A Borgesian look at a fictional Hong Kong

by David Cozy

ATLAS: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, by Dung Kai-cheung, translated by Anders Hansson and Bonnie S. McDougall. Columbia University Press, 2012, 192 pp., $24.50 (hardcover).

In “Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City,” Dung Kai-cheung maps the surviving maps of a city called Victoria. Readers will quickly understand that Victoria is Hong Kong, the author’s birthplace and home, but the future archaeologists who Dung imagines assembling an image of Victoria from maps and documents are less certain what sort of place they are piecing together.

The first of the four sections into which the novel is divided is “Theory,” and those familiar enough with academic writing to know that the theory chapter usually comes first will understand what Dung, in this section, is parodying.

His parody, though, is always deadpan: Real people, places and events intrude here and in the rest of his book, and neither the real bits nor the absurdities that Dung places next to them are telegraphed with tiresome winks.

“Theory” is rich with the sort of neologisms scholars of a certain stripe like to invent: “counterplace” and “antiplace,” “unitopia” and “multitopia.” Short sections elucidate these and other concepts, and detail the academic disputes to which they’ve given rise. The part devoted to “Extraterritoriality,” for example, begins with an explanation, sensible and dry — “Extraterritoriality has always been a controversial concept in cartographical studies.” But only a few paragraphs later we find ourselves reading about “cartographical nihilists who believe in maps as the only reality, outside of which nothing exists. … They challenge,” Dung’s narrator earnestly insists, “the power of territorialization, for in the irrevocable passage of time, maps are no longer tools of … depicting … territories, rather they have taken the place of territories themselves, in a mockery of the futility of the exertion of power.”

The faux-scholarship in this section is beautifully done and is equaled, though in a different vein, in the next part, where we move from theory to “The City,” an entity approached not directly, of course, but through maps and documents such as “Round the World on the Sunrise” by John Smith, a chronicle of, among other things, Smith’s movements on Aug. 9, 1907, the day he spends in Victoria. In Smith’s account, with characteristic subtlety, Dung mocks colonial travelers and the memoirs that reveal their odd interpretations of cultures to which they can only condescend. Smith and his fellow travelers, for example, encounter, in Victoria, “a Chinese man, ‘gaunt, shifty-eyed, speaking English like a pelican.’ “

When Smith separates himself from his group and guide he feels “just like an explorer entering a tropical rain forest, a hunting rifle in hand and dangers on all sides.” In the course of his expedition he buys some pictures of local people, among them “a photograph of a small boy from a poor family carrying a baby on his back.” This picture “stirred” in Mr. Smith “a feeling of being deeply touched by human sincerity.” The austere objectivity with which Dung’s archaeologists present Smith’s sentimentality sharpens the edge of Dung’s wit.

In the next section, “Streets,” we learn about specific places in Victoria such as the ice house to which “it was at one time a very agreeable (though secret) custom to go … to experience the joys of a chilly European winter” and where, it was rumored, “each new arrival from Britain …put their memories and dreams in cold storage in the cellar, lest they rot in the cruel subtropical climate.”

Travelers who use the sort of maps that guide tourists from one numbered destination to the next and omit all that lies between and beyond the numbers come under Dung’s scrutiny in the final section, “Signs.” Guided by such a map, a version of Victoria is constructed in the desert, and there Dung’s archaeologists feel they are “walking from (8) to (16) and on to (75) on an extremely simplified tourist map on a scale of 1:1.” In the end they are “obliged to leave bearing with [them] the tourist’s easily satisfied greed and quickly exhausted curiosity.”

Readers pleased by cliff-hanging, nail-biting, page-turning adventure will not be satisfied with “Atlas.” Devotees of writers as curious as Borges, Calvino and Eco, will love this map of maps of an imaginary city.