Friday, September 12, 2014

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

Image from Happy Antipodean

First published in 1987, this was the burning project the late Bruce Chatwin felt compelled to finish before his untimely death in 1989.

This final opus was closest he came to writing what he called "the nomad book," a project that obsessed his writing life. Chatwin's quest is part anthropological, part musical, part linguistic.

Antipodean in every way to Neville Shute's romantic 1950 novel A Town Like Alice, this philosophical memoir opens in a truckies' bar in the same town, still Alice to the locals. Readers are plunged into the centre of rural Australia, warts and all. Early on, the author meets a wealthy young white man in tight green shorts.

The moment they are introduced, he insults the strange Pom, and reproves his curiosity about the aboriginal concept of songlines, saying this is none of his business. Chatwin eventually finds out the fellow uses his private Land Cruiser and airplane "to fight cultural appropriation."

Later, in the middle of the night, a glum truckie knocks on Chatwin's hotel room door to see if he wants to get drunk and look for sheilas, but seems unsurprised when his invitation is declined.

Chatwin soon meets a second generation Russian who knows a great deal about Aboriginal culture and takes the newcomer under his wing. Arkady has been hired by railway builders to quickly determine where the "Blackfellows" have their songlines so the company can avoid them and lay down a ribbon of steel beyond Middle Bore station.

With his brilliant flair for telling detail and his detached manner of reporting even the most bizarre incidents, Chatwin takes the reader to the middle of the Outback. In his effort to understand the complexities of Aboriginal Songlines, Chatwin uncovers a lot of colonial history, most of it ugly.

At a barbecue attended by well-meaning experts, the author unexpectedly gains an audience with the redoubtable Father Flynn. During this conversation, Chatwin learns of the excommunication of the first Aborigine to become a Catholic priest.

When Arkady takes Chatwin to meet an artist who comes to town to sell a painting, we learn how the  local art dealer interacts with the Aboriginals whose work she sells. We also witness the abyss of misunderstanding between the painter and the American tourists who lurk hopefully in the bookstore as the haggling progresses.

According to Bruce Chatwin's letters, published in 2010 by his widow and Nicholas Shakespeare, it seems that not all his 'real' characters were quite as written. Apparently the controversy about keeping memoir 'true' cropped up in that long-ago time before James Frey's putative memoir.

Memoir aside, Chatwin's work is full of delectable historic and linguistic tidbits. For instance, he opens a letter to the British art dealer John Kasmin with an incidental mention that his friend's name comes from the word Kaz, "Turkic verbal root meaning 'to nomadise' or 'travel': hence Kazakh Cossack etc." In another aside, we learn that the Afghans (who came to Australia in the nineteenth century and laid down the route later followed by the Ghan), introduced and grew paddy melons to feed their camels. He also tells us that "Apes have flat feet, we have sprung arches," and uses this to support his thesis that "man is a migratory species."

In this unclassifiable work, Chatwin, whose major passion seems to be enormous curiosity about the human past, examines and entertains all manner of challenging people, places, and ideas. He even ventures into mysticism, quoting Meister Eckhart, who speaks of the Wayless Way, where humans lose and find themselves at the same time. 

In his personal life, Bruce Chatwin was a secret and conflicted homosexual. He married Elizabeth during his early life, while working with art and antiquities. In the Letters, he writes in middle age to one friend that he has "given up" his homosexual affairs and feelings. Later, dying of AIDS, he expresses regret that he had not become a monk. During his final illness, he tells his brother he is gay but pleads with him not to tell their father, as he wants him to "think well of" his son.

Yet in spite of his financial and health problems and his closeted sexuality, Bruce Chatwin was by no means a tragic figure. A writer and thinker of prodigious talent, intelligence and enterprise, he became a celebrated photographer and journalist after a successful early career as an art dealer at Sotheby's. Later, while working on the projects closest to his heart, he writes to Elizabeth that he doesn't want "to have to make bread and butter doing journalism, because ultimately, it corrodes."

The letters to the many fascinating people he knew (a lot of them famous) are full of charming gems that only Chatwin could have come up with. Writing to his wife from Argentina, he remarks that he is "a hundred and fifty [miles] from the nearest lettuce" and "at least 89 from the nearest canned vegetable." He expects it will take him many years "to recover from roast lamb." From Benin he pens her a letter "in the light of a guttering lamp," before he "must plunge under the mosquito net."

It is a reflection of his important literary and other connections that, upon publication of The Songlines, he asked that copies be sent to Bill Katz, Jasper Johns, Clarence Brown, Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky (who was to have three copies), Joseph Campbell (four copies), James Ivory, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and the American satirical novelist Diane Johnson (five copies).

Bruce Chatwin lived a whirlwind life and left us at the age of 49. Fortunately for less adventurous souls, his words live on, carrying readers to the farthest reaches of this restless nomad's world.

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