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The Songlines

The Songlines

Written by Bruce Chatwin

Narrated by James Langton


The Songlines

Written by Bruce Chatwin

Narrated by James Langton

ratings:
4/5 (25 ratings)
Length:
9 hours
Released:
Jul 16, 2019
ISBN:
9781978658677
Format:
Audiobook

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Also available as bookBook

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Also available as bookBook

Description

International Bestseller: The famed travel writer and author of In Patagonia traverses Australia, exploring Aboriginal culture and song—and humanity's origins.

Long ago, the creators wandered Australia and sang the landscape into being, naming every rock, tree, and watering hole in the great desert. Those songs were passed down to the Aboriginals, and for centuries they have served not only as a shared heritage but as a living map. Sing the right song, and it can guide you across the desert. Lose the words, and you will die.

Into this landscape steps Bruce Chatwin, the greatest travel writer of his generation, who comes to Australia to learn these songs. A born wanderer, whose lust for adventure has carried him to the farthest reaches of the globe, Chatwin is entranced by the cultural heritage of the Aboriginals. As he struggles to find the deepest meaning of these ancient, living songs, he is forced to embark on a much more difficult journey—through his own history—to reckon with the nature of language itself.

Part travelogue, part memoir, part novel, The Songlines is one of Bruce Chatwin's final—and most ambitious—works. From the author of the bestselling In Patagonia and On the Black Hill, a sweeping exploration of a landscape, a people, and one man's history, it is the sort of book that changes the reader forever.

Released:
Jul 16, 2019
ISBN:
9781978658677
Format:
Audiobook

Also available as...

Also available as bookBook

About the author

Bruce Chatwin was born in Sheffield in 1940. After attending Marlborough School, he began work as a porter at Sotheby’s. Eight years later, having become one of Sotheby’s youngest directors, he abandoned his job to pursue his passion for world travel. He worked for the Sunday Times from 1972 to 1975, before announcing his next departure in a telegram: “Gone to Patagonia for six months.” This trip inspired the first of Chatwin’s books, In Patagonia, which won the Hawthornden Prize and the E. M. Forster Award, and launched his writing career. Two of his books have been made into feature films: The Viceroy of Ouidah, retitled Cobra Verde and directed by Werner Herzog; and Andrew Grieve’s On the Black Hill. On publication, The Songlines went straight to number one on the Sunday Times bestseller list and remained in the top ten for nine months. On the Black Hill won the Whitbread Literary Award for First Novel. Utz, another work of fiction, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Chatwin died in January 1989 at the age of forty-eight.  


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4.1
25 ratings / 21 Reviews
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  • (3/5)
    An astonishing account of the world-view of the Australian aborigines and their oral traditions over the millennia preceding European colonisation. Hard to summarise - just read it! Chatwin's account is plausible, but is it true? A second opinion is needed.
  • (4/5)
    I you are going to Central Australia, then take this book. An intellectually large book that matches the large environment, the large images and the large sensations of being in the desert.(Read May 2008)
  • (4/5)
    "The Ancients sang their way all over the world. They sang the rivers and ranges, salt-pans and sand dunes. They hunted, ate, made love, danced, killed: wherever their tracks led they left a trail of music."A classic of travel literature, in which Bruce Chatwin goes to Australia to learn about the Songlines, or Dreaming Tracks of the Aborigines. Toward the middle of the book there starts a long but interesting digression, consisting of entries from his notebooks to do with the nomadic life that had always fascinated him. This includes literary, religious and historical quotations about man's need to keep on the move, snippets about the history of nomadism and the conflict between the nomads and settled populations, and reminisces about his own travels with the nomads of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
  • (4/5)
    Good book with an interesting structure and great writing.
  • (4/5)
    It is difficult to review Chatwin's books because they are mix of form -- travel, history, philosophy, fiction and more. What standard do you use to evaluate? Perhaps the best criterion is whether the book addresses the readers curiosity and motivates you to read the next page and the next chapter looking for more. The first part of this book succeeds for me, because the tales of the aboriginals and the wacky Australians are fascinating, although some of the theories related to the songlines seem far fetched. In the second part of the book, Chatwin offers the reader a dump from his notebooks of stories, incidents and reflections from his notebooks over the years. This part of the book is very disjointed and was not very interesting. I suspect that at this point he knew he would be dying soon and wanted to get these notes into print. The rest of the book is worthwhile.
  • (4/5)
    It all starts so well - a fictionalised story of Bruce Chatwin's travels in Australia attempting to link up with earlier, incomplete research that he had done on nomad culture. The writing and the descriptions of his encounters is good.However, he then inserts chapters made up of quotations from other works and other encounters that he has had. These are successful to a greater or lesser extent, but diminish the book, rather than enhance it.Again, a very beautiful Folio edition, with a very striking cover that complements the imagined landscape.
  • (5/5)
    32. The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin (1987, 294 pages, read July 20 - Aug 8)The Australian Aboriginal songlines, or dreaming tracks, are a fascinating part of a mythology that, after reading this book, I only partly understand. They are geographic paths of stories which cut across Australia in different directions from end to end, marking, within the story, every significant natural landmark. A person who knew the songlines would learn the stories about places he or she would probably never see, and then he would pass these on through a complicated cultural system. Later, someone otherwise unfamiliar with these areas could use the songs as map, maybe to find waterholes, and, essentially, as an information source. The songs were kept constant on some level even as the language dialects changed. So, two people from different parts of Australia would know the same songs. Further, there is a larger mythology behind and around the songs, and a whole cultural system that they are an integral part of…at least that’s what I got from Bruce Chatwin.Chatwin visited Australia in order to gain a more intimate understanding of the songlines. With some help, he wandered through central Australia interviewing various people he came across. However, he wasn’t simply out to learn and report about this mythology. His explorations were a means to end, a part of an ongoing search he had obsessively set himself on. Early in the book Chatwin mentions a manuscript that he had written on nomads. He burned the manuscript, but kept the notes. Now, in Australia, he is continuing along the same themes, observing, for example, the similarities between these Aboriginal Songlines and the Homeric epics. He postulates that the ancient Greek mythologies are the remains a similar type of mythological atlas.Perhaps it’s in the book somewhere, but I didn’t read closely enough to gather exactly what Chatwin is looking for. At one point he gets stuck, partially by choice, in a tiny isolated village, and goes through his notebooks and this book either explodes or dissolves in to a list of notes on nomadism and, in general, on some search for some kind of deep understanding of humanity. He later wanders back to the Songlines, but a conclusion is elusive.I started this book while I was reading Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which, to me, felt like an interesting walk in deep obscurity. Nothing else was getting through to me, but Chatwin briefly broke through and I fell in love with this book, with the idea of Chatwin’s pursuit, and with his intense sincerity. Of course, this is a work of fiction (or “a truth and a half”, as Chatwin’s biographer Nicholas Shakespeare put it), which, at least for me, leaves element of confusion. Also, I was left with a sense of incompleteness and of needing, and wanting, to go back here again to try to understand Chatwin and his notes better...without Spenser distracting me in the background. This was a memorable read, and a favorite book.
  • (5/5)
    I have noticed that there are two major criticisms of this book: first, that the author, Bruce Chatwin, did not actually spend (at least in the book) a notable amount of time with the aboriginal people of Australia and 2) that the pieces from the notebooks seem to many like free thought ramblings, having no purpose & breaking up the flow of the book. My thoughts about point 1): I do know that personally I got enough of the gist of Chatwin's idea upon which he expounds in this book to care less about how much time he did or didn't spend with these people -- I was still intrigued by the notions of songlines (which I'll get to in a minute) and their meanings to the aboriginals. Second, as far as the notebook entries being just ramblings out of nowhere, I disagree. If you pay attention to what he's writing, most all of the entries do have some reflection on Chatwin's subject re nomads and nomadic behavior. I thought that the notebook entries were incredibly interesting & insightful and often reflected on his writing re the Aboriginals & their songlines.To begin my musings, I'll start with a quotation from the end of the book. One of the Aboriginal people with whom Chatwin became familiar was Titus, who notes "...there is no such person as an Aboriginal or an Aborigine. There are Tjakamarras and Jaburullas and Duburungas like me, and so on all over the country." (289) Chatwin's main thrust in this book (imho -- but what do I know...I'm just a reader!) is that Aboriginal songs speak to their identity -- sort of a mix of their creation myth, the story of their clans and a map of their identity landscape. What is amazing about these songs is that through them, a clan member can trek through the Australian landscape and based on the rhythm & words, which correspond to the actual geographical landscape (paces, landmarks, etc) find the beginnings of his or her history and the beginnings of where another clan history begins. So it seems that Titus' remark is appropriate...instead of the activists of the "land rights movement" looking at each clan as a separate entity, they have missed that understanding and have lumped all of these people into one major whole. As an example of the importance of the songlines, at the very end of the story, one of the Aboriginals (and I apologize ...I'm not Australian; I don't know if there's a better term to be used or no) named Limpy wanted Chatwin and his friend Arkady to give him a ride to a place on his Songline to which he'd never been. He'd heard that relatives he'd never known were dying; he wanted to see them before they went. So he catches a ride in the Land Cruiser and for seven hours he just sat there, not moving any part of his body except for his eyes. Then, when they were 10 miles short of the valley where Limpy was heading, he started muttering things and started moving his head in and out of the window. The pace of his movements quickened, matching the mutterings. Arkady realized that Limpy was trying to follow the Songline to this place he was going, but because embedded in the song were the correct paces across the landscape, the speed was all wrong in the Land Cruiser and Limpy was having to speed up the pace of his memory to match that of the truck. So Arkady slowed down and instantly Limpy's mutterings slowed down as well. And then out of no where, the road ends; they got out and Limpy, having never been to that place before, relying only on memory of the Songline, knew exactly where they should be going and they reached the spot. Absolutely fascinating.So while the book doesn't focus on the Songlines alone, what information there is should spark your interest in learning more about this incredible subject. You can also choose to look at this book in terms of a kind of travelogue through different parts of Australia and Chatwin's encounters with different and interesting people, but that just sort of cheapens it. My copy is stuffed full with post-it notes for things I want to look up or remember. It is an excellent book; you won't be sorry you've read it. But do take your time...there is a lot in here.I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the topic or anyone who may want to explore the idea of Songlines further. Very well written, and an amazing book.
  • (5/5)
    A favourite. The notes and thoughts half way through at first seem to sit in the wrong book but - The speed at which the book can be read corresponds to Chatwin's own movements. When he moves forward, so does the book. When he sits, waits and reflects, so too the reader.
  • (5/5)
    Ah, now, here is a beautiful piece of work. With a nomad's dusty perspective, Chatwin (or the narrator, if you like) bumps around strange spots, picking fights, writing sparely. Then, with great boldness, he enters into a half-book meditation that includes notebook entries and quotations, enough to spin your head.
  • (2/5)
    Ik had behoorlijk wat verwacht van deze "Songlines", het boek is één van de favorieten van mijn echtgenote en stond al jaren naar me te lonken vanop mijn leesplank. Maar het is een tegenvaller geworden. Net als "In Patagonië" is het een meanderende zoektocht van de auteur, dit keer niet in Vuurland maar in Australië, op zoek naar de cultuur van de Aboriginals. Op zich is dat best interessant, de informatie over de Songlines en alles wat er mee samenhangt, is uiteraard heel intrigerend en uitdagend. Maar Chatwin heeft er een saai verslag van gemaakt, een kroniek van sprekers die me echt niet kon bekoren. Bovendien zet hij zichzelf wel heel erg in de kijker, en werd mijn wantrouwen gewekt door de schijnbaar achteloze manier waarop hij het vertrouwen van de aboriginals wist te winnen. Al voor pagina 100 betrapte ik mezelf er op dat ik diagonaal begon te lezen, en dat is dodelijk. Het helpt natuurlijk ook niet als je in andere recensies te lezen krijgt dat Chatwin geregeld aan het verzinnen slaat in zijn reisverslagen. Spijtig. Misschien neem ik het nog wel eens ter hand als ik ooit in Australië geraak.
  • (4/5)
    Very interesting book but it could have been great. BC's intimate travels w aborigines in northern Australia are recorded along w his descriptions of Songlines and opinions on nomadic peoples, and language was an opinion piece. He was a bit too in love w his subject matter and the ending came on fast. But where do you end such a book. He writes well and his first hand travels w aborigines where enlightening.
  • (3/5)
    Chatwin's intent in Songlines seems to have been to combine a travelogue with a visceral experience of what Aboriginal thought and culture and history are like. It's got all the point A to point B travelogue requisites, but at times the writing feels formless and disjointed. My theory here is that this is Chatwin's reflection of Aboriginal culture. It is, after one, one driven entirely by oral versus written tradition, and perhaps his view was that this gave it a non linear, almost ethereal quality. Anyhow, that's my theory, and I liked its unusual structure and style.Telling the Aboriginal story was and is groundbreaking, moreso so many years ago when it was published. And its experimental -- at times formless -- structure even more so. It's a book you are going to connect with ot not. I liked it but I also didn't get all of it. But then, after reading it, somehow that seemed less important.To me it's like watching modern dance performance. If you want it all to "make sense" you are out of luck. If you are content to just experience it, you're in the right place.
  • (4/5)
    This book was thought provoking in the way that it discusses the migratory and land loving ways of Australian Aboriginals. Chatwin compares these peoples to our evolutionary ancestors and makes observations about our modern lives. I particularly liked the ideas of the necessity of 'walking' and the need for movement to be human and feel at peace with the world. The numerous quotations and notes half-way through the book were fascinating reading and I enjoyed that part of the book most.
  • (3/5)
    There was plenty in this book that irritated me, and at times, yes things that fascinated me. Indeed, this book is saved from a one star rating for the simple reason that I found what was conveyed about Australian Aborigine culture and their “Songlines” fascinating. When Chatwin kept to his personal observations of the people of the Outback, whether of European extraction or Aboriginal, I was riveted. I have to admit this book did what the best books do--inspire me to read more on the subject--but alas even fifteen years after this book’s publication there’s blessed little to be found on the subject of Aborigine culture easily accessible to the general reader--that you can find by browsing the neighborhood bookstore or library. This book is easily the best known.I recently read Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country and Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and both spoke of the Aborigines of Australia as one of the oldest cultures; it was claimed they had been basically unchanged since humans became a behaviorally distinct species--at least until European settlement ended their isolation. As such, they’ve long fascinated anthropologists as a possible window into human pre-history. Chatwin believed they’re a key to a past when humans were constantly on the move, prey to the “Great Beast,” a sabre-tooth cat for whom we were their favorite meal. The “songlines” or “dreaming tracks” are songs that mark routes which the Aborigines believe were walked by the Ancestor totems and must be followed and sung to keep the land alive. The very melody and rhythm of the song can mark direction and distance. Chatwin described songlines as "the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known ... to the Aboriginals as the 'Footprints of the Ancestors' or the 'Way of the Law'.” So songlines are myth, law, trade routes and maps--even land deeds. Chatwin believed all cultures had their songlines, often preserved in their myths.All good. The problem is I find Chatwin maddeningly meandering and unreliable. He himself said that. “To call The Songlines fiction is misleading. To call it non-fiction is an absolute lie.” He doesn’t distinguish clearly in his text between one and the other. Worse, according to the introduction by Rory Stewart, who admired Chatwin’s books, “he inserted images and symbols, from other poems, painting, and myths, copied other people’s sentences and structures”--and without attribution. Stewart doesn’t use the word, but by any other name this is plagiarism--to me a writer’s greatest sin. According to Stewart, Chatwin wouldn’t hesitate to distort and invent in the stories of his travels in order to call up parallels and allusions to classic works. The people who appear in the book are mostly based on real people--but let’s just say that even according to the man who wrote the introduction to this book, well, you shouldn’t judge the people by the portrait, and it’s probably kind that in many cases Chatwin changed their names and personal details. The other thing that drove me batty was the section “From the Notebook” which took up about a third of the book. Chatwin carried his notes in moleskin notebooks, and considered them more precious than his passport. Unfortunately he felt the need to share excerpts with us--at length--that mostly consisted of quotations from other books, what comes down to lecture notes, and vignettes from other travels. This is mostly where he details his anthropological theories about the origins of language, the nomadic nature of humans and our predation by the “Great Beast” and what it meant for human culture. Stewart called Chatwin “erudite” but for me especially here he comes across to me as a poseur. He never really pulls his theories together. It’s all very scattershot. So, is the book worth reading? Sorta. I’m rather glad I did because the picture of the Aborigines intrigued me and left me wanting to know more, but I was constantly wishing I was reading a more solidly factual book on them.
  • (4/5)
    I came to "Songlines" following my discovery of Chatwin through "In Patagonia", in my mind one of the best examples of travel writing I've read. "Songlines", unfortunately, does not reach the same heights, although there are certainly moments of interest within.I work closely with Aboriginal people so my attitude to "Songlines" will be different to many readers, who will be reading of the idea of songlines and other cultural beliefs and practices for the first time. Chatwin does well to explain some of these traditions and beliefs, although I understand some Aboriginal people who spoke with Chatwin were angry when he wrote of some beliefs that were not to be passed on. It may also interest some readers that the proposed Alice Springs to Darwin railway, the reason behind many of Chatwin's interactions with local Aboriginal people, has finally been built. I hope only a minimum of songlines were interrupted by the railway and local Aboriginals are keeping their culture strong.
  • (5/5)
    Walking is everything! A wonderfully interesting (fiction and non-fiction) book about some of the insights that the Australian aborigines can provide modern-day man (and also deals with their plight). I don't necessarily "buy" all his conclusions, but they are fun/interesting to contemplate. The concept of singing the land into existence is a wonderful one.
  • (4/5)
    Dreaming Tracks: "The Songlines" by Bruce Chatwin(Original Review, 1988-05-15)I’ve been reading “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin for the past couple of days, which I’m really enjoying at about the halfway point. It’s a travel book, I suppose, about Chatwin’s experiences in the Australian Outback learning of Aboriginal culture and their belief in ‘songlines’ or ‘dreaming tracks’, or “to the Aboriginals as ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’ or the ‘Way of the Law’:“Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path — birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes — and so singing the world into existence.”It’s fascinating reading in so many ways, about something I knew nothing about. The idea of the songlines, of people being able to understand the land they live on through song, and to be able to navigate across the large expanse of Australia in the remembrance of these songs, is a concept I frankly find bewitching and beautiful. I’m especially taken by the fact that, knowing these songs, different tribes can come to understand one another — tribes who, though they may speak different languages, will be able to comprehend each other through song; because although the words will be foreign the melody will be the same and in the rhythm of the song is its meaning.Really, really interesting. However, I had a look on the Wikipedia page for The Songlines before writing this review — I didn’t know whether to refer to it as a travel book, or whatever; Wikipedia classifies it as a combination of fiction and nonfiction, though it’s reading like a travelogue to me — and it states:“[T]he text has been criticised for being masculist, colonialist, simplistic and unreliable as both a source on European Australians and Aboriginal culture.” (It also notes it has been praised by other critics.) So this is something I will have to bear in mind as I continue reading it.
  • (4/5)
    Part memoir, part philosophical musings, part travel writing. Chatwin gives us his impressions and interpretations of time spent along the boundary between Westen and Australian aboriginal culture. Along the way, he provides flash-backs to other travels which brought him into contact with nomadic tribes and to conversations he's had on the subject of man's nomadic nature. The Songlines got a lot of flak when it was first published because it was not 'accurate' (especially regarding songlines and Australian aboriginal religion/creation story/mythology/history) and reportedly not all true, either. But read this book as one man's impressions, recollections, and interpretations and you can thoroughly enjoy Chatwin's prose as he takes you along to places you may never see to meet people you may never meet. The introduction to this Folio Society edition suggest reading The Songlines as "a poem for those with itchy feet; not as a grand unifying theory", and this advice serves one well in reading this work.Chatwin's prose makes this an easy read. The second half of the book splits time between continuation of the lines set down in the fisrt half and an assembly of notes and quotes from his journals that he reportedly organized while holed up in a small settlement during a flood. At first, page after page of these journal notes seemed pretty self-indulgent, but it turned out for me to be a fascinating collection of thoughts and quotes loosely connected by the them of man's nomadic origins and tendancies.On the terms mentioned above, this becomes an enjoyable read, with some real gems of prose, introspection, and philosophy. Highly recommended.Os.
  • (4/5)
    Effete yet hardened Brit hits the colonies following the Aboriginal Songlines, the paths the Ancestors carved across the sky as they created the world; sends us back his observations, tries to prove his theories. I started out worried because Chatwin is a bad writer who is also trying to sell himself half-heartedly as an "old (fill in country here, as long as it's dry and hot) hand," which doesn't work because he's too effete (and also because it's 1988, you toffee-nosed fuck), and with the other half of his heart trying to sell himself as hapless/a fish out of water, which doesn't work because he takes himself too serious. So you end up idling for a while at the beginning listening to him lecture the locals about how "pastoral nomad" is a tautology like those horrible people who sneer at you for saying "the hoi polloi."Luckily that doesn't last long, and it becomes clear, first, that Chatwin, much as he's far too awkward to render himself in a way that doesn't smack of overcompensating, has a decent hand at rendering the characters he meets--his local bro Arkady, a kind of tawny mannish guide for the pom out of water; Marian, his love interest, the magnificent blonde den mother for the Aboriginal children, which kind of makes you wish Chatwin had done her justice and not rendered her a cliche but is a stirring portrait nonetheless Alex the old man in the desert in the nightgown; lonely Communists with bad bellies, defrocked priests, iron-pumping Spinoza-reading rural cops, vivid encounters in endless tin shacks. This is worthwhile.And it becomes clear also that much as he calls this "fiction," Chatwin's not here to post us his Oz tales per se, or even tell us much about the songlines in the end, which I rue (I craved an academic appendix for a while; I craved more stories like the one about the lizard that lost his wife and ate the dingo babies and got indigestion; I still want to know exactly how the contour of the melody defines the contour of the land). The idea of all the old things and all the modern things--cars and such, like in the Björk song--always existing, asleep under ground till the time comes for them to wake up and sing their world into being; the practical confrontations this causes between people for whom the land is sacred and every feature alive and, like, white dudes in bulldozers--this is good stuff. Chatwin's theories about language beginning in song (well, yes--we can hardly call this "Chatwin's" theory, can we) and song beginning in the need to pick one's way through a landscape, the first songs telling us where and how to go (nice), and that need to move being fundamental, a need to run from a primordial Beast that Chatwin speculates was a sabre-toothed monster specialized to predate on proto-humans woozy from having been forced by climate change to turn from tree- to savannah-dwellers--all of this is worthwhile as well, if pat.And he even gets away with the "when I was dining with the imam" and "they offered my sixty goats for my sperm"-type shit, because the anecdotes and snippets of diaries and quotes and ideas and descriptions of bones that as the book goes on barely hold together into a coherent anything anymore, perhaps a notebook (although actually going on at length about his fucking moleskines was a questionable decision) but really more just a bundle of talk for walks, a diverting where-do-you-come-from-and-where-are-you-going that makes you yearn to go a-journey or excited about being away, a bushel, yes of course, of small, soon-faltering yet still wriggly and beautiful songlines, a quickly sketched take on amazing places and big ideas from a soul on the move.
  • (5/5)
    Excellent, dreamlike account of Chatwin's quest to understand both the origins and spiritual meaning of Songlines of the Australian Aborigines.