The Songlines – Bruce Chatwin – Picador, 1987
* * *
I read this book shortly before travelling in Australia last year, and it proved a good introduction to what would otherwise have been an alien culture. Not white Australians, of course - I am very familiar with them - but the original inhabitants. As someone from a cosmopolitan metropolis, the racial divide in the Northern Territories came as quite a shock. The poorest people - shabbily dressed, waiting for public transport, queuing outside government help centres, shopping in discount stores, listlessly begging outside nightclubs - invariably had black faces. Their demeanour was reserved and resigned, as if they were prisoners. Now I know that the history of the colonisation of the New World is terrible, but even so, after so many years and some progress on native rights, why do they seem so defeated?
The answer, which I would never have begun to understand without this book, is that in a sense, they have. There is a fundamental mismatch between aboriginal and western culture which can never be reconciled. For the aboriginal way of life is a nomadic, travelling existence, and the western one is not.
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