The Map Is Not The Territory

It’s 1511 in the new city of Santa Domingo on Hispaniola, and Bartholomew Columbus, brother of the more famous Christopher is telling his life story to a Dominican monk. The monk, Las Casas, wants to celebrate the voyages of Christopher Columbus by encapsulating them in a story that will belong to ‘the history of mankind’s curiosity.’ But the retelling is darkened by another event happening on the island at the same time; another Dominican is stirring up trouble in his sermons by remonstrating with the colonisers for their brutal treatment of the native Indians. The response of the colonisers is to desire the punishment and death of the monk who dares to question their acts, but Bartholomew Columbus, ex-Viceroy of the Indies, is brought up short by the sermons, recognising their truth. The story he tells will contain two threads, the beauty and delight of curiosity, and the horrific destruction of conquest.

The Indies Enterprise by Erik Orsenna is a book that recounts the build-up to, and the consequences of, Columbus’s great journey to the West, but the voyage itself happens outside of the story. Recounting the events through the narrative perspective of his brother, Bartholomew, puts a very different slant on the story, and one that works rather well. Christopher is a force of nature. When he washes up (literally, after a storm at sea) in Lisbon, Portugal, where his brother is working contentedly as a cartographer, Bartholomew knows this is the end of his peaceful life. He is both thrilled and resentful as he is dragged into Christopher’s great project: the discovery of a sea route to the great trading nation of India that will head west rather than east, a direction which he is convinced will prove to be shorter and quicker than any other.

Bartholomew is well placed to help him. Lisbon is a bustling seaport, consumed with curiosity about the unknown world thanks to the ships that arrive daily full of exotic cargo. Cartography is a booming industry, as each new arrival of sailors unload knowledge about parts of the world’s coastlines (no one can believe how far south Africa extends). The King hoards the perfect map in his palace, and woe betide any cartographer who does not hand over all new discoveries to him. Knowledge is power, and at this point in the history of civilization, fresh knowledge is pouring in, a rich and valuable commodity, in the form of strange animals, unknown languages, the new science of algebra and that odd recent invention, the book.

Books and ships are granted equal space in this story and given parallel lives, as books are ‘ships on dry land’, making a single journey into the reader’s mind. Bartholomew is sent on a quest to find a book his brother insists on having as part of his research, and in this era, the printed book is a new invention, and one viewed with suspicion: ‘it remained to be seen,’ Bartholomew declares, ‘whether this clever manipulation of leaden characters could produce masterpieces to compare with those of our illuminators, and my expectations were not high.’ But when Bartholomew travels to Louvain in search of the Ymago Mundi, he witnesses some extraordinary scenes. The librarian at the university receives a single book, brought by a traveller as if it were a precious jewel. A lay brother fetches a basin of water, as all who touch the book must wash their hands first, and then the librarian raises the book, indicates the shelf and declares ‘You are welcome among your own kind!’ [Something similar happens in my house, actually.] What lies inside the books is considered to be absolute truth, and Orsenna quotes heavily in places from works by the first explorers such as Marco Polo, and religious tracts that firmly believed hell and paradise existed on the earth.

Orsenna has done his research and the realistic background to this story is both strange and beautiful. A monk called Las Casas really did write up the tales of Christopher Columbus, the books of early explorers were riddled with error, superstition and fantasy, and of course, Columbus really did think he had reached India, when he landed on the coast of America. The atmosphere Orsenna creates of avid curiosity and wonder at the never-ending marvels of the world is almost magical. Not a lot happens in this book, really, but the narrative is vivid and sprightly and rich. The excitement of anticipation drives the first two parts of the story, and then the last, with its sudden sobriety and its stark account of colonising atrocities, marks a dramatic difference in tone. The elderly Bartholomew’s crisis of conscience is relevant for today: why do we still harbour a passion for exploration and discovery, if we only destroy what we find?

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and found it unusual, entertaining and highly evocative. One to look out for if you like historical novels about the early explorers, or just fancy trying something a bit different.


14 thoughts on “The Map Is Not The Territory

  1. Sounds good and what an interesting approach to well-known subject too. I laughed at the librarian ritual and your comment that something similar happens in your house. Should I ever find myself in your neck of the woods I will come bearing books just so I can see this ritual take place! 🙂

  2. A quest for a book–I do like the sound of this story (wasn’t sure when I first started reading the description–stories about how native peoples were treated tend to be hard to read), but anything involving ships I always find fascinating. If we don’t destroy what we find we also like to exploit it! (Or maybe both).

  3. I only read Orsenna’s Nabokov novel Deux étés which describes in vivid detail and a deep love for language how Ada was translated. This sounds equally well done and I’m glad you liked it.
    I think I’ll need to read another of his novels some day. The story of the librarian strikes me as typical of the kind of story Orsenna loves to tell. I thought that in the novel I read you could feel his love of books.

  4. A bit of Houellebecq in the title ? 🙂

    I haven’t read Orsenna for a while.

    A good companion for this book would be “La Controverse de Valladolid” by Jean-Claude Carrière. (there’s a review on my blog). It’s the famous discussion between Las Casas and Sepulveda: do native Indians have a soul?

  5. Looks interesting. I might check it out. I did enjoy your review of it thoroughly. PS: I have a few questions from your previous post and my comment there–and I can’t email you because of your problems with your email so I want to ask you here (I hope you don’t mind!). What was the book of on writers’ lives that you saw at the bookstore? It sounds interesting. Also is the biography of the Rossettis out in the states yet? I looked for it at my University library and could not find it so I looked on amazon, and there are a few copies there.

  6. That sounds like a very good read – the sort I like, with plenty of research to back up the narrative. As you say, an unusual take on the Columbus story. I shall order it from the library

  7. Stefanie – you would be a most welcome participant! Mister Litlove always spoils it by laughing. 😉

    Lilian – yay, I so liked that bit. I hadn’t thought as far back as the time when printing replaced manuscripts, which was after all a bit of a come down in terms of aesthetic beauty! It made me laugh in the book when I read it.

    Danielle – I agree, both is most likely. I wasn’t sure about this book when I started it, but I really did find it quite charming. I very much enjoyed the way it was written, and the parts about the treatment of native people are brief (if brutal – you could skip the bits very easily). Mind you, sometimes it’s nice to think that there are a few books one doesn’t HAVE to read! 🙂

    Smithereens – you are welcome! I do hope Mister Smithereens enjoys it very much (and you should be able to get it in paperback in French, I would have thought).

    Caroline – I like the way you talk about Orsenna – he IS a real storyteller. The novel is full of little interpolated stories, and clever little figurative thoughts and images. I would like to read another novel by him, too!

    Emma – oh my that would make a very good counterpart (the question of the Indian’s soul comes up a bit in this one, too). Houellebecq was borrowing himself when he used the phrase ‘the map is not the territory’ as a title. It originated as a phrase in the 1930s from an academic working in general semantics (his names escapes me, I think he was Polish and it was a complex one). It’s used to refer to all sorts of situations in which the model stands in danger of being confused with reality, which I can see is a very Houellebecquian sort of concept!

    Tracy – I so hope you enjoy it!

    Ali – you remind me I MUST fix my email situation. I’m not sure if the Rossetti biography has reached the States – I’ll check, but you are very welcome to my copy once I’ve finished reading it if you would like that? If you don’t mind a few pencil notations? As for the book, it was Joseph Epstein’s Life Sentences. I’ll let you know if it’s any good!

    Tom – I’d love to know what you think of it if you get hold of it. And thank goodness for libraries. They are so good when you want to try out a new author.

  8. I’m glad you liked it. You seem to be the only blogger to have read this — actually that’s how I found your blog. I read it in French and would love to ask you something about the English translation… I know that’s a strange request from someone who is looking at your blog for the first time, but cold you contact me via email please? If you are willing to answer my question, that is. Thank you!

  9. Thanks so much for the review and to everyone else for their comments. If you’d like to buy the book on-line, go to Haus Publishing’s website (they are the publishers of the translation) and, if you become a friend, you get 25 per cent off.

    You are definitely on my ‘must read blogs’ now!


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