Thursday, June 11, 2015
Nearly every writer of my generation in England has wanted, at some point, to be Bruce Chatwin; wanted, like him, to talk of Fez and Firdausi, Nigeria and Nuristan, with equal authority; wanted to be talked about, as he is, with raucous envy; wanted, above all, to have written his books - ''In Patagonia,'' that perfect and most famous of recent travel books, but also ''The Viceroy of Ouidah'' a baleful, mock-historical fantasy of a Brazilian slave trader in 19th-century Africa, and ''On the Black Hill,'' his first novel, set in Wales, a brooding pastoral tale full of tender grandeur.
No writer has meant as much to my generation. From Mr. Chatwin, we learned to dare to be obsessive, irregular, learned, exotic; learned to burn our school ties and Wellingtons and despise Little Englanderism; learned to mock and avoid a literary establishment that loves to reward poems to goldfish and novels about the tepid lusts of women librarians. From Mr. Chatwin, we learned that most undemocratic, un-Anglo-Saxon of lessons - never to repeat ourselves; each of his books has been a different delight, a different feast of style and form. For us, he has stood for what contemporary England and its nannies of left and right seem dedicated to stifling; inner wildness; the true dandy's fierce and exacting elegance; the old Elizabethan sense that the world and its wonders are the writer's province. In Margaret Thatcher's ropy aviary of provincial jays, squabbling finches and ''worthy'' sparrows, Bruce Chatwin has been our bird of paradise, solitary and unpredictable in his apparitions, grand and electric in his markings.
''The Songlines,'' his new book, is his bravest work yet, the one in which we come closest to penetrating his mind and heart. Its setting is Australia; the title refers to that labyrinth of intricate invisible pathways that cross and re-cross the Australian continent, known to the European settlers as ''the Songlines'' and to the aborigines as ''Footprints of the Ancestors'' or the ''Way of the Law.'' Mr. Chatwin writes: ''Aboriginal Creation myths 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 - birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes - and so singing the world into existence. . . . Each totemic ancestor, while travelling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints . . . these Dreaming-tracks lay over the land as 'ways' of communication between the most far-flung tribes. . . . In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score.'' The highly personal, unacademic, idiosyncratic search for the meaning of the Songlines in all their social and philosophical ramifications is the raison d'etre of the book.
It engages the full range of the author's passions: his obsession with travel; his love of nomads and the nomadic way of life; his horror at the vulgarity and exploitativeness of the modern world; his hunger to understand man's origins and essential nature and so find some source of hope for the future. Part adventure-story, part novel-of-ideas, part satire on the follies of ''progress,'' part spiritual autobiography, part passionate plea for a return to simplicity of being and behavior, ''The Songlines'' is a seething gallimaufry of a book, a great Burtonian galimatias of anecdote and speculation and description, fascinating, moving, infuriating, incoherent, all at once. If ''The Songlines,'' judged by the highest standards, fails, it fails in the kind of dashing, vulnerable way that commands our admiration. No one will put it down unmoved, however rickety they may in the end find its form and conclusions.
The central failure of ''The Songlines'' lies, mysteriously, in an area that has hitherto been one of Mr. Chatwin's chief strengths - the evocation of landscape. The Australian bush and desert fail to come alive in this book, fail to permeate it with majestic presence as they should if the work is to do what it wants to do - celebrate the aborigines' adoration of their earth and the resource of mind it breeds. Australia, it seems, is a very hard subject; there is something imperial, aloof and unfamiliar in its landscape that resists all but the most intensely poetic of writers like D. H. Lawrence or Patrick White, that demands a dazzled abandon and not the meticulous spare watchfulness that Mr. Chatwin commands so well. Of all the books I have read about Australia only ''Voss,'' ''The Vivisector'' and ''Kangaroo'' have done full physical and metaphysical justice to the primeval baldness of that continent, the nonhuman nakedness of its splendors, the all-pervading scalded presence of a time-before-any-known-time that I have known nowhere else, not even in the Himalayas.