Oct/Nov 2015  •   Reviews & Interviews

Granta 131: The Map is not the Territory

Review by Ann Skea

Granta 131: The Map is not the Territory.
Sigrid Rausing, Editor.
Granta. 2015. 256 pp.
ISBN 978 1 905 881 87 1.

In her Introduction, editor and publisher Sigrid Rausing writes that "The pieces in this issue of Granta all are concerned with the difference between the world as we see it and the world as it actually is, beyond our faulty memories and tired understanding."

In some ways this explains the more disorientating pieces in this issue. But other pieces, like Ludmila Ulitskaya's "Life and Breasts," which deals with the way in which one woman adapts to a diagnosis and treatment for cancer, are quite straightforward. And Janine di Giovanni's "After Zero Hour" is pure reportage of her experiences in Iraq and of the lives of the people she came to know before and after the American troops left that country. Both pieces offer insight into situations beyond the experience of most people, and both make absorbing reading.

Other pieces, like Jesse Ball's "The Gentlest Village" and Jon Fosse's "Dreamed in Stone," are disorientating and imaginatively strange. Kathryn Maris's poem "It was discovered that gut bacteria were responsible" is truly and wonderfully bizarre. And China Mieville's "The Buzzard's Egg," in which an elderly slave converses with the idol of a god whom he has spent a lifetime looking after, is curious and unexpectedly moving.

Strangest of all, and I hoped it was intended as a joke but fear it is deadly serious, is the work which Nick Caistor (as translator) and a team of digital-analysis professionals have done with Sebastia Jovani's novel, The Archive. You can see the resulting visual maps of "Contextual Reference Points," "Temporal Sequentiality and Narrative Voices," "Protagonists and their Characterisiation," and "Evolution of the Storyline and its Variable Intensities" on the Granta web-pages as well as in this issue. Visual data projects may be the latest tool for journalists to offer a quick-and-easy way for readers to understand complex networks of facts, but reducing a novel to a series of pictorial graphs is horrifying. Given the results, no doubt a computer could come up with a similarly patterned story. But where is the quality and poetry of the writing? Where is the imaginative response of the individual reader? Such a process is reductive in the extreme and perfect proof that the map is not the territory.

Ian Teh's breathtaking photographic vistas of parts of China's Yellow River and its basin are beautiful, but with his notes expressing his concerns about its current state, they provide sobering evidence of change and degradation. Noemie Goudal's curious photographic images, "Observatories," however, is let-down by an introduction that tries, but fails, to adequately describe her methods.

Overall, this is a very mixed issue.


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