Bruce Chatwin's book as popular as ever

A best-seller upon release, The Songlines still fans the flame on cafe arguments about Australian Aboriginal culture, especially on the track from Alice Springs to Darwin.
A best-seller upon release, The Songlines still fans the flame on cafe arguments about Australian Aboriginal culture, especially on the track from Alice Springs to Darwin. Mike Knott BUN100715NAIDOC6

TERRITORY literati and film buffs rightly rejoiced at the 2014 release of a sophisticated film version of Robyn Davidson's Tracks, sparking glowing reviews, interviews, features, comment and analyses across the globe.

Starring Mia Wakowski as Davidson, the film was released within coo-ee of the 30th anniversary of the book's original publication in 1980.

However another giant of Territory literature, arguably bigger in stature and depth yet similar in theme, celebrated its 25th anniversary alone and without candles in a Northern Territory seemingly indifferent to its passing.

The Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin, describes the celebrity British travel writer's adventures in Central Australia during the land rights era.

In the star-studded field of Central Australian literature, the work stands out by virtue of having stirred considerable international and domestic controversy upon its release in 1987.

This year marks The Songlines 30th anniversary.

A best-seller upon release, the book still fans the flame on cafe arguments about Australian Aboriginal culture, especially on the track from Alice Springs to Darwin.

In fact, it has become politically incorrect for Territorians to admit they even "like” the book.

Well, I have to admit, I "love” The Songlines.

Furthermore, many authors have professed to me in quieter moments that they "love” it as well.

And three decades of strident criticism hasn't dampened readers' enthusiasm either.

The book traces the author's search for the nomadic roots of the human race.

According to Chatwin, we would all be better off if we emulated the habits of our distant ancestors who walked across the plains of Africa.

Chatwin became convinced that the answer to his quest lay in the Dreaming tracks of the Australian Aboriginal people.

When publishers Random House launched a 25th anniversary edition of The Songlines late in 2012, Central Australian historian Dick Kimber, who remains fiercely critical of the work, nevertheless conceded it was "one of the best-selling books about Aboriginal culture that has ever been”.

A new foreword to the edition by travel writer and British politician Rory Stewart claims The Songlines "transformed travel writing”.

By my reading of his text and life, Chatwin came to Alice Springs looking for a way to die.

The Songlines follows Chatwin's "fictional” self, also named "Bruce”, on a journey to Alice Springs where he encounters Aboriginals and an exiled Ukranian named Arkady, who maps sacred sites for a railway company.

The character Arkady is based on real-life anthropologist Anatole (Toly) Sawenko, who was working in Central Australia at the time.

Chatwin made two brief trips to the Centre, the first during February 1983, and the second during March of 1984.

During the 1983 visit, Sawenko drives Bruce up the Stuart Highway to camp at the truck-stop town of Ti Tree beside the shack of Jack Clancy, a former unionist (aka Chatwin's character of the lonely bushman "Hanlon”).

Next day, the pair collect some Aboriginal people from Stirling and drive to Osborne Creek to camp.

Bruce is worried about snakes and some Aboriginals show him a way of snake-proofing his swag.

True to form, however, roles are reversed in the book, where "Bruce” appears as the hero unfazed by snakes.

The next day they return to Alice Springs, where Chatwin spends time before returning to Sydney then England.

In 1984, Chatwin was keen to return, and fortunate to be invited to the Adelaide Writers Festival.

From Adelaide he flies to Alice Springs with bestselling author Salman Rushdie, whereupon the pair hire a car and drive to Ayers Rock (Uluru) then return to Alice.

At the time, Rushdie was reading Robyn Davidson's Tracks.

Chatwin and Davidson were good friends.

Rushdie liked the book so much, Chatwin encouraged him to look up his friend Davidson when he returned to Sydney, even introducing them by phone.

Rushdie does look her up, and the pair fall in love, prompting him to later leave his wife for Davidson.

In all, Chatwin spent about nine weeks in the Centre over the two trips, and around April that same year, left Australia for the last time.

But he had what he needed, for many of Chatwin's "characters” were closely based on real Centralians he met during his visit: Conservationist Philip Toyne (aka "the gym bore”), former senator, Catholic priest and chairman of the Central Land Council Pat Dodson ("Father Flynn”) and Rob Novak ("Rolf”), who was running the store at Kintore ("Cullen”) during the 1984 visit.

Most important of all, however, is Arkady, who agrees to introduce Bruce to what Chatwin describes as "a labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as 'Dreaming-tracks' or 'Songlines'.”

These are a kind of musical or poetic map, which, if recalled correctly and followed to the letter, enabled a singer - in theory at least - to walk clear across the country without losing their way.

The Songlines blends fact and fiction and upset many critics for doing so.

Chatwin had convinced people in Alice Springs that he was researching a serious work on nomads, then cast them all as characters in a book later billed as "fiction” upon its release.

Not only had Chatwin broken trust with his generous sources, but many of them easily recognised themselves as barely disguised characters in the "story”.

As fellow travel writer Paul Theroux has said of the work, "most people consider The Songlines to be Chatwin's real adventures in the Outback”.

And yet, for all its flaws, The Songlines can still claim to have something to say about Alice Springs today.

Increasingly ill while researching the book, Chatwin discovered he had AIDS during its editing.

He died just two years after its publication, aged 49.

Topics:  anniversary tracks

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