How Chatwin Transforms Story into Songline
As much as Chatwin made an impression on the people he met, Chatwin valued people equally as much. His writing exemplified that he travelled through people, and interaction was his language. They exemplify the story and tell of the culture more than artifacts or more than landscape did for other writers. Of course, given his career and experience with art, this is not to say he was not an expert in other areas. Within his first two chapters, he tells the biography of Arkady and the autobiography of himself. In chapter 2, we get a glimpse into why he is obsessed with travel, his “origin story” and his own songline, where he connected his name to the open road and writing early on. What the travel narrative most looks like is a memoir and autobiography. In addition to the new scenery that is Australia, the reader is also introduced to Chatwin’s own origin story, and what led him to Australia. We know every detail about his first memory associations with the country of Australia. Clearly, he plays with genre conventions by paying particular attention and revealing these details that would not normally be included in a travel narrative.
Unlike Bowles and other travel writers, Chatwin displays little concern in conveying the truth or accuracy, and often elaborates or fictionalizes his accounts. Of course, the question then becomes, does it matter? Does it make a difference that he fictionalizes his accounts, does it compromise his credibility? Who would be able to tell the difference, or call him out for lying about his experiences in the middle of no where. If a tree falls in the middle of the woods, does it make a sound? If we compare it to the songlines of the aboriginals, the story can be abstract or inauthentic to outsiders, as long as it is your own.
Chatwin does not claim authority by describing what he learned and giving definitions like a normal or traditional travel book would imply. Instead, he uses dialogue, recounting when he himself learned this knowledge, and relaying his own experiences through the form of casual conversation. he makes his guides the authority of travel knowledge by employing dialogue in the majority of his writing.
Perhaps we can find some insight into Chatwin’s construction of his narrative by looking into what he valued most from his adventure: songlines. The aboriginals had one aim in the songlines, “to keep the land the way it was and the way it should be.” Like the songlines of the Aboriginal, Chatwin found a predestined path in the poetry of his own name. When finding that his surname was originally Chettewynde, meaning "the winding path,"the suggestion took root in my head that poetry, my own name, and the road were, all three, mysteriously connected.” Indeed, he recalls “the fantastic homelessness” of his first five years. His first descriptions of his Aunts begin with whether or not they have travelled.
What he notes in the journey is important, his values align with theirs: they valued a strong pair of legs above everything, and they were always laughing. Like his name origin, he aligns himself and his culture with the tribes he encounters, “as Kipling illustrated the Just So Stories
with his own lines drawings, so the Aboriginal mother makes drawings in the sand to illustrate the wanderings of the Dreamtime heroes.” But in his world, his journey is different from the other Americans he encounters. He is both the ignorant traveler and the knowing nomad.
After quitting his art career, Chatwin recalls in Songlines
that he "went back to the dry places: alone, traveling light. the names of the tribes I travelled among are unimportant: Rguibat, Quashgai, Taimanni, Turlomen, Bororo, Tuareg… people whose journeys, unlike my own, had neither beginning nor end." Indeed, Chatwin's idealization of nomadic tribes seem to be rooted in their timelessness. Perhaps it is because of their consistency across generations, and lasting traditions amidst a global landscape of Westernization, progress, change. Of course, Chatwin's own life does not involve making lasting roots or cultivating a community of wanderers to share a culture with. What might have resonated most with Chatwin, and what he most personally identified with, was the vitality of the songlines, of a story. Storytelling appears to be his prime motivation throughout the book, which is why it plays with the genre convention so frequently.