The Songlines Quartet

In the summer of 1986 I completed my book The Songlines under difficult conditions. I had in fact picked up a very rare fungus of the bone marrow in China. Certain I was going to die, I decided to finish the text and put myself into the hands of doctors. My work would then be done. The last third of the manuscript was a commonplace book of quotations and vignettes intended to back up the main line of argument. I put this into shape on sweltering summer days, wrapped in shawls, shivering with cold in front of the kitchen stove. It was a race for time.

The Songlines starts with an investigation into the labyrinth of invisible pathways which Australian Aboriginals call the “Footprints of the Ancestors” or “The Way of the Law.” Europeans know them as “Songlines” or “Dreaming Tracks.”

Aboriginals believe that the totemic ancestor of each species creates himself from the mud of his primordial water-hole. He takes a step forward and sings his name, which is the opening line of a song. He takes a second step which is a gloss on the first line and completes the linked couplet. He then sets off on a journey across the land, footfall after footfall, singing the world into existence: rocks, escarpments, sand dunes, gum trees, and so on.

I hoped to use this astonishing concept as a springboard from which to explore the innate restlessness of man.

I made a miraculous recovery. The book came out in June 1987. On the day of publication there was a French air controllers’ strike and we had to cross the channel by Hovercraft. We were four hours late. I promised myself not to buy the newspapers and read the reviews. I relented and bought the London Independent: I think I am quoting the reviewer correctly by saying he found my work “unbearably pretentious.”

We took the slow train from Boulogne to Paris. On the seat behind two musicians were working on a score. Their instruments were on the rack above their heads. They were Rostropovich and Anne-Sophie Mutter. It was a good omen.

The book did well. When it appeared on top of the best-seller list, I had a crisis of confidence. Had I at last joined the trash artists?

Early on I saw it was useless to lay down the law on a subject so tenuous and decided to write an imaginary dialogue in which both narrator and interlocutor had the liberty to be wrong. This was a difficult concept for English-speaking readers. I had a running battle over whether the book should be classified as fiction or nonfiction. “Fiction,” I insisted. “I made it up.” A Spanish reviewer had no such difficulty. A libro de viaje was a travel book and a novela de viaje…there was Don Quixote.

Understandably, the academics were cautious. But I refused to budge from the basic tenets I aired in the book:

—As a South African paleontologist, Dr. Elizabeth Vruba, said to…


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