Friday, September 16, 2011

Review of "The Songlines" by Bruce Chatwin

I’m aware this book has a bit of a following and is popular amongst most who have read it - and it’s certainly not my intention to cast Chatwin’s effort into the mud - but I have to say I was a disappointed upon finishing The Songlines.  I don’t expect scientific objectivity in my travel writing (read Lewis and Clark’s journals if you want boring), but I do expect the writer to refrain from overhanded intrusion, redirecting their experience toward a personal agenda.  After all, aren’t we reading such travelogues to get a sense of what a place is like, not what the writer wants it to be?  As such, the book should be approached as a personal reflection while in Australia, rather than travel writing, if it's to be fully apprciated.  But before getting to the positives of The Songlines, I should first loose my feelings regarding the downside.

The artistic license with which Chatwin goes about dictating The Songlines (in my opinion; others may disagree) detracts from the effort rather than improving it.  Reading like a novel, dialogue is often relayed in verbatim form, as if conversation were recorded and later fit (miraculously) within the larger text.  This dramatization, while certainly bringing the experience closer to the average reader, only cheapens the overall product.  Like a friend exaggerating to make the bully they knocked out a little bigger and meaner, Chatwin manipulates the reader’s experience by adding direct speech that only resembles reality rather than representing it.   Such practice begs the question: if a writer tailors travel dialogue, what else are the willing to alter to make a book suit their needs?  But I digress.

Aboriginal awareness – one of Chatwin’s goals in writing The Songlines - is certainly commendable.  The book a record of his time in the Australian Outback, his descriptions of Aboriginals and their lives in the desert makes for solid reading.  Stealing the show, though, are the wild west blokes toughing it alone in the inhospitable Outback, their characters the bright points of the book.  Chatwin is widely read, and along with the topics he discusses related to Aboriginals, he weaves in evolutionary theory, nomadism, and “the Other,” using the Aboriginee mythological idea of “songlines” as a metaphor for the interconnections of humanity and nature.  This being said, I unfortunately must mention the negative side of this content.  

Australia is home to hundreds of different tribal groups, and despite crossing the territories of dozens in his trip from the Adelaide into Australia’s center, Chatwin ignores this myriad culture, universalizing their individual beliefs and traditions with blanket statements that subsume the whole.   The result is that individual cultures of the First People are mixed together into one bowl to satisfy Chatwin’s philosophical objectives, which leaves one wondering whether the exposition of his own theories didn’t take on more importance than the cultures and people he was reporting on.  

When taken at face value, The Songlines is a likeable read.  Readers of Bryson or Theroux would enjoy the charm of travel Chatwin invokes.  In fact, the colorful characters and scenes would be interesting to many, the well traveled to the stay-at-home dreamer.  I just personally find it difficult to move beyond the artistic license and self-aggrandizement.  Others, well, if you're not put off by such tactics, you may be one of the many who enjoy the book.

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