No. 12: “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin
Travel Blog • Jim Benning • 05.21.06 | 2:19 AM ET
To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Territory covered: Australia
Early on in The Songlines, British-born Bruce Chatwin recalls his childhood as one of “fantastic homelessness.” His most treasured possession was a conch shell his father brought back from the West Indies that he called Mona, which he held to his ear to listen for crashing waves. Perhaps this accounts for the peripatetic life Chatwin would go on to lead, and his journey to explore the traditionally semi-nomadic Australian Aborigines and their “Songlines”—creation myths that “tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path…and so singing the world into existence.” With its sharp dialogue and philosophical digressions, Chatwin’s evocative account reads almost like a novel—some people he included in the book, in fact, accused him of playing fast and loose with the facts, writing more fiction than fact. Chatwin is among the most enigmatic of modern travel writers, and one of the few to be recalled in a biography. He died of AIDS-related causes in 1989 at the age of 48. “The Songlines” endures as a travel-lit classic from a writer whose life ended all too soon.
Outtake from The Songlines:
The country away to the east was a flat and treeless waste entirely lacking in cover. Alan kept raising a finger to a solitary bump on the horizon. It was almost dark by the time we reached a small rocky hill, its boulders bursting with the white plumes of spinifex in flower, and a black fuzz of leafless mallee bush. The hill, said Arkady, was the Lizard Ancestor’s resting place.
Jim Benning is the co-editor of World Hum.