A giant map of the Baltic states looms over my bed. My eyes naturally incline towards it as I lay there each morning, suckling a cigarette, slurping coffee, struggling to orientate myself. At first I thought it would be strange, even frightening, to have a map so close to my bed (wherein I pass a lot of time: these get knocked out there). Now I am glad of its presence. The factuality of it helps reassure my fretful mind, while the fiction of it means I never tire of quizzically staring at it.
My fascination with maps began with the iconic Tube map for the London Underground. For starters, it helped me find my way home when I got separated from my mum as a kid on a busy Saturday afternoon in Central London. I tearfully studied it, blubberingly consulted it, repeatedly incanting the words “stranger danger”, until the Metropolitan line safely delivered me to my home station.
As I grew older I realised that London was only held together in time and space by the spaghetti-like schematics of the map. It was, to me, too vast, sprawling, elusive and diffuse to be a city in any homely sense of the word. But I admired the spare, elegant design of the map and the way it logically misrepresented space. The tubular lines themselves reminded me of modernist architecture, especially the bulky balcony railings of the 1930s (the Tube map was created in 1931). The 1930s, as it turned out, were to be a busy time for cartographers.
Although most people don’t give maps a second thought (unless they are lost), they are surely one of the most significant of all human achievements. After all, they laid the groundwork for countless invasions, wars, annexations, conflicts and the rapacious exploitation of every natural resource in existence. Maps also help people find their way from A to B.
I used to regularly visit B when she was doing her first Master’s degree in Aberdeen. Because she was so busy I had a lot of time to explore that bleakly beautiful and infuriatingly windy city. A lot of my psycho-geographic explorations led me to the local cinema, where I watched a great deal of escapist nonsense. One film that pleasantly surprised me, however, was The English Patient. At last! A story that appreciated the drama and artistry of cartography! A year before that there had been another film about a cartographer, the tersely named The Englishman Who Went up a Hill but Came down a Mountain. Yes, the English have always been intrepid taxonomizers of the world. For the Victorians, I imagine, a map of the world must have looked like an exotic à la carte menu.
At a recent awards ceremony put on by the Russian Geographical Society, Putin said that Russia’s borders “don’t end anywhere”. These are terrifying words for anyone living in the sprawling orb of Russia’s reach and influence. Geographically, the Baltic states are precarious entities (take a look at Latvia: it resembles a lopsided butterfly). Historically, the borders have remained largely consistent over the past few hundred years but ownership of its borders has often violently shifted. Can there be a crueller application of cartography than the line Molotov and Ribbentrop traced on a map to divide Eastern Europe between the Soviet Union and Germany? That stroke of a pen resulted in countless millions of deaths.
G recently gave me a copy of National Geographic that came with a beautiful, old-fashioned political map of the world. I immediately put it next to the map of the Baltic states, almost parallel with the headrest of my bed (where I am currently propped up). Initially I was delighted with it. But the more I stare at it, the more uneasy I grow. It starts to take on the fragmentary wholeness of a jigsaw puzzle, one forged out of the misery of history, and tenuously bound together by contentious treaties and porous borders.
It is little wonder that Putin gets excited when he studies a map of the world. Political maps are dangerous distortions of reality: they facilitate megalomania by levelling the real world into a simplistic, two-dimensional board game. Swap a piece here, grab a piece there. The entire history of humankind can be traced through the continual territorial contractions and expansions of power.
I look at Africa and see nothing but the randomly imposed borders and ill-fitting polities comprising a vast piece of land that was brutally exploited by European colonialism, then served as a proxy battleground for the Soviet Union and the USA, and now moonlights as a rich source of natural resources for the likes of China. I look at China on the map and think, Uh-oh. I look at America and think, Oh-no. I look at Russia and see no legally abiding borders. In short, I look at the map and see trouble continuously forming.
Political maps should be seen for what they are: an exciting geopolitical thriller. My physical map of the Baltic states is far more pleasing to look at as I lose myself in its skein of codified meaning, its roads and railways, its meandering rivers and crooked borders. It brings everything together into a coherent whole, a deceptive fusion of expressionist-style slapdashery and geometric precision. Yet it remains as stratified with hidden meaning as the land it depicts. As for the political map of the world, I fear it is long overdue for a major realignment of the lines delicately holding it together.