11 JULY 1987, Page 28


Into the blue

Patrick Leigh Fermor

THE SONGLINES by Bruce Chatwin Cape, £10.95 Bnice Chatwin has given us a fascinat- ing, extraordinary and rather puzzling book, fascinating because of the technique of the writing, extraordinary because of the setting and its denizens, and rather puz- zling because of the fugitive dominating concept. Misleadingly, as though it were Candide or Telemaque, the blurb-writer calls it a 'novel of ideas'. Ideas are not the difficulty; enough for a dozen books come bubbling up; it is 'novel' that knits the reader's brow, for the narrator has the same name as the author; (so, enter- tainingly, do several of the characters, 'Bru?"Yes?"It's Bru?"I know. Good- night!' 'Bru?"What do you want now?' 'Nothing, Bru . . .'); the setting is real, and the whole thing has the ring of fact and not fiction.

One of the important things about the author of The Songlines is that the glib classification of 'travel writer' does not fit. He haunts remote wildernesses, but never as a stunt or to collect sensational copy for a 'travel book'; it is always the passion for solving some riddle that has driven him there. He started early. His flair as an art-expert was famous before he came of age, but he chucked this prosperous career and was next heard of peering into the Altai permafrost after the tombs of Mongolian chiefs; searching Patagonian sierras for prehistoric mammal fragments; scouring Dahomey and Brazil for the background of the Slave Trade; unravel- ling the secrets of identical twinship in Welsh mountains; following Afghan trails or learning the ways of outcast hunters in the western Sahara. Steppes, tundras, de- serts, bleak cordilleras and stifling forests — anywhere in the world that could provide an extra clue in his lifelong obses- sion with nomads became the likeliest place to find him, and the same bent has now taken him to the middle of Australia, one of the most uninhabitable parts of the globe. One can imagine him rubbing his hands as he landed in the thorny dustbowl.

His quarry this time is too abstruse to be grasped in a hurry. In a prehistory of hoary remoteness, the first Aborigines seem to have arrived from the north, divided up into innumerable clans, and then spread southwards. Each of these ancestors be- came cognate with an animal totem — a wallaby, a kangaroo, a budgerigar, an ant, a lizard, a dingo — and each ancestral route acquired a mystical importance These infinitely elongated threads gridded the continent, spiritually speaking, with tribal property, each peculiar to its clan. Today, every stage of these itineraries — perhaps untrodden by their descendants for centuries — remains intact in their memory and every landmark — each rock or clump or oddly-shaped mineral upheav- al — celebrates an episode on those primordial journeys: they date from `dreamtirne' and are preserved in 'dream- ings'. How these threads are kept in the minds of the descendants is yet stranger. Every trail-blazing ancestor scattered the line of his footprints with a wake of words and musical notes; each became a different song which is both a map and a direction- finder. 'One should perhaps visualise the Songlines,' Chatwin writes, 'as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every episode was readable in terms of geology . . . with hardly a rock or a creek that could not be, or had not been, sung. Aborigines could not believe that the country existed until they could see and sing it'. In this continent 'The swine's run off with the Singing Valentine 1 sent him!' of innumerable tongues, they can under- stand their neighbours' language in either direction, though not the ones beyond; but even if the itinerary of his own songline is sung in an unknown language a thousand miles away, an initiate Aboriginal can catch its drift by the melodic line. Travel- ling on foot, he murmurs it at a moderate tempo; in a truck, to keep up with the accelerated geography, he bursts into a prestissimo gabble.

This is the world, based on the hell-town of Alice Springs, which Bruce Chatwin had set himself to unravel, and the, search, the adventures, the journeys and above all the talk ' of the white and the Aboriginal dramatis personae are the raw material of this extraordinary story.

His guide and friend, in a way the book's hero, is Arkady, the son of a Don Kossack arrested by the Germans in 1942 and driven West as an Ostarbeiter; he jumped his cattle-truck, got clean away, married a girl in Kiev and finally fetched up in Adelaide, where Arkady was born. Grown up now, highly educated and widely travelled — he married a Greek girl he met on the Acropolis, but it didn't last — Arkady made his way back to the wildest part of Australia where Chatwin found him living alone with his harpsichord and his books, and later, with an equally remark- able girl called Marian. Both were up to their necks in Aboriginal affairs. Charm- ing, erudite, kind-hearted and amusing, he became Chatwin's Virgil in the surround- ing Inferno.

Burnt Flat . . . Middle Bore . . . Skull Creek . . , apart from a few moments of beauty — strange lights and rainbows — this Sidney-Nolan-Yellow-Dog-Dingo landscape — D. H. Lawrence's 'peculiar, lost, weary aloofness' — sounds a forlorn and stricken tract: blown dust with willy- willies mopping and mowing, stagnant, yellowish water, abandoned motors burst- ing with long grass, scrub, casuarina, end- less gum-trees, Abos living close to the ground, in corrugated iron semi-cylinders called 'humpies', in a country scattered with haunted rock-formations — all of them `dreamings' — under the threat of sacrilegious new railway-lines and the hovering danger of 'going bush . .

Rather improbably, the region teems with sophisticated experts bent on Aboriginal welfare, including a nice woman who collects and deals in primitive paintings and a patronising visiting prig with his own aeroplane. Much of the story is told in conversation and the author's skill is such that one can all but hear the nasal Strine fighting its way through all those involuted lips. They feast in a shanty with an old, stark-naked pseudo-misanthrope, who, af- ter a grace from Das Kapital, says:

'Serve His Lordship first! Get your fucking fangs into that steak'. We ate without speak- ing.

'Who the hell does he think he is?' he turned to Arkady. 'Who asked him to poke his upper-snooty-class nose in here?'

'You did,' said Arkady.

'I'm not upper class,' I said. 'But a touch too classy for my little luncheon party! That's what they call it in Pong- leterre!'

He turns out to have a heart of gold. But there is a whiff of mildly anti-Porn bias the air, which Chatwin nearly always dis- arms. All goes well with an off-duty policeman in a bar, who is planning a book whose title alone he mysteriously boasts, would fetch $50,000. He divulges it after much wheedling: 'Body Bag!'

'Body Bag?' 'The bag you put the body in . . . It starts with a dead coon. . .' (A coon is an Aboriginal). Discovering Arkady's origins, he ends by dismissing them both as a Porn and a Corn.

Some of the Aboriginals are admirable, others are quick to manipulate the white man's guilt. One of them, a big-bellied hulk called Donkey-Donk, hunts kangar- oos at the wheel of a Ford Sedan. Chasing them through the spinifex, he bashes his car into the quarry again and again and When it is dead, tries to saw off the edible tail with the lid of an old tin. Wild creatures abound — wallabies, bandicoots, echidnas, black cockatoos, emus, bustards, goannas, giant lace-monitors eight feet long — nearly all harmless except a snake called a King Brown, which coils itself round axles and ruins one side of your face When you change a wheel. The book turns into a picaresque search, and many of the people Chatwin and Arkady run into are attractive or entertainingly eccentric while others belong to a Goya nightmare. The sober ones call across depressing bars for Coke and Violet Crumble, while drunks in Space-invader T-shirts bang the tops off their glasses for fighting; there are swell- ings, goitres, faces black with flies, mon- grels snuffling crutches, boomerang wounds, beer-bellies that overflow and hips too narrow to keep trousers from falling down; there is a nearly legless dwarf, a giantess in a yellow jersey mun- ching at a charred kangaroo-ham who pulls her small son out of a truck by his hair and Spits in his face; a huge teddy-bear hangs from a branch with its throat cut: 'Abor- iginal business' . . . Meanwhile he learns all that was obscure about tjuringas and is SOON, by whispered hearsay, abreast of the dancing, singing and bloodletting of clan initiation rites, when the participants' bodies are painted all over with ochre and White stripes; advanced forms of circumci- sion come into play, tribal elders gnaw at the skulls of neophytes who sometimes pull out their own finger-nails and stick them on again with their blood. Dizzy with sandalwood smoke they learn to repeat the sacred Songline couplets.

Understandably, the author seeks a change now and then by lying down with Ovid's Metamorphoses, his head on his rucksack; or he climbs the nearest plateau and looks down at the pointilliste scene, the white dots of spinifex, bluish eucalyptus and the tufts of lemon-green grass. A strong pointilliste onslaught now and then takes hold of the author's method, a staccato delivery of movement, descrip- tion, dialogue puzzle and solution, atmos- phere and narrative, pithily put, unelabo- rated, never unflatteringly over- elucidated. There is much to get in as he hastens from point to point, and there are moments when the reader feels like an Abo bouncing along in a truck when he should be walking; and, every 30 pages or so, thoroughly peppered, he has to knock off for a breather.

By a combined stroke of luck, genius and artifice, Bruce Chatwin lights on a perfect remedy: Arkady sets him down in the middle of nowhere in the delapidated spare caravan of a minute half-French, half-Prussian storekeeper educated at the Sorbonne, who, when he meets Chatwin, Pleiade in hand, is half way through Madame de Guermantes' evening party. Arkady is whisked off by plane, the rain comes down in buckets and, in the sudden peace and isolation, Chatwin digs out his collection of carnets moles quines, all bought in the Rue de l'Ancienne Comedie, and filled with a lifetime's notes. Most of them are linked to the all-enfolding theme, however remotely, of nomads and nomad- ism; and, as we read, the tempo changes, and the new meditative pace, full of depths and shadows, is exactly what the writer and the reader need. From this moment on- wards, the book becomes a very skillful counterpoint of the two manners.

Beginning with Pascal's remark about the evils that stem from man's incapacity for solitude in his room, the author carries us far afield: to Baudelaire and Rimbaud, to Professor Lorenz's house on the Danube for a disquisitive harlequinade on animal conduct, to thoughts on Donne on the Moscow Express, to the Cameroon and Senegal and Mauretania, to Nuristan, to Timbuktoo and the Quashgai, and Ammianus Marcellinus on the Huns; to Shiraz, Persepolis and Fars, to Josephus and the Midrash. Trains of thought, adduc- ing evidence from a vast range of study, unfold in elaborate and persuasive detail and scores of theories are launched. Ideas shoot up and drop like rockets; and the book takes on an entire new dimension. (Contrapuntally, meanwhile, Arkady mar- ries his girl and the threat of the railway fades from the dreamings). If the bearing of the moleskin notebooks on the main theme of the book is ever brought about by conjuring, we are willing dupes: the author is carried away by his far-wandering cogita- tions, and so are we. Towards the end, the mutual relevance of the two strands of the book is convincingly brought home. The origins of the first Australians — fifty, eighty, or a hundred thousand years ago — are recent compared to the antiquity of the beginnings of mankind in Africa. Chatwin twines them together with a bold stroke: And here I must take a leap into faith: into regions I would not expect anyone to follow. I have a vision of the Songlines stretching across the continents and ages; that wherever men have trodden they have left a trail of song (of which we may, now and then, catch an echo); and that these trails must reach back, in time and space, to an isolated pocket in the African savannah, where the First Man opened his mouth in defiance of the terrors that surrounded him, shouted the first stanza of the World Song, 'I AM!'

Whether we follow him or not, it is impossible not to admire this African Nijinski parabola and its ur-Cartesian cry. At this point perhaps the author may vanish into the blue but he leaves us with a book of remarkable richness, scope and originality.