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The Songlines (Vintage Classics)
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
This is a unique and unclassifiable book, part novel, part travel book, part notebook full of quotations and speculations. Chatwin focuses on the notion that language and human thought began in songs that sang the landscape and living things into existence. Aboriginal culture continues this tradition in songlines which are explored as living entities, maps, boundaries, calendars, catalogues, survival systems, myths. Chatwin says the ultimate question he is asking is, why are humans so restless? He argues that this is the ultimate human quality. We are nomadic in our core. He quotes a European tramp: "It's like the tides were pulling you along the highway. I'm like the Arctic tern, guv'nor...what flies from the North Pole to the South Pole and back again." This book doesn't provide answers. Indeed it plunges into even wider speculations about war, prehistory, mythology and culture. But it goes far beyond the predictable "Aboriginal wisdom for the westerner" that I expected. A fascinating, difficult, but intriguing book.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 9 March 2004
I was recommended this book by several different people, if you are interested in the 'aboriginal' culture/travelling or you think you might be then this book is for you. Although it is classically written & occasionally quite heavy I found it very interesting. Bruce Chatwin goes on a journey to study the songlines and on the way he ponders the origin of man, presenting evidence that man was originally Nomadic & also writes 3/4 chapters worth of short passages taken from all over the globe to give atmosphere to this claim, one of the most amazing facts was that an aboriginal in the far north can understand an aboriginal from the far south without understanding his language, he translates the melodies of his songs & therefore knows which path he is walking & therefore where he is from, this book has been a great help in understanding more about the ancients in OZ for me, personal accounts of cultures are always more informative than text books I find & this book is no exception :-)
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on 19 July 1999
The songlines criss cross Australia; the paths taken by the first men as they sang creation into being. Each Aborigine tends his section of the line, and must regularly sing the songs that keep creation new.
Chatwin's wanderings took him to Australia's red centre to explore the origins of these lines, as part of a project he was toying with (but never completed, so far as I'm aware) exploring the roots of man's incessant need to travel.
His prose is as sparse and dusty as the landscape itself as he meets the native and European Australians who inhabit the vast emptiness of the outback. The result is as beautiful and strange as the outback itself.
The book uncovers a little about the Aborigines, a group who have not been often explored in mainstream wirting before, as well as the racism felt by many Australians towards them.
But its main success is opening up the dusty interior itself - a place on a scale that is unimaginable to Europeans. Chatwin's triumph is to reveal the magic that pervades Australia - that a stagnant pond can be as important a spiritual site as Ayers Rock.
For anyone with an interest in Australia, Aboriginal culture or the nature of man's wanderlust, this is an essential read. Highly recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 1 December 2009
This book by Bruce Chatwin is a rare pleasure, written by a man truly interested in all the peoples of the world including their culture, language, arts and metaphysics. This time Chatwin went to Australia to attempt to understand the very complex system of Aboriginal religious structures called songlines. As far as I can see from this book songlines are the connections in song of one part of the country to another part, each practised by the people who live there with neighbours sharing the "song". Not only does this define their religion but it in fact recreates their land as well, a kind of pure ideality in the philosophcal sense.

The first parts of this book concentrate on Chatwin's experiences with the people of outback Australia be they Aboriginal or white. He seems to find truly remarkable people, each unique and even wild in their own way. Typical of Australia, it is full of people from all over the world, such as his friend Arkady of Russian extraction. Chatwin has a fascinating background with his experiences of other cultures often allowing him access to other, more conservative, people who are suspicious of the outsider. Using this technique he breaks down their resistance and writes with compassion and depth of his experiences. Unfortunately, two aspects come to light which I believe are not advantageous to the reading of the book. The first is his tendency to both promote and justify the practise of travelling or the nomadic lifestyle which he himself practises. The second is the habit of filling out the rest of the book with too many quotations from others rather than making use of his experiences with their beauty and uniqueness due to the meeting of people as he travels and the sense of the land which formed the backbone and pure joy of the earlier parts of the book.

Nonetheless an exceptional book and a joy to read. A very human book.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 24 April 2010
Chatwin's skill in conveying the experience of his travels, the breath of daily existence, is masterfully portrayed in The Songlines. The Songlines are the traditional pathways across Australia followed by aboriginals as they literally sing their way through their native country, passing from one tribal homeland to another, acknowleding the occupation rights of each whilst, in effect, securing safe passage by recounting their own ancestry. Chatwin exposes both the helpers and do-gooding hinderers of the Aborignal cause; those who inflate their own self esteem on the pretence of protecting them; those who simply exploit them for financial gain and those who really do have their best interests at heart. Meanwhile, in the background and threatening everything, is the potentially self-destructive nature of the aboriginals themselves.

Overlayed on Chatwin's inaugural excursion into Australia's unforgiving outback, experiencing the perils of simple survival in a land where nature and tribal custom override any outside influence, The Songlines is a wonderful evocation of a life few of us will have the opportunity to personally experience. The only slight negative for me was Chatwin's spell of reminiscing his travel notes from previous journeys. At first insightful into Chatwin and his life, this went on too long and became a little tedious.

Having recently read Remembering Babylon by David Malouf, Chatwin helps build a solid picture of life on another planet.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 9 October 2000
This story is not really an edited book, rather a conversation with a dusty traveller whom you have met on an isolated rural railway station, somewhere far away, with two days until the next train. It starts as something to pass the time, but becomes a tale of the global history of Man, revealing many reasons for doing what we do - or having done what we have done. It makes us question the values that our civilisation has socialised us into believing in, not because we envy the squalid freedom of the aborigines, but because we must envy that they still understand the nature of Nature, and the nature of Man, and also of Man in Nature.. Sometimes it asks questions and answers them, and sometimes it gives an answer and you are left searching for the question. A book to be read alone, without distraction, when you have time to read it without laying it down. An memorable book which can be used to find some answers to many problems in the world today, whether they be related to religious divergence, racism, ethnic conflict, suppression of minorities, environmental conflicts, etc., etc., etc..
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 7 January 2014
"I am an intellectual sort of chap and think of things that would astonish you," as W S Gilbert's sentry sang to us in 'Iolanthe'. Bruce Chatwin's considerable intellect also hides itself behind his expertly crafted persona.
Make no mistake, Chatwin may have passed himself off as a wandering journalist, but he is in fact, for as long as his books are read, one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century. Much is not what it seems and 'The Songlines' in my opinion is his greatest novel. You can read it once, twice, three times and still come back for more.

I've little else to say. What follows is a taster for those who haven't read this hypnotic and fascinating book. The best part is the section 'From the Notebooks' (Chatwin's precious moleskines) that begins on p163 of the 1998 Vintage paperback edition, and a good start with this is the piece which Chatwin tells us is 'After Josephus,' "Jewish Antiquities, I, iv".

'A very short History of the Skyscraper'
Everyone knows, Chatwin writes, that the Tower of Babel was conceived as an attack on Heaven. The officials in charge of the construction were few. The work-force was innumerable: and in order that commands might not be misconstrued, every worker was required to speak the same language.
Little by little, as the courses of masonry succeeded one another, the Highest Authority became anxious that the concept of war against Heaven might be meaningless: worse, that God in His Heaven might not exist. At an emergency session of the Central Committee, it was decided to launch a probe into the sky. Salvoes of missiles were fired off, vertically; and when these returned to Earth, bloodstained, here was proof that God, after all, was mortal; and that work on the Tower should proceed.
He, for His Part, resented being pricked in the backside. One morning, with a disdainful puff, He unsteadied the arm of a mason on one of the uppermost terraces, causing him to drop a brick on to the head of a fellow mason below. It was an accident. Everyone knew it was an accident, but the mason below began shouting threats and insults. His comrades tried to calm him, in vain. Everyone took sides in the quarrel without knowing what the quarrel was about. Everyone, in his righteous anger, refused to listen to what his neighbour was saying, and used language intended to confuse. The Central Committee was helpless: and the work gangs, each of whom now spoke a different language, took refuge from each other in remotest regions of the Earth.

As for the Songlines themselves it's wonderful stuff when taken very slowly and carefully. The mind that conceived all this is extraordinary. All that's missing for me is a Glossary of terms, names, relationships, places etc for us to refer back to from time to time; is there a kind leisurely soul somewhere who might have enough spare time to put one together on the web?
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 23 September 2009
Songlines is an outstanding book. No wonder many of my mates had to read it at school. It's taken me 25 years to catch up with them but I'm glad I finally got round to it. It combines some gripping anecdote and tale of adventures with some very erudite philosophical discussion, or rather musings, and opportunity to learn about nomadic cultures and the aboriginal australians
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 22 June 2012
Based on comments I'd heard about the book previously, when I began reading I expected a very dry and difficult prose, but I actually found it a very easy read and got into it straight away. In fact, I found it hard to put down for at least the first half of the book. I was disappointed that I didn't learn a huge amount more about the songlines themselves as the book progressed - it became more about the life (in general) of aboriginals in contemporary Australia. That was interesting too; but expected as the book was named for the songlines they might have been studied in a little more depth.

My main bugbear with the book were the more diverse strayings from the path, such as the excerpts from Chatwin's notebooks (possibly interesting in their own right, but not what I picked up this particular book to read). There was also too much of Chatwin's personal 'exploits' whilst travelling from place to place, and constantly proving himself worthy before information being brought forth. I got the point.

Although slightly disappointing overall, the information I did glean from reading this was worthwhile.
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This interesting and knowledgeable travel book left me wanting to know more about the subject of Aboriginal culture and customs.

Bruce Chatwin describes in this book his journey into the Australian Outback to find out more about the Songlines, which are part of the Aboriginal Dreamtime or creation stories. That this is not all as straightforward as it sounds becomes clear early on, as Bruce joins an Australian researcher of Russian descent, who is mapping the sacred sites of the Aborigines. As he travels with the Russian, Bruce talks to Aboriginal tribal elders, who tell him that every tribe has their own Songs, which they use as a map to traverse the vast Australian Outback.

Bruce's style of writing is entertaining. He manages to combine humorous dialogue with facts about the Outback and Aboriginal culture.
Towards the end of the book he does digress a bit with quotes and short facts copied from his notebooks, about his thought on why people are nomads, but it does tie in with the subject of his book - the nomadic Aborigines.

Even though The Songlines was written in 1987, it is a good read for anyone interested in Aboriginal culture and life in the Australian Outback.
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