THE SONGLINES By Bruce Chatwin Viking/Elisabeth Sifton 293 pp. $18.95
BRUCE CHATWIN, a former pictures expert for Sotheby & Co., is best known for his stunning, acrobatic-minded travel book, In Patagonia (1977). He has also published The Viceroy of Ouidah, a lusciously exotic novel set in Brazil and Dahomey during slaving days, and On the Black Hill, a fine, idiosyncratic novel about twin bachelor brothers in Wales, told with fairytale colors and compression. More recently, he went from England to Alice Springs, in "the dry heart of Australia," in search of what such pilgrims often go abroad after: a Golden Age, a new time frame, a calmer self and yet the piquancy of aboriginal motivations and and exile desperation. A travel writer's success depends a good deal upon the vagaries of happenstance -- whom he falls in with, or fails to meet, what salient events he chances to see, what side trips are being made by other people who may allow him to tag along -- as well as how he holds up under usage and whether he can control his swings of mood.
Chatwin was fortunate enough to win the trust of a young Russo-Australian named Arkady Volchok, warm in spirit, fearless, competent, whose improvised job in this raw desert region of the down-under continent was to tease out of the elders of various aboriginal tribes the locations of their "Songlines" -- the landmarks of mishaps and better adventures, the marriages and burials of the numerous separate 1000-mile mythic wanderings of their clan ancestors, like Emu, Honey-ant, Honeysuckle, Native Cat, Big Kangaroo, Budgerigar, Black Cockatoo, Monitor Lizard, Spider, Snake, Bandicoot Man and Porcupine, as told down through the generations by means of intricate, memorized chants that had sung "the world into existence" and finally wrapped the whole world in a web of song -- so these sacred places won't be obliterated by a railroad line.
Chatwin is a spontaneous-sounding chronicler, very brief in his chapters, off-hand in conveying meticulously gathered information, a master of description: Home for an aborigine named Joshua "lay on the highest point of the saddle between Mount Cullen and Mount Liebler. It consisted of a gutted stationwagon which Joshua had rolled on to its roof so he could lie under the bonnet, in the shade. The cab was wrapped in a black plastic sheet. A bundle of hunting spears poked out from one window." Or, "the policeman was short, scarlet in the face, with stumpy legs and almost unbelievable muscles. He was dripping with sweat, and his carroty curls were flattened on to his forehead. He wore short, ice-blue leotards with a satiny sheen. His pectoral muscles were so heftily developed that the shoulder-straps had bunched into the cleavage, leaving his nipples bare." Chatwin's method is to write down whatever occurs. If a white man he is visiting sneezes into one hand and dries it surreptitiously under his chair, he puts that in. If four aborigines go hunting for kangaroos in a truck and chase and ram into a nursing mother three times before killing her with a tire iron, and then abandon the meat, he records that too.
"Footwalking all the time all over the world," a man named Old Alex says, when encountered resting naked beside a ravine. By singing the world into existence the Ancestors had created it, and no aborigine could conceive that this created world was in any way imperfect. His religious life had a single aim: to keep the land the way it was and should be. He sang the Ancestors' stanzas without changing a word or a note, and so re-created the Creation, Arkady explains.
This magnificent theme of songs drawn from the Dreamtime and rehearsed and kept fresh in the mind by walkabouts -- a "prodigious sense of orientation" in a 1000-mile world which is to be maintained intact -- is given eloquent treatment here, together with an affectionately pungent portrait of the decay and ennui afflicting the bushmen's society since their conquest by the whites. The whites in these deserts are mostly fractured souls, bombastic, intransigent, anxious runaways devising a momentary agenda for themselves, although the women do tend to hold up better than the men. Perhaps Chatwin's favorite person is a hermit priest who lives in a hut by the Timor Sea -- Father Terence, "with reddish hair, what was left of it, and not too many flaky brown teeth. He wrapped the teeth in a hesitant smile. He would soon have to go to Broome, he said, to have the doctor freeze off his skin cancers." Religion is often a centerpiece in Chatwin's writing, and they walk the beach happily.
Despite its virtues, however, his book seems a bit off-stride, overly shaky and lonesome in tone sometimes (a shakiness he never acknowledges or makes interesting), and it has been fattened with recollections and excerpts from diaries that he had kept during several sojourns in the Sahara a decade before for a book about nomads, the manuscript of which he says he ultimately burned. He is too sure a craftsman to let these numerous selections become a bore; but Australia's aborigines really do not appear to have as much in common with the Nemadi of Mauritania, the Quashgai of Iran, the Beja of the Sudan's Red Sea Hills, and other untrammeled peoples he has met in Kabul, Timbuktu, Cameroon, Niger, China, Peru and Brazil, as he wishes to claim. Passionately believing that all mankind has songlines circumnavigating the globe, Chatwin takes pains to lay out his ideas about the origins of man as a nomad in dry country threatened by toothed animals -- one particular genus of tiger, Dinofelis, he suggests, was specifically adapted to prey upon us. But he has said earlier that in Australia the fauna were relatively inoffensive, and in other respects, too, he has grafted one unfinished book onto a different one, hoping that the seams will fit. They don't entirely, but it's all charming anyway, and impeccably stylish, and rises unexpectedly to a jubilant ending.
Edward Hoagland's books include "African Calliope" and "Seven Rivers West."