Bruce Chatwin


Bruce Chatwin's "Songlines"

a bit on the whacky side

This is a review of “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin. [I have been reading a German translation]

The story: in the mid-1980s, British writer Bruce Chatwin roams through the Australian outback in order to find out about Aboriginal songs and their use as cultural “maps” for the nomadic people.

He drifts all over the place, befriends the locals and conducts interviews here and there. He talks to immigrants, activists, cops, truck drivers, and Indigenous Australians.

so far so good

This goes on over 223 well-paced pages in my German paperback edition, a refined and very smooth read.

If it was only the complete story!

During the remaining 170 pages, the travelogue stops, while Chatwin takes his time to elaborate a pet theory: the nomadic nature of man. “Whatever happened to the storyline?” I hear myself mumbling while I’m wading through page after page filled with hints and evidence that Chatwin gathered to support his point: All men must walk.

the obnoxious side of Bruce Chatwin

Well, solvitur ambulando is definitely a nice saying and I am happy to find it here, unearthed from the depths of Chatwin’s moleskine, but that doesn’t help me now. I feel reminded of that obnoxious collection of aphorisms in J.W. Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, 1821). And I don’t like it. I want the original story to go on.

The thing is: Chatwin is obviously a man who can write. His style is short and precise, there is a keen sense of observation, and he paints an absorbing picture of life in the Australian outback. If only he didn’t sacrifice the story for his anthropological musings.

who might want to read “The Songlines”

Apart from the short walking parts, there’s hardly a feat here. Chatwin’s storytelling is nice at first, but then it crumbles. His writing style is awesome, though. And there were some thoughts there that left me pondering.

If you’re into Australia or into philosophical musings about walking, if you want to read something that is beautifully crafted but ends up whacky, then give this one a try.

Also read: Patrick Leigh Fermor, whom Chatwin famously adored.



Author: Bruce Chatwin
Title: The Songlines
Time: 1986
Destination: Australia
Length: 3 months
Type: driving, walking

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