In this extraordinary book, Bruce Chatwin has adapted a literary form common until the eighteenth century though rare in ours; 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. Set in almost uninhabitable regions of Central Australia, The Songlines asks and tries to answer these questions: Why is man the most restless, dissatisfied of animals? Why do wandering people conceive the world as perfect whereas sedentary ones always try to change it? Why have the great teachers—Christ or the Buddha—recommended the Road as the way. to salvation? Do we agree with Pascal that all man’s troubles stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room?
We do not often ask these questions today for we commonly assume that living in a house is normal and that the wandering life is aberrant. But for more than twenty years Chatwin has mulled over the possibility that the reverse might be the case.
Pre-colonial Australia was the last landmass on earth peopled not by herdsmen, farmers, or city dwellers, but by hunter-gatherers. Their labyrinths of invisible pathways across the continent are known to us as Songlines or Dreaming Tracks, but to the Aboriginals as the tracks of their ancestors—the Way of the Law. Along these “roads” they travel in order to perform all those activities that are distinctively human—song, dance, marriage, exchange of ideas, and arrangements of territorial boundaries by agreement rather than force.
In Chatwin’s search for the Songlines, Arkady is an ideal friend and guide: Australian by birth, the son of a Cossack exile, with all the strength and warmth of his inheritance. Whether hunting kangaroo from a Land Cruiser, talking to the diminutive Rolf in his book-crammed trailer, buying drinks for a bigoted policeman (and would-be writer), cheering as Arkady’s true love declares herself (part of The Songlines is a romantic comedy), Chatwin turns this almost implausible picaresque adventure into something approaching the scale of a Greek tragedy.
The life of the Aboriginals stands in vivid contrast, of course, to the prevailing cultures of our time. And The Songlines presents unforgettable details about the kinds of disputes we know all too well from less traumatic confrontations: over sacred lands invaded by railroads, mines, and construction sites, over the laws and rights of a poor people versus a wealthy invasive one. To Chatwin these are but recent, local examples of an eternal basic distinction between settlers and wanderers. His book, devoted to the latter, is a brilliant evocation of this profound optimism: that man is by nature not a bellicose aggressor but a pacific, song-creating, adaptive species whose destiny is to quest for the truth.