Picks and Pans Review: The Songlines

updated 08/31/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/31/1987 01:00AM

by Bruce Chatwin

In Chatwin's hands, travel writing is an art form grand enough to include a significant examination of the nature of mankind. In this book he goes to Australia to learn what he can about the aborigines. He starts out inquiring about "Songlines"—routes that wander all over the continent, defined by ancient chants describing the dramatic features of the harsh countryside. As his guide, Chatwin introduces Arkady, a lively son of Russian emigrants, who is sympathic to the aborigines. Arkady has a vast knowledge of their ways. His job, helping a railway company plan a route that will not destroy any Songlines, takes him—and Chatwin—to remote sites. Among the tales of his adventures in the Australian desert, Chatwin weaves all kinds of fascinating research and anecdotes about his earlier travels in Africa. He describes a visit to Konrad Lorenz, the animal behaviorist, and tells of interviews with anthropologists who would refute the thesis that man is by nature violent, a warlike son of Cain. Briefly, Chatwin reveals much about the lives of three people he meets in passing: a Sydney woman, 93, who has just regained her eyesight, a hobo in London and an office supply salesman whose territory is Africa. His stories of their lives achieve a harmony because they all, in varying ways, thrive on travel. Chatwin is a superb writer, as readers of his 1983 novel, On the Black Hill, know. In this beautiful new book, he crams in quotations from all eras and cultures, while offering personal observations about incredible experiences, even a bit of autobiography. From all this he brings together "a vision of the Song-lines 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)." (Viking, $18.95)

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