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The Politics of the Line in Bruce Chatwin’s and Iain Sinclair’s Travel Narratives

Lignes et traces dans les récits de voyage de Bruce Chatwin et de Iain Sinclair
Claire Gallien
p. 143-160


Cet article s’intéresse aux récits de voyage de deux écrivains anglais contemporains majeurs, à savoir Bruce Chatwin et Iain Sinclair, et plus particulièrement à la manière dont leur pratique et leur discours s’inscrivent dans une problématique postmoderne. En effet, leurs écrits sont animés par deux forces: l’une qui vise à mettre à mal les relations de domination politiques, sociales, économiques ou culturelles inscrites dans l’espace, et l’autre qui s’efforce de créer ou de réactualiser des organisations parallèles, par l’intermédiaire du mythe, de la mémoire ou du désir. Nous soutenons que leur approche du voyage est paradigmatique en ce qu’ils vont chercher, au-delà ou en-deçà du tracé cartographique, des manières différentes de concevoir l’espace. Non seulement Chatwin et Sinclair critiquent et renouvellent la pratique du voyage, mais ils en réforment également le discours. En effet, leurs récits ne sont plus strictement linéaires mais ils laissent une large part aux digressions, analepses, prolepses, ellipses et utilisent la parataxe, afin de problématiser le rapport du langage au réel et de mettre en valeur le caractère évanescent du sens.

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1Bruce Chatwin describes in The Songlines (1986) how he travelled across the great expanse of the Australian territory, following two sorts of lines—one which is visual and the other one auditory, namely the songlines of the Tjilpa men. The same experience of travelling along and across various lines is recorded by Iain Sinclair in Liquid City (1999). In this book, he tells about the London Stone, which can be examined now ‘beneath the pavement, in the offices of the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation in Cannon Street’ (Sinclair 1999, 168). However, on examining it, he notes that ‘the new alignment hurts’ and adds: ‘the markers of the original city’, to which the London Stone belongs, ‘have been shifted, not by much, by just enough to do damage; to call up petty whirlwinds, small vortices of bad faith’ (Sinclair 1999, 168). In fact, what hurts Sinclair is not only ‘the new alignment’, but also the perception of a discrepancy between old and new arrangements.

2These two descriptions disclose a key aspect of travelling and writing about travels within postmodern and postcolonial frameworks. Indeed, both authors were aware of the fact that they were travelling through territories that were familiar to their readers via direct or indirect experiences of and exposures to them. In any case, these territories had been discovered and charted long before the authors came and visited them.

3However, their objectives were not to walk in the tracks of forerunners or to repeat what others had written about London or Australia. Even if the territories were not entirely new, the methods chosen to travel through them were, as well as the objectives set to those travels. Their aims consisted in producing an estrangement of familiar spaces, thus overturning the original objective of travelogues, which was to turn the unknown into something familiar (Marienstras). Here, familiar landscapes are rediscovered—for instance, London is not seen from its centre but from its periphery, not from the surface of its streets but from its past alignments and Australia is rediscovered as a pattern of songlines. By ‘travelling against the grain’, these writers also criticized a modern construction of space, which had been directed by the imperatives of capital and colonization.

4Thus, Chatwin’s attention to aboriginal songlines and Sinclair’s concentration on erased traces are symptomatic of what could be called a ‘postmodern’ attention to what has been silenced or erased to serve the construction and the durability of a ‘social production of space’ (Lefebvre xx), be it London, described as a global metropolis, attracting capital and wealth, or Australia and its space organized according to a past colonial grid. Thus Chatwin’s and Sinclair’s travels also served as political statements. Indeed, Chatwin proposed to follow different tracks from the ones drawn by the colonizers and Sinclair charted forgotten territories, such as London’s periphery and its pockets of poverty, or hidden places, such as mad houses, relocated in the outskirts. Travelling is, for them, a way to cut, split, intersect, divert and subvert a hegemonic organization of space in order to lay bare its ideological, political, economical and cultural foundations. Instead of sticking to a homogeneous grid, both writers draw upon suppressed or repressed lines in order to delineate alternative patterns, thus opening up different modes of travelling, writing and reading about travels.

5The first part of this article analyses Sinclair’s and Chatwin’s deconstructive and displacing impetus, while the second examines their paradigmatic approaches to space. Finally, the impact of this experience in terms of writing practice will be considered.

Deconstructing and Displacing Lines

6Geographical lines, as recorded in travel narratives, delineate political, social, economical, and cultural boundaries. Both Sinclair and Chatwin are aware of this articulation of space with power and lay bare the foundations of this system in order to defuse its effects. Indeed, Alison Russell reminds us in Crossing Boundaries that postmodern travel writing is based on ‘an acknowledgement of the artificial and constructed nature of various boundaries cultural, geographic, and textual as well as an awareness of the social and political implications of these boundaries’ (Russell 11).

7Inspired by Foucault’s argument on the political treatments and the social perceptions of madness in Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (1961), Sinclair located the sites in—or rather out of—London where madness had been sealed off: ‘The site was chosen for its location, near the Middlesex border, a short drive (or march) from Radlett station. Madhouses belonged on the periphery. Instability might infect healthy working people. Out here, in the clean air, the virus was contained’ (Sinclair 2002, 155). Replete with irony, the last two sentences aim at challenging and destabilizing the doxa, by showing the incongruity of comparing madness with an infectious disease.

8Real madness belongs somewhere else. Or so Sinclair seemed to infer, when he drove and walked along the M25, which encircles London. The traveller explains in London Orbital how circular movements lead either to madness, because of endless repetitions, or to amnesia. Indeed, whereas memory moves backward and forward along chronological lines, circles prevent its development. Sinclair thus compares the M25 to ‘a security collar fixed to the neck of a convicted criminal’ (Sinclair 2002, 11) and hopes to defuse its maddening effect on the city dwellers by walking it counter-clockwise and by taking short-cuts and tangents, in order ‘to convert the orbital motorway into a device made from straight lines’ (Sinclair 2002, 162). He thus reverses the alignment—the circularity of madness—in order to exorcise it.

9Equally, Chatwin turned travelling into a subversive performance, by criticizing the impact of colonialism on aboriginal space. Indeed, he noticed that Australia is cut across by two types of lines—the auditory lines of the natives and the visual lines of the colonizers. Every time roads or barriers intersect with songlines they break the aboriginal organization of space. Thus, visual patterns in Australia, built up by the colonizers, have acquired a dominant position and interpolated, if not totally destroyed, auditory patterns. As a matter of fact, the creation myths of the Ancestor walking and singing rocks, plants, and animals into existence have been totally upset by hundreds of miles of railroads and tracks built to ensure the movements of colonizers. Chatwin’s aim is to unveil the patterns of repression put in place under the colonial era and perpetuated in a global age. Instead of turning a blind eye on these auditory lines, the traveller lays out the essential function of what had long been considered as pure fantasy: ‘The man who went “Walkabout” was making a ritual journey. He trod in the footprints of his Ancestor. He sang the Ancestor’s stanza without changing a word or note—and so recreated the Creation’ (Chatwin 2003, 14).

10In order to subvert these lines of domination, both Sinclair and Chatwin also developed lateral ways of travelling. In London Orbital, Sinclair sets about walking not in London, as any tourist would do, but on the margins of the city, along and across the motorway which marks the boundary between the metropolis and its periphery. By doing so he hopes to disrupt the opposition between urban and rural spaces. He thus walks along a line (the M25) where opposites meet, and occupies zones of contact between the city and the country, such as parks or, conversely, suburban estates.

11Stepping aside also requires the ability to switch from one mode of perception to another, and more precisely from the visual to the acoustic mode. Both in London Orbital and in The Songlines, the traveller walks through and charts invisible territories. This attitude is a challenge to the foundational basis of travel writing and the empirical epistemology on which it rested. As a matter of fact, the value of a early-modern travel accounts rested on their capacities to record, as precisely as possible, the locations visited and the people met by the travellers. The reputation of the latter largely depended on his or her status as eye-witness of events reported on or landscapes described. Even with the later recognition of the travellers’ subjectivity and the enhancement of his or her subjective depiction of reality, what mattered to travel writers was what their eyes could see and what the world looked like from their perspectives. Contrary to these early-modern, modern and romantic traditions both our travellers tend to favour other modes of relating to space, and more particularly one resting on audition. For instance, Sinclair set as an imperative to be directed by the acoustic footprints of the motorway (Sinclair 2002, 140). ‘Sound [being] elusive’, thus creating a ‘dispersing landscape’ (Sinclair 2002, 217), it forces the traveller to awaken and mobilize his attention to his environment.

12In Australia, Chatwin reinterpreted landscapes according to the songlines of the natives:

We sat down cross-legged in the sand. I asked him if he’d mind pointing out some local Dreamings.
‘Ho! Ho!’ he broke into a wheezy cackle. ‘Many Dreamings! Many!’
‘Well, who—,’ I asked, waving towards Mount Liebler, ‘who is that?’
‘Ho! Ho!,’ he said. ‘That one a Big One. A Walk One. A Perenty One.’
. . . I looked up again at the cliffline of Mount Liebler and found I could ‘read’ into the rock the lizard’s flat, triangular head, his shoulder, his foreleg and hindleg, and the tail tapering away towards the north. (Chatwin 2003, 13)

13The process of seeing through the natives’ eyes requires an adaptation of one’s perceptions (‘I  looked up again’), followed by a reinterpretation (‘I could “read” into’). According to the aboriginal reading, space is not skimmed over, but is perceived in depth, each site containing the story which created it, each seamless stretch of ground organized along musical scores.

14Having laid bare the epistemology and politics of space, Chatwin and Sinclair propounded various ways to circumvent compulsory lines. They occupied margins and followed sound tracks in order to escape the constrictions of a system based on the ‘free’ flow of capital, goods and persons. This also forced them to explore new ways of relating to space. As Alison Russell wrote: ‘The Songlines subvert the notion of boundaries by drawing upon the Aboriginal’s concept of territory as a network of lines or “ways through” rather than as bounded space’ (Russell 19).

A Paradigmatic Approach to Space

15Sinclair, contrary to Chatwin, moves in a cityscape replete with signs. However, in order to avoid falling prey to the gleamy and gaudy attraction of mass advertising, he shifted his attention, in Lights Out For the Territory, also subtitled ‘9 Excursions in the Secret History of London’, to the silent voices of the city and its puzzling syntax.

16Thus, in the opening chapter Iain Sinclair records his first walk alongside the railway track from North Woolwich to Silvertown. The rhythm of this journey is dictated by the graffiti painted on the wall that runs alongside the track. The traveller strides out, pauses, takes down a sketch of one of them and then ‘swoops onto the next cluster’ (Sinclair 1998, 48). Thus, the traveller is impelled to make sense of this ‘delirium of coded information’ (Sinclair 1998, 48), to read the city like a palimpsest, on which signs are inscribed, scratched off, and written over again. The traveller’s journey and rhythm are dictated by the presence of these cryptic signs, and so is his writing mode. Indeed, the narration in this chapter follows no direct line but is constantly interrupted by the insertion of quotations from the graffiti, which have obviously no semantic link between each other:


Through the unselfconscious ordinariness of Prince Regent’s Lane (Greengate Street, Plaistow Road), we’re comfortable, pushing on; sustained by voices that never let up their attack. These streets—all one street—are operational, with no hidden agenda. They are content with disaffection. Resigned to something less than mediocrity (Sinclair 1998, 49).

17I have tried in this extract to stick to the original layout and typography because it is, I believe, indicative of the author’s approach to travel and to travel-writing. Indeed, instead of looking out for beautiful and picturesque landscapes, he is taking his readers through territories ‘resigned to something less than mediocrity.’ The provocation is not only visual—by forcing us to look at the ugly—it is also moral. Indeed, not only does the travel-writer submit his narrative to the appeal of those voices recorded on the walls, but he also feels ‘comfortable’ with them. In other words, he endorses the destabilisation of our system of value by outlining vulgarity and reversing the balance between what we normally define as important and what we dismiss as anecdotal. Here, a ‘car wanted’ is emboldened, in other words, is given more credit than a political discourse on immigration.

18These insertions also disturb the flow of the narrative. Indeed, it is constantly interrupted to catch up with new recorded signs. The syntax itself gets affected as the writer often resorts to nominal sentences, which cut short all sentimental outpourings and set a bland and defiantly unattractive tone to his narrative.

19The graffiti are not the only urban palimpsests that Sinclair registered. He also created his own palimpsests based on the superimposition of geometrical patterns on the alignments of streets. Indeed, in this case, the traveller would draw letters or patterns by joining together the different stops in somebody’s itinerary across the city. Then, he would superimpose these ‘dormant’ traces (Sinclair 1998, 1) onto the city map and try to walk these lines which constantly cut across the organization of space, as city-planners designed it:

I had developed this curious conceit while working on my novel Randon Daughters: that the physical movements of the characters across their territory might spell out the letter of a secret alphabet. Dynamic shapes with ambitions to achieve a life of their own, quite independent of their supposed author. Railway to pub to hospital: trace the line on the map.
(Sinclair 1998, 1)

20Above the surface of maps, the traveller draws and then tries to follow lines which disrupt the grid of the city. These, in all cases, offer alternative ways to relate to space, ways in which the traveller has gained a higher degree of intervention in the delineation of his own journey and a higher degree of freedom from a territory the organization of which had been predicated upon the interests of capital. One might sum up Sinclair’s approach by quoting from the critic Denis Porter, who aptly pointed out that travel ‘caters to desire.’ According to him, travel is ‘fuelled by desire’ and ‘it also embodies powerful transgressive impulse’ (Porter 9). Mark Cocker further argued that the repression, which allows the domestic environment to remain safe and stable, was counteracted by the travelling experience: ‘In its place [the place of the domestic environment] is an unending, unpredictable and random stream of new sensory experiences’ (Cocker 255). This is precisely what Iain Sinclair is trying to achieve in the course of his travels and in his approach to travel-writing—a destabilisation and a personal reinvestment of framed out territories.

21In another passage of Sinclair’s Lights Out, the projections of human anxieties onto space are shown to interact and sometimes supersede their given organization. Walking in the City, the author mentions first his frustration at not being able to locate its centre:

The geometry had been botched, the alignments twisted to flatter false imperatives: the money lake. . . . We traced vanished rivers, the Walbrook and its threadlike tributaries; we logged the distribution of tribes of totemic animals; we hit every church, recording armadas of stone vessels. And all without the desired shock of revelation. The City resisted us.
(Sinclair 1998, 106)

22The traveller uses energies, different from those of the ‘money lake’, in order to establish a new relation to this area. Hence the idea, developed in this passage, of a competition between two kinds of organization, one based on the world of finance and the other on the sacred. The attempt to realign the City along mythical lines, to amend its grid in order to have it conform to a spiritual geometry, is presented in the term of an assault. This conflict is to be related to Freud’s theory of the mechanism of desire, which is based on a contention between the principle of reality and the principle of pleasure, the latter being constantly checked by the former—in this case, the imperatives of the ‘money lake.’

23Sinclair also pays attention to moments when psychic projections become predominant. For instance, the traveller recalls the experience of revisiting a park where Rachel Whiteread’s artwork had been exhibited. Even if removed, the installation still haunted the place: ‘An absence, a brick outline in the grass, that gave credence to the surrounding crush of business and development . . . All that is left is the skeletal tracing, a psychic barrier that repelled the vagrants who gathered around the solitary sepulchre’ (Sinclair 1998, 231). Although materially erased from the surface of the ground, the ‘skeletal tracing’ is still perceived by the traveller and reorganizes people’s relation to space, by setting up points of attraction and repulsion.

24This notion of a palimpsestic territory places the traveller in the position of a reader, trying to decipher the alignments, past and present, of the city. It also reverses the relationship between the individual and his/her territory. Indeed, even familiar spaces become complex and elusive, thus acquiring a force of their own. In a sense, Sinclair’s experience and work are recognitions of this capacity of territories to unleash energies and trigger responses on the part of the traveller.

25Indeed, his narratives also record the energies produced by the city and show how these are threatened by a reorganization of space designed to fulfil the needs of a global economy. For instance, as he sets out walking around the ancient Walls of London, aiming at resurrecting old alignments, his moves are constantly being checked: ‘To try to get a sense of the original shape by tapping its accredited ruins following the designated route is futile. You are contradicted, misinformed, fenced out, overseen for every inch of your journey’ (Sinclair 1998, 102). However, the traveller is interested in another interpretation of space as a field of energy responding to the human psyche:

. . . the perversity of that desire, to pick up on the energy field, is as strong as ever. I am haunted by a mythology of gates: as metaphors and as facts. Gates cut into the Wall’s continuity, truces of going and coming: exchanges with the idea of the outside, with the field and the garden. . . . The meaning of the gates has been carted away with the brickwork. The wall is no longer a border, it’s a preserved feature: a well-scrubbed and biddable geriatric. But it remains an enticement to the urban stalker. (Sinclair 1998, 102)

26In the case of Sinclair, ‘psychogeography’ counterbalances a strictly rational relation to space. The traveller is not particularly interested in gates per se, or in the historical meaning of these gates, not even in the beauty of their ornamental features. They are only of significance on account of the psychic processes, such as enticement and recollection, that they are able to set in motion.

27Memory also acts as a creative force, which is congruent or collusive with contemporary maps. The role imparted to the traveller, both in Sinclair’s and in Chatwin’s works, is to resurrect historical tracings, which might call a blurred, if not totally erased, geography into being. By doing so, memory also forces a reinterpretation of present locations, perceived as displacements from former premises. For instance, Iain Sinclair devotes a page of Liquid City to the description of the warehouse on Durward Street. This building is not simply described as it presents itself in the here and now of the viewer, but is also considered as displaced in space and time:

It represented what wasn’t there. Pass it and you shift from one zone to another, you exchange systems of time. It’s the double of the stone tank, dark water, in Bunhill fields: the monument to the woman who was repeatedly tap’d but who ‘never repined’. It’s a storehouse of memory, of pain. A reserve collection of urban nightmares, silent shrieks. The paradigms of a museum: one that is never visited. (Sinclair 1999, 182)

28Sinclair describes the building in an analogical relation to the stone tank in Bunhill fields. In fact, the building is only interesting to the traveller for its evocative power—not for what it is, but for what it stands. It is displaced and realigned with its double. By using his memory, the traveller is able not only to link locations but also to substitute one for the other, thus giving an altogether different picture of the city.

Writing Contemporary Travel Narratives

29Not only do Chatwin and Sinclair question the practice of travelling and, generally speaking, the relationship of man to space, but they also fundamentally disrupt travel writing by challenging the assumptions on which it is based. Whereas the initial function of travel writing was conceived of as a recording of facts, with the traveller acting as a witness, postmodernism led to an examination of the epistemological and political preconceptions of the genre and to a general distrust of language and its capacity to conjure up the truth about reality. Instead of tacking narratives onto reality and instead of organizing their journeys according to preconceived plans, they prefer to let their experiences of the world alter their narratives.

30One instance of that can be found in Alison Russell’s analysis of Chatwin’s Songlines. She explains that the songlines are not only part of a mythical organization of space, but are also poetical motives shaping the narrative itself: ‘[Chatwin] models his narrative (intellectual and intertextual wanderings) on nomadic wanderings’ (Russell 2000, 19).

31Sinclair and Chatwin show that they are aware of the different problems posed by the very act of travelling, whether through a territory entirely designed to serve capitalist forces, as in London, or through de-colonized space, as in Australia. But this very awareness also has an impact on the way they write about travels. As a matter of fact, clarity and focus, two qualities much sought after in early travel narratives, are no longer aimed at. Instead, the travellers opted for an abstract and digressive style of narration.

32Indeed, Chatwin’s discovery of songline maps deeply influences his way of thinking about space and of recording that space. As he was accompanied in his journey through the Australian expanse by a Tjilpa man, he listened to the native’s reading of space and tried to explain it to his readers. He often recognizes that he does not quite see the forms that the Tjilpa man points at. At other times, he remembers his astonishment at being able to make them out.

33This endeavour to follow these songlines, only recorded in the memory of the aborigenes, has an impact on his practice as a writer. He produces minimal descriptions in order to have an image of the landscape as unencumbered as possible and to focus his attention on the lines and circles of aboriginal geography. As a consequence of this, the recording of his journey does not conjure up picturesque descriptions but limits itself to geometrical patterns:

We were on the road by eight, under a blanket of low-hanging cloud. The road streaked ahead in two parallel ruts of reddish water. In places we had to cross a floodpan with low bushes breaking the surface . . . A couple of hours later, we saw a herd of camels, soaked in the downpour, and then, through the mist we began to see the rounded hump of Mount Cullen, rearing up above the level of the plain. As we came up closer, the colour of the mountain turned from grey to purple: the colour of red sandstone. A mile or two beyond, there was an escarpment of sheer, faceted cliffs, upraised into a peak at one end, and then tapering away towards the north.
(Chatwin 2003, 145–6)

34The description of the landscape is here pared down to a minimum. It is reduced to surfaces (the ‘blanket of low-hanging cloud’, ‘a floodpan’, ‘the level of the plain’), lines (‘[T]he road streaked ahead’, ‘two parallel ruts’), and outlines (‘the rounded hump of Mount Cullen’, the ‘escarpment of sheer, faceted cliffs, upraised into a peak . . . and then tapering away’).

35In fact, Chatwin resorts to abstraction and to a pointillist technique in an attempt to respond—in as adequate a manner as possible—to the aboriginal representation of space. He examines the songline maps with great care and translates motifs of circles and mazes of lines into his narrative, thus voluntarily turning away from the realistic mode of the discoverer and colonizer:

I was climbing steadily, and, looking down at the plain, I understood why Aboriginals choose to paint their land in ‘pointillist’ dots. The land was dotted. The white dots were spinifex; the blueish dots were eucalyptus, and the lemon-green dots were some other kind of tufty grass.
(Chatwin 2003, 224)

36The equation between a geometrical pattern—the dot—and the object it refers to—the spinifex, the eucalyptus, and tufty grass—is materialized through the use of the auxiliary ‘to be’ in its conjugated form, thus justifying the perceptions of the Tjilpa men. The syntax of this passage is also quite remarkable: the writer opens his sentences with a geometrical pattern and then refers it back to its object. The object is deduced from the line, and not the reverse. In other words, this syntactic choice emphasizes the traveller’s capacity to convert his own gaze to that of the Australian tribesmen.

37Sinclair’s style, relying on parataxis and elision, also aims at abstraction. Nominal sentences and the absence of coordination are common features of his prose, as seen in this passage from Lights Out:

Usual first light start; grey skies, the lid on our prospects. Useless for photography. Like wading through a fog of developing fluid. Ghost imagery without a border. Persistent slanting rain nibbling away at the white stone plaque set into the wall where Albion Drive is split by Queensbridge Road. 1893 HACKNEY/BOUNDARY/IF 41 SOUTH.
Ballpoint scratches through damp blotting-paper of notebook. Inscription dissolves. (Sinclair 1998, 35)

38Sinclair’s preconception of a conformity between the experience of travelling and writing means that impediments cannot be recorded in neat sentences. His prose is divested of all embellishments, pared down to minimal structures, confronted to erasure. As the rain threatens, if not annihilates, the process of recording itself, what remains cannot be the clear picture of a landscape but the sound made by the pen caught in the act of sketching, just as in abstract painting, where the creative gesture, the direction, and rhythm given to the brush, are foregrounded. As Sinclair puts it: ‘Text is performance’ (Sinclair 2002, 67).

39Thus, abstraction is not only used for its creative potential. It is also an ideological stance against the politics of realism. This position does not only affect descriptions but also narratives: Sinclair and Chatwin exchanged the chronological development of travel narratives for a more complex pattern of interweaving lines of narration.

40For instance, the structure of The Viceroy of Ouidah, is entirely based on analepses and prolepses. The chronological development is maintained from the opening episode of the procession to the episode of Mama Wéwé lying on her deathbed. Then, by using an analepsis, the narrator relates the life of the dying woman. The time of the diegesis is recovered only to be dismissed again in a second analepsis, which tells about the life of Francisco Da Silva. The first level of the diegesis is eventually recovered at the end, as the narrative is reconnected to its beginning. It implies that, as far as real time is concerned, only a few minutes have elapsed. However, the narrative offers the possibility for lines to be unravelled in order to cover a whole lifetime.

41Narratives are also considered as lines that can be cut and merged at any time. The last part of The Songlines functions as a criss-crossing of lines. Excerpts taken from the traveller’s notebooks are interpolated into the lines of the narrative. Its development is impeded by the insertion of notes, which support while disrupting the diegesis. For instance, in chapter 31, the narrator recalls a hunting journey, while the notes refer to reflections on aggressive behaviours. Chapter 32 is the description of a journey to Mount Liebler, while the notes deal with human restlessness. However, the multiplicity of voices, of lines, does not merely lead to disorder. It also opens a space for debate, contest, and reflection. The very quality of the notes, comparable to loose reflections on a topic, allows the writer to go beyond the restrictions of the genre.

42The multiplication of lines of narrative is also produced with the criss-crossing of text and intertext. In Lights Out for the Territory, Sinclair inserts a variety of texts into his travel narrative. For instance, the lines of ‘The Levelled Churchyard’, a poem by Thomas Hardy, are interwoven into his description of St Pancras churchyard. More precisely, the tree surrounded by headstones and, to Sinclair, feeding on the dead, recalls a passage in the poem, when Hardy described the grounds of the churchyard being cleared and the dead lamenting on the jumble made of their remains.

43The traveller’s attention is then caught by an oval design on the monument located at the south side of the church. After a short description, he notices that the pietistic image has been transformed by the chipping away of a ‘freelance occultist’ into ‘an unconscious representation of Dun’s “Sunchild surrendered in the Dark House of Chrome”’ (Sinclair 1998, 154). Again, Sinclair’s vision and its rendition are informed by an intertext acknowledged in the endnote section. Sinclair expresses his warmest thanks to ‘Aidan Dun for guiding Marc Atkins and [him]self around the Vale Royal patch. And to Mike Goldmark for, among other things, digging out the Thomas Hardy poem’ (Sinclair 1998, 367). The text, connected up to an intertext, branches off into other lines. The notion of intertext does not only have a poetical impact. It is spiritually linked to the condition of the postmodern traveller and his awareness of the impossibility of walking through uncharted territory. Catherine Bernard explains about Chatwin: ‘Bien qu’il fût un romancier grand voyageur, il s’attacha plus à revisiter des espaces déjà cartographiés qu’à tracer de nouveaux horizons cartographiques’ (Bernard 201).

44Postmodern travel narratives, of which Sinclair’s and Chatwin’s are instances, dispense with the didactic and scientific functions of the genre. Indeed, Sinclair and Chatwin write after everything has been discovered and controlled. They are also acutely attentive to contemporary forms of exploitation and hegemony. Thus, their aims are to reinvent framed territories. They wish to provoke an awareness of the political and economical predicaments on which our apprehensions of the world rest. To achieve this, they resort to deconstructive modes of operation, which imply a shift from an attention to landscape to an insight into the ways in which landscape is constructed and our perceptions and representations ideologically driven. As Mark Cocker wrote of postmodern travel literature: ‘The focus ceased to be the novelty of the data, and became the manner of its presentation’ (Cocker 7).

45Another key dimension of Sinclair’s and Chatwin’s narratives is a quest for alternative ways of travelling, mapping and describing territories. Their approach is not superficial but rather paradigmatic. Sinclair’s ‘psychogeography’ disrupts the existing organization of space by introducing lines produced by sensations or acts of cognition. Chatwin’s approach also leads to the multiplication of lines and to their contentions, as in the case of the Australian road system, developed by European colonizers to ensure the economical and political domination of the land, and the invisible songlines of the aboriginals.

46Not only do Chatwin and Sinclair criticize and renew the practice of travelling, they also fundamentally question its linguistic rendition. Alison Russell contends that travel writers who are ‘unwilling to traverse the beaten narrative path have been able to refresh the genre by employing experimental textual practices’ (Russell 7). And indeed, both travellers dispensed with chronological linearity in order to accommodate their new approaches to travel into their syntaxes. Sinclair’s uncertain quest for signs is rendered in a syncopated prose emphasizing the elusiveness of meaning and its incompleteness. As for Chatwin, the movements backward and forward on which the structure of In Patagonia relies, as well as his use of digressions in Songlines, are the verbal transcriptions of a relation to space that is never direct but informed by memory and by a wandering spirit reaching out beyond beaten tracks.

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Claire Gallien, « The Politics of the Line in Bruce Chatwin’s and Iain Sinclair’s Travel Narratives »Études britanniques contemporaines, 40 | 2011, 143-160.

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Claire Gallien, « The Politics of the Line in Bruce Chatwin’s and Iain Sinclair’s Travel Narratives »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 40 | 2011, mis en ligne le 27 août 2015, consulté le 28 novembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Claire Gallien

Université Paris 7 — Denis-Diderot.
Claire Gallien enseigne à l’institut d’études anglophones de l’université de Paris Diderot — Paris 7 et appartient au Laboratoire de Recherche sur les Cultures Anglophones (LARCA). Elle publie actuellement aux éditions SVEC (Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century) une monographie sur les rapports entre culture savante et culture commune de l’Orient au xviiie siècle intitulée L’Orient anglais. Ses recherches portent sur les rapports entre les orientalistes britanniques et les lettrés orientaux dans la production du savoir orientaliste du xviie au début du xixe siècle.

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