On the surface this may seem to be a travel novel, that is what Chatwin’s most famous for after all. You could read this as a book about a trip through the red centre of Australia. But this is really a book about travelling: it seems to be Chatwin’s final attempt to get at the wanderlust in his heart.
What surprised me though was how well I know and remember this part of Australia. His description of the Katherine Hotel-Motel; Katherine’s main street: Main St; the two kinds of roadside pub he stops at on his way south down the Stuart Highway; and above all: the landscape, the desert and the colour. With every one of these I could feel the heat, the dust, see the flys. It was all still there.
Ultimately, Chatwin is trying to get an understanding of the Aboriginal Songlines: the tracks laid down by the ancestors during the dreaming. And for this alone, every Australian has to read the book. I will not try to summarise or explain the Songlines here. I am simply not qualified.
When I was growing up in New Zealand, part of our school education was Maori culture: we learnt basic Maori language, Maori cultural traditions and Maori society. Before our family moved to Australia, our parents as conscientious school teachers tried to make sure we were up to date with the Australian curriculum. English, maths, science were all easy; basically the same things were taught. But we didn’t know much about Australian history. We were given books to read, including an Aboriginal dreaming story, told for children, each.
When I arrived at school in Katherine, a town with a significant Aboriginal population, I discovered that I knew more about Aboriginal culture, stories and history than any other white kid in my class. As a seven year-old, I was stunned. To this day most Australians can’t name the traditional owners of the land they live on. And if you did want to find out, it’s hard: Australian society is not set up to share knowledge of our Aboriginal heritage.
This is a ringing indictment of Australia. Do your bit to counter, read this book. We have this shared history of stories that haven’t been told and you haven’t heard. Try them, you’ll be surprised by how enjoyable they are.
Chatwin’s book does wander a little towards the end. I wonder if any of this is to do with some knowledge that this was his last travel book? Did he know and wanted to say his final word on travel? Oh, and by the way: this is it for me and Australian writers. I’ve long been sick of stories about white farmers, and if an English guy can actually say something about Aboriginal culture then I have no further time for Australian writers. Hear that, Australian literary establishment? Screw you guys, we’re through.