Wednesday, October 13, 2004

SONGLINES: Bruce Chatwin

‘In Alice Springs – a grid of scorching streets where men in long white socks were forever getting in and out of Land Cruisers – I met a Russian who was mapping the sacred sites of the Aboriginals….’

The opening lines from Songlines create an air of intrigue befitting a whodunit, rather than a travel book. For instance, my thoughts were, who were these men in long white socks? Why Land Cruisers? And what was a Russian doing Down Under?

The rest of the first chapter is equally taut. Dispensing with rambling descriptions that characterize travel writing, Chatwin tells us about the Russian, Arkady Volchok, and his unusual vocation.

Arkady first worked as a school teacher on an Aboriginal settlement near Alice Springs, when he came across the Songlines – the invisible pathways criss-crossing Australia. According to Aboriginal myth, totemic beings wandered over the continent singing out the name of everything that crossed their path – birds, animals, plants – and thus sang the world into existence.

A railway line was being constructed through Alice Springs and the authorities were wary of treading over the sacred ground. Here’s where Arkady came in. He’d built a special friendship with the Song-men and could work with them to ensure that no sacred site was disturbed.

Arkady was married, even had a daughter of 6, but no longer lived with his wife. Chatwin’s description of Arkady’s union is wonderfully wry…

‘On the Acropolis in Athens, there was a dusting of snow and only one other tourist: a Greek girl from Sydney. They traveled through Italy, and slept together, and in Paris they agreed to get married.’

Likewise, the portrayal of their separation…

‘After a single summer, in a tin-roofed house that heated like a furnace, they began to drift apart.’

The chapter ends with the enigmatic introduction of Arkady’s secretary…

‘…a pliant brown girl in a brown knitted dress. She smiled and said, ‘Hi Ark!’ but her smile fell away at the sight of a stranger.’

Do Arkady and the construction group steer clear of the Songlines? Are the Aboriginals lying in wait to sabotage the construction? Is there more than meets the eye between Arkady and his secretary?

Find out more after I read the book…

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