ATLAS: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City

Dung Kai-cheung
Translated by Dung Kai-cheung, Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S. McDougall
Columbia University Press ($24.50)

by Lucas Klein

"No one, wise Kublai,” says Marco Polo in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, “knows better than you that the city must never be confused with the words that describe it.” In Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, Hong Kong’s Dung Kai-cheung writes, “All places are misplaces, and all misplaces are misreadings,” and “The prerequisite for the setting of boundaries on maps is possession of the power to create fiction.”

Calvino’s Invisible Cities has Marco Polo telling Chinese emperor Kublai Khan of the fabulous and fantastical cities he has visited, all named after women, like the idealized Venice (Venus) from which he hails. Dung’s Atlas, meanwhile, tells only of Victoria, a city named after a queen and, coincidentally, the ur-name of central Hong Kong. Coincidentally, because in line with Marco Polo’s admonition not to confuse the city with its verbal representation, despite any resemblance between actual Hong Kong and the city Atlas describes, its placement is misplaced and its maps are inscribed with the power of fiction: historical details mix with the made-up, and fact and the factitious blend in its pages.

Calvino, along with Borges, Barthes, Eco, and Sebald, appears throughout Atlas—on the back cover, in its pages, and in Bonnie McDougall’s excellent introduction (as well as in other works by Dung: he titled another book of fiction Visible Cities) —but these forerunners of international postmodernism do not strip away the novel’s locality. Not only has localism, in the form of essay-like entries on maps of old Hong Kong, “not been a barrier to international appeal,” as McDougall writes, its exploration of the multi-cultural and trans-lingual identity of the former territory keep it engaged at once with questions of defining what is Chinese against the international circuit and with defining Hong Kong against the larger foil of Chineseness. The fact that Atlas was first published in 1997, the year the territory was “handed over” from United Kingdom to People’s Republic rule, adds historical anxiety to the impetus compelling the novel.

As Calvino writes of one invisible city, “Of all the changes of language a traveler in distant lands must face, none equals that which awaits him in the city of Hypatia, because the change regards not words, but things.” This anxiety can be felt in Dung Kai-cheung’s language itself, as each section begins with a title in Chinese and its English translation. To negotiate these and other instances of the book’s bilingualism tests the translation, completed by Dung with McDougall and her husband, Anders Hansson, as certain of the English titles do not adhere to their conventional English usages; the first paragraph of the section titled “Commonplace” reads, for instance:

When we study ancient maps, we find repeatedly that places with the same name appear in different forms. These places lumped together under one name are not in fact the same place but common places. Although they are not the same place, they have something in common. This is how the term “commonplace” is defined.

Not a commonplace definition of “commonplace”! The fact that Dung, Hansson, and McDougall manage such moments successfully attests to the brilliance of their translation. Bringing instances of foreignized, displaced English into their lucid, fluid prose, they represent the rhythms of Dung’s original as they mirror the tension between official English, written Chinese, and colloquial Cantonese in Hong Kong, as well as that between the discourse of fiction and the lexicon of critical theory.

The divide between theory and literature sets off Atlas: its first of four sections, “Theory,” contains subheadings such as “Counterplace,” “Displace,” “Subtopia,” and “Omnitopia,” describing maps that meditate in metafiction on the relationship between depiction—whether via mapmaking or writing—and the thing itself. “Yet when for whatever reason you acquire or lose a map through an act of transfer,” we read in “Transtopia,” “you may not be sure of what is being handed over, whether it is the place itself or its sovereignty, knowledge, fantasy, or memory.” The following section of The Atlas, “The City,” gives a historical underpinning of memory to the previous theoretical fantasies, yet these underpinnings are susceptible to their own undertow: “Mirage: City in the Sea” begins, “The legendary city of Victoria was, like Venus [and like Venice], born from the waves of the sea,” but ends,

from then on, the small island was officially called Hong Kong, and with the exception of the continuous development of the city on its northern coast, the name, shape, and position of the island remained unchanged until recent speculations about its resubmergence. So if map readers today attempt to unearth the remains of the city of Victoria in the vast ocean of maps, what they are after might possibly be to perpetuate a love story born of imagination.

The next section, “Streets,” takes the question of the relationship between the object and its name further, with a series of stranger-than-fiction anecdotes about, for instance, a company on Ice House Street (“snow factory street,” in Chinese) producing snow for expatriates; or how differences in the availability of produce in summer and winter caused a street’s seasonal name change, causing delays in the neighborhood postal system. In “Signs,” the final section, Atlas’s structuralist poetics takes the turn towards cultural criticism in the present, even beyond what seems plausible for a book published in the late ’90s: “The Tomb of Signs” describes how

Digital maps, compared with the great quantity of maps produced as material objects, demolish the mythology of maps to an even more advanced extent . . . On the one hand, maps were a tool of political control at the exclusive disposal of the emperor, while on the other hand as unique material objects in themselves they were symbols of power.

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears,” Calvino writes, “even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” Victoria, a displaced commonplace for colonial Hong Kong, likewise operates via deceitful rules and absurd perspectives. Exposing its secret thread of discourse, Atlas does not shrug, it reveals the structure beneath the city’s desires and fears, allowing for—even reveling in—the confusion between the city and its description Marco Polo warned about, but knew could not be avoided.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2012/2013 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012/2013