Cutting a path to Australia with Bruce Chatwin (Unscripted column) | Entertainment

The pandemic has cramped my travel plans.

All of my recent travel has taken place via books and movies, and in those adventures of the mind, I find myself going to Australia a lot these days.

The circuitous route to my recent obsession with Australia came about, I suppose, like it does for most people — because of Wim Wenders’ 1977 neo-noir film “The American Friend.”

I’m joking. The movie doesn’t take place in or even mention Australia, as far as I can recollect. But it did lead me to want to watch more of Wenders’ films. I decided to check out “Until the End of the World” (1991). And that sprawling, epic movie does take place in Australia (and almost every other country).

While I was reading more about the making of “Until the End of the World,” I noticed that Wenders was inspired to make his nearly five-hour film because of the English travel writer Bruce Chatwin’s book “The Songlines.”

I’d heard of Chatwin before. I think the writer Tom Robbins mentioned him in an interview I’d read. I found a copy of “The Songlines” and started reading.

“The Songlines” is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read, not only during the pandemic, but ever. Chatwin writes with intelligence, humor, humility and an intense sense of curiosity, and has a journalist’s eye for compelling characters.

Chatwin, who was fascinated by nomadic people as well as the origin of man, culture and language, traveled to Australia to meet with local scholars and talk to indigenous and aboriginal people about “dreamtime” — their religious and cultural views.

Specifically, Chatwin was interested in the notion that indigenous people “mapped” their country by singing songs about landmarks and passing those songs through the generations. Not only did they map Australia with their songs, but, according to the indigenous culture, the songs brought the land into existence. He termed these invisible demarcations “the songlines.”

In the early part of the book, Chatwin meets local authorities and advocates and learns about how the country’s railroad development is impacting some of the sacred aboriginal sites. He also gets some local color in the form of trips to the pub and art galleries and into the outback.

In the second half of the book, Chatwin makes rapid-fire connections about early man’s development of speech, speculates on ancient predators and strings together quotes from worldwide mythology, poetry, history texts and archived newspapers.

After reading about Chatwin’s adventures in Australia, I decided to see what else he’d written. I found a copy of Chatwin’s “In Patagonia” through the Library System of Lancaster County, requested it and picked it up from my local library a few days later. So, let me tell you how the film “The American Friend” led me to my newfound interested in Patagonia …

As a side note, since this column was so focused on movies and Bruce Chatwin, those interested should check out Werner Herzog’s 2019 documentary “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin,” which also is available to borrow from the Library System of Lancaster County.


“Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.

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