by Bruce Chatwin
Reviewed by Rick Skwiot
When summer comes I think of movement, of migration and walking. Wandering out across the country and over the globe. Hiking up mountains, through woods or city streets, along the shore—then telling of it, in journals, postcards or phone calls home. It is what we, Homo sapiens, are made to do: to walk and wander, and to sing of what we see. In The Songlines the late Bruce Chatwin posits this and much more, reflecting on the nature of man, on instinct, natural selection, hunting, culture, and why babies cry.
The book, which moved up the bestseller list when it first appeared in this country from Britain in 1987, tells at its core of the Aboriginal dreaming-tracks, the “labyrinths of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia.” It records Chatwin’s encounters with the Aborigines who sing the land and its ancient history into existence as they perambulate over it.
But the book is more, much more than a mere accounting of Chatwin’s own protracted walkabout. It stands as a paean to our species’ nomadic spirit, and draws from the author’s own peregrinations to Sudan, Afghanistan, Timbuktu and Tierra del Fuego. Part travelogue, anthropological treatise, novel, history, and commonplace book, it moves from his Australian narrative to past travels to epigrams from Ghandi, Buddha and Meister Eckhart—and to the author’s own search for the meaning of our migrations.
Along the way we see Chatwin seek out Konrad Lorenz at his Altenberg, Austria, home and present to the renowned ethologist his own theories on human aggression and defensive response, rooted in a time, says the author, when Man was the hunted, not the hunter. To which Lorenz responds, “What you have just said is totally new.”
Much of what one reads in The Songlines comes as something totally new, as a revelation. In it Chatwin synthesizes years of his own wanderings, both topographical and intellectual, into a compelling tour de force on what it means to be human. We are reminded of the myths—Cain and Abel, the prodigal son, and Odysseus—that expose the radical change in our lives when, after hundreds of thousands if not millions of years as wanderers, we just recently settled down to cultivate the earth.
Reading it convinces one that our nature—like that of birds, fish, or wildebeests—lies in movement. We are walkers, with a four-beat rhythm to each step, which mothers instinctually recreate when they rock their crying babies in their arms, soothing them with the belief that they are on the move, not lying vulnerable to the creatures who stalk us.