Some time ago Tim Burke posted, requesting help expanding a ‘trope’ list for an ‘Images of Africa’ course. Here’s a sample, which gives you an idea what he’s looking for:
1) Hidden city/lost civilization deep in the jungle. Often civilization of whites or non-Africans.
2) Missionary/explorer in a cannibal cooking pot; general tropes of cannibalism.
3) Mysterious ritual that turns out to have been marriage to chief’s daughter
4) Superstitious bearer/guide
5) Evil witchdoctor
6) White man “gone native”/Tarzan figure
7) Kurtz-style descent into madness …
And so on. I couldn’t think of anything to add at the time, now I’ve got one. One of the most salient images of Africa, in popular imagination is precisely the lack of any accurate image of African geography/political order, acting as a check on the literary imagination (broadly conceived so as to include all aesthetic/artistic/fictional representations.)
By contrast, you can’t just invent some fictional new state in the Midwest: Oklaharkanas, or Arizode Island, ruled by a ruthless Governor/drug lord. Of course, in fiction there is always allowance, in any locale, for some invention – a sliding scale of geographic plasticity. You can invent a small English town, or a small American city. But you can’t invent even a neighborhood of LA or New York (or London?) that doesn’t really exist. You can invent a street in Manhattan. (Then again, there’s that scene in Bullit in which Steve McQ goes up Russian hill (was it?) and comes down in a totally different part of SF. That’s OK.) The general rule is: there is some threshold of presumptive clear and distinct awareness of the actual facts, and you stay below the radar of that line. In Africa, the radar is totally broken: anything goes. New rivers, governments unlike anything that exists, Whole landlocked nations moved to the coast for the occasion.
As General Zateb Kazim put it in Sahara: "Don’t worry. It’s Africa. Nobody cares about Africa."
It’s that sweet spot of not caring, plus being fascinated by, that produces nigh infinite space for total fabulation. Call it: brain of darkness, meet heart of darkness.
The occasion for this meditation is the fact that everyone around the house is watching Sahara the last couple days. I’ve only managed to catch about 30 minutes, between bouts of chasing the kids around and etc. I won’t go into all the problems with space and time, politics, etc. But speaking of ‘geographies of the imagination’ – and continuing my ongoing, occasional series of meditations on Amazon’s expanding features – I see you can now access lists of ‘keywords’ , which function collectively as something between an epic haiku and a plot summary. For Sahara they are:
Boat Chase | Flashback Sequence | Handcuffs | Cave Painting | Boat Ride | Coin | Warlord | Exploding Helicopter | Nigeria | Flare Gun | Camel Ride | Solar Power | Lighthouse | Vintage Car | Fall From Height | Contamination | Train | Based On Novel | American Civil War | Camel | Exploding Boat | Helicopter | Action Hero | Admiral | Africa | AK 47 | Bomb | Cannon | Central Intelligence Agency | Doctor | Dynamite | Embassy | Execution | Explosion | Gold | Gun | Machine Gun | Nuclear Waste | Pistol | Scuba Diving | Ship | Shot In The Chest | Toxic Waste | Treasure Hunt | Treasure | Well | Compassion | Honor | Martial Arts | Responsibility | Tyrant | Corporate Crime
The neat thing is that each word is also a link to all other films containing, for example, exploding boats. (I had totally forgotten that Return to Savage Beach had an exploding boat in it. My attention must have been focused on something else.) So there is a sort of emergent filmic geographic imaginary of exploding boats. If you will. This could actually be a research tool, for certain purposes. For example, Burke could check out all the movies about lost civilizations.
Oh wait. It turns out Amazon is piggybacking off some imdb thing. See this page for all correlations between exploding boats and other tropes – like exploding helicopters, falling from heights, boy girl relationships, crossword puzzles and such. (It’s enough to make Borges blush, honestly.)
I’m wandering all over the geography of the imagination here. Getting back on course, of course you can freely invent countries not just in Africa but in central Asia – ‘-istan’ is freely available for neogeologism; likewise Eastern Europe is fair game, courtesy of ‘-eria’ and ‘ania’. Inventing new countries on coasts is harder than inland (except for islands); and you can’t haul off and put some new country between France and Denmark. Western Europe is off-limits. South and Central America are somewhat less settled than North America and Europe, but more settled than Africa and Asia? The Middle-East? Not sure. (Space? Our solar system shouldn’t just get a new planet we’ve never heard of, unless the plot is that the new planet has just been discovered. Out past Alpha Centauri everything is fair game. In between: unclear.)
What are your examples of geographically absurd fabulations, rendering a work irritating or campily amusing?
My favorite example is one I posted about a long time ago, Jules Verne’s Les Cinq Cents Millions de la Bégum. I read it while I was teaching myself French in grad school. I see it’s just been retranslated in English as The Begum’s Millions. Here’s the plot summary.
Originally and inexpertly translated in 1879, Verne’s cautionary tale concerns human failings in the face of both wealth and scientific progress. Instead of valorizing progress like most Verne novels, this one presents contested definitions of the utopian impulse to reform human nature. Two scientists, the benevolent, modest Frenchman, Dr. Sarrasin, and the egotistical German, Herr Schultze, find that they share a large inheritance, five million francs, left by a French ancestor who married East-Indian royalty. They use the money to realize two "utopian" cities in the American Northwest. Verne carefully presents the hygienic, peaceful, rational city France-Ville of Dr. Sarrasin as a haven for enlightened, cooperative citizens, in contrast to the City of Steel, the industrialized hell of Herr Schultze. With the City of Steel’s resources, the German plots the destruction of France-Ville as his first act in ensuring the subjugation of all inferior, non-Saxon races. Since the work is full of racial and personal stereotypes, long paragraphs explaining technological, social and scientific projects, unmediated by Verne’s usual humor or adventure plots, it will appeal most to the literary completist.
Emphasis definitely on that last clause. (Also, it’s obviously 500 million, not 5 million. Even I can read French that well.) It’s a nice demonstration that geography is relative, of course. To the 19th Century French, Oregon was as conceptually pastic as Africa is to the average American.
As I wrote before, it’s the only novel of the Oregon experience utterly innocent of experience of Oregon. France-Ville is almost exactly where Eugene, OR is – where I grew up. The City of Steel is either in Idaho or Eastern Oregon, across the Cascades. It is most peculiar to imagine the second half of the 19th Century, in the Pacific Northwest, as a fight to the death between French hygienists and Teutonic builders of incredibly long-barreled guns.