Traveling in the dreaming tracks of Aboriginal Australia

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. New York: Viking. 293 pp. $18.95. Early in ``The Songlines,'' Bruce Chatwin, author of the fine travel book ``In Patagonia,'' explains that he went to Australia to test an idea. Convinced for many years that human beings are essentially migratory animals - that nomads have been ``the crankhandle of history'' - he suspected that Aboriginal beliefs might confirm his theory, especially such concepts as ``Songlines'' and ``Walkabout.''

The first half of ``The Songlines'' is a broad introduction to Aboriginal beliefs and contemporary life. Chatwin's guide is Arkady Volchok, a young Australian who has taught in Aboriginal schools and is familiar with their culture. Arkady is mapping their sacred sites and invites Chatwin to accompany him. As the two travel, the Australian gives Chatwin his interpretation of Aboriginal mythology.

In Aboriginal creation myths, he explains, totemic beings traveled over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the names of things - ``singing the world into existence.'' The Aboriginals call the paths they took ``Footprints of the Ancestors'' or the ``Way of the Law''; Europeans call them ``Dreaming-tracks'' of ``Songlines.''

Invisible to others, these pathways are delineated to the Aborigines by words and music. Not only do sites have stories, ``the melodic contour of the song describes the nature of the land over which the song passes.'' A man inherits part of a Songline; in going ``Walkabout,'' he would follow his Songline, a ``ritual journey'' in which he ``trod in the footprints of his Ancestor'' and ``sang the Ancestor's stanzas without changing a word or note - and so recreated the Creation.''

In contrast to the beauty of these myths is life in and around Aborigine settlements. Chatwin shows us poverty and bigotry, but also the Aborigines' ingenuity and will to survive.

About halfway through, ``The Songlines'' Chatwin inserts sections of his notebooks containing ``ideas, quotations and encounters'' relating to his theories about nomadism and human nature. The entries range widely - from Pascal (``Our nature lies in movement ...''), to Buddha (``You cannot travel on the path before you have become the Path itself''), to descriptions of his encounters with African natives, to reflections on Cain and Abel as planter and nomad. Chatwin discusses the ideas of various paleontologists and evolution theorists such as Konrad Lorenz and Robert Brain.

In response to these sources and from his own research (not only on the Aborigines but also in South Africa), Chatwin draws some large conclusions - among them, that ``natural Selection has designed us - from the structure of our brain-cells to the structure of our big toe - for a career of seasonal journeys on foot through a blistering land of thornscrub or desert.'' He challenges the theory that humans are by nature bloodthirsty aggressors, arguing that they are peaceful, cooperative, creators of song who became aggressive in defense against predators.

Chatwin's conclusions are optimistic, his speculations are provocative, but his reasoning and his research seem specious. Admittedly, he disclaims ``scientific rigour,'' but he does assert that his evidence ``confirms'' his conjectures. Yet he has acquired this ``evidence'' largely by dipping into various disciplines and writings, whether proverbs or scientific theories, and simply taking what he wants - a method that is surely as likely to invent our past as to recreate it.

Gail Pool reviews travel literature for the Monitor.

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