I craved more stories like the one about the lizard that lost his wife and ate the dingo babies and got indigestion; I still want to know exactly how the contour of the melody defines the contour of the land). The idea of all the old things and all the modern things--cars and such, like in the Björk song--always existing, asleep under ground till the time comes for them to wake up and sing their world into being; the practical confrontations this causes between people for whom the land is sacred and every feature alive and, like, white dudes in bulldozers--this is good stuff. Chatwin's theories about language beginning in song (well, yes--we can hardly call this "Chatwin's" theory, can we) and song beginning in the need to pick one's way through a landscape, the first songs telling us where and how to go (nice), and that need to move being fundamental, a need to run from a primordial Beast that Chatwin speculates was a sabre-toothed monster specialized to predate on proto-humans woozy from having been forced by climate change to turn from tree- to savannah-dwellers--all of this is worthwhile as well, if pat.

And he even gets away with the "when I was dining with the imam" and "they offered my sixty goats for my sperm"-type shit, because the anecdotes and snippets of diaries and quotes and ideas and descriptions of bones that as the book goes on barely hold together into a coherent anything anymore, perhaps a notebook (although actually going on at length about his fucking moleskines was a questionable decision) but really more just a bundle of talk for walks, a diverting where-do-you-come-from-and-where-are-you-going that makes you yearn to go a-journey or excited about being away, a bushel, yes of course, of small, soon-faltering yet still wriggly and beautiful songlines, a quickly sketched take on amazing places and big ideas from a soul on the move.
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LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
I have noticed that there are two major criticisms of this book: first, that the author, Bruce Chatwin, did not actually spend (at least in the book) a notable amount of time with the aboriginal people of Australia and 2) that the pieces from the notebooks seem to many like free thought ramblings,
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having no purpose & breaking up the flow of the book. My thoughts about point 1): I do know that personally I got enough of the gist of Chatwin's idea upon which he expounds in this book to care less about how much time he did or didn't spend with these people -- I was still intrigued by the notions of songlines (which I'll get to in a minute) and their meanings to the aboriginals. Second, as far as the notebook entries being just ramblings out of nowhere, I disagree. If you pay attention to what he's writing, most all of the entries do have some reflection on Chatwin's subject re nomads and nomadic behavior. I thought that the notebook entries were incredibly interesting & insightful and often reflected on his writing re the Aboriginals & their songlines.

To begin my musings, I'll start with a quotation from the end of the book. One of the Aboriginal people with whom Chatwin became familiar was Titus, who notes "...there is no such person as an Aboriginal or an Aborigine. There are Tjakamarras and Jaburullas and Duburungas like me, and so on all over the country." (289) Chatwin's main thrust in this book (imho -- but what do I know...I'm just a reader!) is that Aboriginal songs speak to their identity -- sort of a mix of their creation myth, the story of their clans and a map of their identity landscape. What is amazing about these songs is that through them, a clan member can trek through the Australian landscape and based on the rhythm & words, which correspond to the actual geographical landscape (paces, landmarks, etc) find the beginnings of his or her history and the beginnings of where another clan history begins. So it seems that Titus' remark is appropriate...instead of the activists of the "land rights movement" looking at each clan as a separate entity, they have missed that understanding and have lumped all of these people into one major whole.

As an example of the importance of the songlines, at the very end of the story, one of the Aboriginals (and I apologize ...I'm not Australian; I don't know if there's a better term to be used or no) named Limpy wanted Chatwin and his friend Arkady to give him a ride to a place on his Songline to which he'd never been. He'd heard that relatives he'd never known were dying; he wanted to see them before they went. So he catches a ride in the Land Cruiser and for seven hours he just sat there, not moving any part of his body except for his eyes. Then, when they were 10 miles short of the valley where Limpy was heading, he started muttering things and started moving his head in and out of the window. The pace of his movements quickened, matching the mutterings. Arkady realized that Limpy was trying to follow the Songline to this place he was going, but because embedded in the song were the correct paces across the landscape, the speed was all wrong in the Land Cruiser and Limpy was having to speed up the pace of his memory to match that of the truck. So Arkady slowed down and instantly Limpy's mutterings slowed down as well. And then out of no where, the road ends; they got out and Limpy, having never been to that place before, relying only on memory of the Songline, knew exactly where they should be going and they reached the spot. Absolutely fascinating.

So while the book doesn't focus on the Songlines alone, what information there is should spark your interest in learning more about this incredible subject.

You can also choose to look at this book in terms of a kind of travelogue through different parts of Australia and Chatwin's encounters with different and interesting people, but that just sort of cheapens it. My copy is stuffed full with post-it notes for things I want to look up or remember. It is an excellent book; you won't be sorry you've read it. But do take your time...there is a lot in here.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the topic or anyone who may want to explore the idea of Songlines further. Very well written, and an amazing book.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
There was plenty in this book that irritated me, and at times, yes things that fascinated me. Indeed, this book is saved from a one star rating for the simple reason that I found what was conveyed about Australian Aborigine culture and their “Songlines” fascinating. When Chatwin kept to his
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personal observations of the people of the Outback, whether of European extraction or Aboriginal, I was riveted. I have to admit this book did what the best books do--inspire me to read more on the subject--but alas even fifteen years after this book’s publication there’s blessed little to be found on the subject of Aborigine culture easily accessible to the general reader--that you can find by browsing the neighborhood bookstore or library. This book is easily the best known.

I recently read Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country and Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and both spoke of the Aborigines of Australia as one of the oldest cultures; it was claimed they had been basically unchanged since humans became a behaviorally distinct species--at least until European settlement ended their isolation. As such, they’ve long fascinated anthropologists as a possible window into human pre-history. Chatwin believed they’re a key to a past when humans were constantly on the move, prey to the “Great Beast,” a sabre-tooth cat for whom we were their favorite meal. The “songlines” or “dreaming tracks” are songs that mark routes which the Aborigines believe were walked by the Ancestor totems and must be followed and sung to keep the land alive. The very melody and rhythm of the song can mark direction and distance. Chatwin described songlines as "the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known ... to the Aboriginals as the 'Footprints of the Ancestors' or the 'Way of the Law'.” So songlines are myth, law, trade routes and maps--even land deeds. Chatwin believed all cultures had their songlines, often preserved in their myths.

All good. The problem is I find Chatwin maddeningly meandering and unreliable. He himself said that. “To call The Songlines fiction is misleading. To call it non-fiction is an absolute lie.” He doesn’t distinguish clearly in his text between one and the other. Worse, according to the introduction by Rory Stewart, who admired Chatwin’s books, “he inserted images and symbols, from other poems, painting, and myths, copied other people’s sentences and structures”--and without attribution. Stewart doesn’t use the word, but by any other name this is plagiarism--to me a writer’s greatest sin. According to Stewart, Chatwin wouldn’t hesitate to distort and invent in the stories of his travels in order to call up parallels and allusions to classic works. The people who appear in the book are mostly based on real people--but let’s just say that even according to the man who wrote the introduction to this book, well, you shouldn’t judge the people by the portrait, and it’s probably kind that in many cases Chatwin changed their names and personal details.

The other thing that drove me batty was the section “From the Notebook” which took up about a third of the book. Chatwin carried his notes in moleskin notebooks, and considered them more precious than his passport. Unfortunately he felt the need to share excerpts with us--at length--that mostly consisted of quotations from other books, what comes down to lecture notes, and vignettes from other travels. This is mostly where he details his anthropological theories about the origins of language, the nomadic nature of humans and our predation by the “Great Beast” and what it meant for human culture. Stewart called Chatwin “erudite” but for me especially here he comes across to me as a poseur. He never really pulls his theories together. It’s all very scattershot. So, is the book worth reading? Sorta. I’m rather glad I did because the picture of the Aborigines intrigued me and left me wanting to know more, but I was constantly wishing I was reading a more solidly factual book on them.
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LibraryThing member MiaCulpa
I came to "Songlines" following my discovery of Chatwin through "In Patagonia", in my mind one of the best examples of travel writing I've read. "Songlines", unfortunately, does not reach the same heights, although there are certainly moments of interest within.

I work closely with Aboriginal people
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so my attitude to "Songlines" will be different to many readers, who will be reading of the idea of songlines and other cultural beliefs and practices for the first time. Chatwin does well to explain some of these traditions and beliefs, although I understand some Aboriginal people who spoke with Chatwin were angry when he wrote of some beliefs that were not to be passed on.

It may also interest some readers that the proposed Alice Springs to Darwin railway, the reason behind many of Chatwin's interactions with local Aboriginal people, has finally been built. I hope only a minimum of songlines were interrupted by the railway and local Aboriginals are keeping their culture strong.
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LibraryThing member natarsha
This book was thought provoking in the way that it discusses the migratory and land loving ways of Australian Aboriginals. Chatwin compares these peoples to our evolutionary ancestors and makes observations about our modern lives. I particularly liked the ideas of the necessity of 'walking' and the
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need for movement to be human and feel at peace with the world. The numerous quotations and notes half-way through the book were fascinating reading and I enjoyed that part of the book most.
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LibraryThing member Osbaldistone
Part memoir, part philosophical musings, part travel writing. Chatwin gives us his impressions and interpretations of time spent along the boundary between Westen and Australian aboriginal culture. Along the way, he provides flash-backs to other travels which brought him into contact with nomadic
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tribes and to conversations he's had on the subject of man's nomadic nature. The Songlines got a lot of flak when it was first published because it was not 'accurate' (especially regarding songlines and Australian aboriginal religion/creation story/mythology/history) and reportedly not all true, either. But read this book as one man's impressions, recollections, and interpretations and you can thoroughly enjoy Chatwin's prose as he takes you along to places you may never see to meet people you may never meet. The introduction to this Folio Society edition suggest reading The Songlines as "a poem for those with itchy feet; not as a grand unifying theory", and this advice serves one well in reading this work.

Chatwin's prose makes this an easy read. The second half of the book splits time between continuation of the lines set down in the fisrt half and an assembly of notes and quotes from his journals that he reportedly organized while holed up in a small settlement during a flood. At first, page after page of these journal notes seemed pretty self-indulgent, but it turned out for me to be a fascinating collection of thoughts and quotes loosely connected by the them of man's nomadic origins and tendancies.

On the terms mentioned above, this becomes an enjoyable read, with some real gems of prose, introspection, and philosophy. Highly recommended.

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LibraryThing member jrtanworth
It is difficult to review Chatwin's books because they are mix of form -- travel, history, philosophy, fiction and more. What standard do you use to evaluate? Perhaps the best criterion is whether the book addresses the readers curiosity and motivates you to read the next page and the next chapter
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looking for more. The first part of this book succeeds for me, because the tales of the aboriginals and the wacky Australians are fascinating, although some of the theories related to the songlines seem far fetched. In the second part of the book, Chatwin offers the reader a dump from his notebooks of stories, incidents and reflections from his notebooks over the years. This part of the book is very disjointed and was not very interesting. I suspect that at this point he knew he would be dying soon and wanted to get these notes into print. The rest of the book is worthwhile.
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LibraryThing member petulant_seraph
A favourite. The notes and thoughts half way through at first seem to sit in the wrong book but - The speed at which the book can be read corresponds to Chatwin's own movements. When he moves forward, so does the book. When he sits, waits and reflects, so too the reader.
LibraryThing member antao
Dreaming Tracks: "The Songlines" by Bruce Chatwin

(Original Review, 1988-05-15)

I’ve been reading “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin for the past couple of days, which I’m really enjoying at about the halfway point. It’s a travel book, I suppose, about Chatwin’s experiences in the
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Australian Outback learning of Aboriginal culture and their belief in ‘songlines’ or ‘dreaming tracks’, or “to the Aboriginals as ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’ or the ‘Way of the Law’:

“Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings 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.”

It’s fascinating reading in so many ways, about something I knew nothing about. The idea of the songlines, of people being able to understand the land they live on through song, and to be able to navigate across the large expanse of Australia in the remembrance of these songs, is a concept I frankly find bewitching and beautiful. I’m especially taken by the fact that, knowing these songs, different tribes can come to understand one another — tribes who, though they may speak different languages, will be able to comprehend each other through song; because although the words will be foreign the melody will be the same and in the rhythm of the song is its meaning.

Really, really interesting. However, I had a look on the Wikipedia page for The Songlines before writing this review — I didn’t know whether to refer to it as a travel book, or whatever; Wikipedia classifies it as a combination of fiction and nonfiction, though it’s reading like a travelogue to me — and it states:

“[T]he text has been criticised for being masculist, colonialist, simplistic and unreliable as both a source on European Australians and Aboriginal culture.” (It also notes it has been praised by other critics.) So this is something I will have to bear in mind as I continue reading it.
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LibraryThing member stacy_chambers
Excellent, dreamlike account of Chatwin's quest to understand both the origins and spiritual meaning of Songlines of the Australian Aborigines.
LibraryThing member sistersticks
I you are going to Central Australia, then take this book. An intellectually large book that matches the large environment, the large images and the large sensations of being in the desert.

(Read May 2008)
LibraryThing member Oreillynsf
Chatwin's intent in Songlines seems to have been to combine a travelogue with a visceral experience of what Aboriginal thought and culture and history are like. It's got all the point A to point B travelogue requisites, but at times the writing feels formless and disjointed. My theory here is that
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this is Chatwin's reflection of Aboriginal culture. It is, after one, one driven entirely by oral versus written tradition, and perhaps his view was that this gave it a non linear, almost ethereal quality. Anyhow, that's my theory, and I liked its unusual structure and style.

Telling the Aboriginal story was and is groundbreaking, moreso so many years ago when it was published.

And its experimental -- at times formless -- structure even more so. It's a book you are going to connect with ot not. I liked it but I also didn't get all of it. But then, after reading it, somehow that seemed less important.To me it's like watching modern dance performance. If you want it all to "make sense" you are out of luck. If you are content to just experience it, you're in the right place.
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LibraryThing member isabelx
"The Ancients sang their way all over the world. They sang the rivers and ranges, salt-pans and sand dunes. They hunted, ate, made love, danced, killed: wherever their tracks led they left a trail of music."

A classic of travel literature, in which Bruce Chatwin goes to Australia to learn about the
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Songlines, or Dreaming Tracks of the Aborigines. Toward the middle of the book there starts a long but interesting digression, consisting of entries from his notebooks to do with the nomadic life that had always fascinated him. This includes literary, religious and historical quotations about man's need to keep on the move, snippets about the history of nomadism and the conflict between the nomads and settled populations, and reminisces about his own travels with the nomads of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
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LibraryThing member jerryhall
Good book with an interesting structure and great writing.
LibraryThing member CarltonC
It all starts so well - a fictionalised story of Bruce Chatwin's travels in Australia attempting to link up with earlier, incomplete research that he had done on nomad culture. The writing and the descriptions of his encounters is good.
However, he then inserts chapters made up of quotations from
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other works and other encounters that he has had. These are successful to a greater or lesser extent, but diminish the book, rather than enhance it.
Again, a very beautiful Folio edition, with a very striking cover that complements the imagined landscape.
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LibraryThing member miketroll
An astonishing account of the world-view of the Australian aborigines and their oral traditions over the millennia preceding European colonisation. Hard to summarise - just read it! Chatwin's account is plausible, but is it true? A second opinion is needed.
LibraryThing member kcshankd
I found this much more enjoyable than In Patagonia, perhaps because I have travelled some of the same ground of this work.

Once again Chatwin retells the stories of others for the meat of the book, but this time adds more of his own experience in getting that done.

I found the commonplace book
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inserts very odd, I wish he would have instead told us about another week in the bush, which was much more rewarding for this reader.
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LibraryThing member dbsovereign
Walking is everything! A wonderfully interesting (fiction and non-fiction) book about some of the insights that the Australian aborigines can provide modern-day man (and also deals with their plight). I don't necessarily "buy" all his conclusions, but they are fun/interesting to contemplate. The
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concept of singing the land into existence is a wonderful one.
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LibraryThing member alamosweet
Ah, now, here is a beautiful piece of work. With a nomad's dusty perspective, Chatwin (or the narrator, if you like) bumps around strange spots, picking fights, writing sparely. Then, with great boldness, he enters into a half-book meditation that includes notebook entries and quotations, enough to
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spin your head.
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LibraryThing member JBreedlove
Very interesting book but it could have been great. BC's intimate travels w aborigines in northern Australia are recorded along w his descriptions of Songlines and opinions on nomadic peoples, and language was an opinion piece. He was a bit too in love w his subject matter and the ending came on
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fast. But where do you end such a book.
He writes well and his first hand travels w aborigines where enlightening.
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LibraryThing member foof2you
An interesting tale of a man going to Australia to lean about the song-lines of the Aboriginal people. The story of the song-lines was good, but I did not care about his notebook from other travels. Seemed to me to be filler that was unnecessary to the story.
LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
"The Songlines" begins like a traditional piece of travel writing, with Bruce Chatwin off having an adventure in Australia. But it soon morphs into something much more valuable than that - though his document attesting the wisdom of the original tribes of the continent possesses much value, "The
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Songlines" earns its place in the pantheon of great books through Chatwin's exploration of why we wander, and, at its heart, what it means to be human. A fascinating, breathtaking book.
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LibraryThing member MatthewHittinger
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member CasSprout
Wonderfully written story of Australia.
LibraryThing member therebelprince
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
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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.
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