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What am I doing here?

Posted on 25th November 2007. 2 Comments

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I stole the title of this piece from Bruce Chatwin. I didn’t ask his permission, but then he’s dead and I know that he also nicked it from his personal hero; the 19th century French poet, Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud penned the words when he was in Ethiopia, which must have been a strange, exotic and terrifying place for a young, Gallic bohemian more used to the Salons of Paris than the deserts of Abyssinia. Both men died young, both men struggled with a confused sexuality and wandered the planet searching for artistic fulfilment and escapism. However Chatwin left behind a brilliant collection of travel writing and fiction two of which are among my most well thumbed books.

In Patagonia
I read this when I was deciding what to do with myself for my year out. It made me want to set out for the chilly, wind-swept open spaces at the southernmost tip of the American continent. Chatwin tells us of how he was inspired to visit the region by a small piece of mysterious Mylodon (a kind of prehistoric Sloth) skin he had admired as a child in a family dresser. The piece of skin had reportedly been cut off the excavated skeleton of a preserved dinosaur found by his great uncle ‘Charlie’ who had dug it up from a cave near Punta Arenas (Chile’s most southerly city.) This then becomes the framework for a quest that sees Chatwin travel extensively through the Patagonian region.

Unlike many modern travel writers, Chatwin never exhorts excessively over the beauty of the landscape, the friendliness of the people or other standard clichés of the traveller; his assessment is of a more measured nature. His journey always has a purpose, but this quest never consumes the more interesting offshoots which the book takes.

Chatwin can most definitely be bracketed in the genre of a literary traveller. He is a storyteller at heart and nowhere is this better exemplified than by his narration of the exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid who, after their legendary life as the famous outlaws of the wild west, finally settled in a small log cabin in the seemingly limitless Patagonian grasslands. This is just one of a whole collection of unusual insights Chatwin gives us into the culture and history of this ‘uttermost part of the earth.’

As with all great travel writing it is the account of the people who the author encounters that truly engage the reader. What becomes clear through Chatwin’s writing is his ability to construct a literary character out of a real life person encountered for only a brief period. Some have criticised him for his fictionalisation of real events and construction of a writing style too close to fact to allow so much artistic license. However, to appreciate this book it is important to suspend a certain amount of reality and to delight in the portrait of not just a forbidding and often forgotten region, but also the image of the restless English eccentric travelling through its chilly expanses.

The Songlines
In this work Chatwin takes us to the dusty interior of the Australian continent with the intention of investigating his own theories into the Aborigine concept of the dreamtime. Dreamtime is a form of spiritual or mystical experience unique to the Aborigine population of Australia. Through dreamtime, the Aborigine people maintain a direct link to their landscape by literally singing the creation songs of the Totemic beings that originally created their world. Chatwin’s description is extremely simplified and won’t enable the reader to truly understand what dreamtime or the songlines walked by the Aborigine people actually are. Even after reading the book, I was still pretty hazy as to what the whole concept is. This is not a real problem, as the beauty of the subject is that it gives Chatwin an opportunity to demonstrate his poetic prose, which always betrays his excitable passion for the nomadic lifestyle (a subject Chatwin was fascinated with throughout his life.)

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; and that these trails must reach back, in time and space, to an isolated pocket in the African savannah, where the First Man shouted the opening stanza to the World Song, "I am!"’

The Songlines is perhaps Chatwin’s most controversial work due to the ambiguous nature of his narrative. Although written from a standard first person perspective it is generally accepted not to be a completely faithful account of the journey he took. Some of the characters in the book claimed that Chatwin had made up much of the dialogue he had written and judging by his talent for fiction this seems a believable statement.

It seems likely that Chatwin used a great amount of artistic license when constructing his characters, most notably the Russian, Arkady who accompanies him on his journey. Arkady is presented as a man who has divested himself of the trappings of ‘civilisation’ to study the ancient inter-woven paths of the Songlines. Most likely we should see Arkady as a method through which the author can communicate the purpose of his travels through Australia. This was as a means to formulate his own theories as to the place and importance of the nomadic spirit within modern day society. This explanation is further confirmed by the middle section of the book which includes a long chapter comprised by notes taken verbatim from his personal notebooks. Some of these refer to his travels in Australia, but a large number are concerned with his favourite subject of nomadic society and the relationship of modern-day man to the nomadism of his forefathers.

For me, Chatwin sits at the pinnacle of travel writing. The main point being that he was primarily a novelist who used the medium of travel to drive forward his works. You read his books for the literary style and character creation rather than great illuminating life defining experiences. With many travel writers you feel that they write fact tinged with fiction to spice it up, but with Chatwin you know he writes fiction based around the framework of fact. This elevates him beyond the norm and makes his works both stylistically interesting and illuminating as to the unique character of this most gifted of English writers.

2 Comments »

  • Dawson said:

    This reads very well, rather perceptive in a way that much student journalism doesn’t quite manage.

  • freelance writing said:

    Bruce Chatwin’s works is dirty great issues of life and death.