Monarchs of all they survey

Francis Spufford looks for the lie of the land; A Mapmaker's Dream: the Meditations of Fra Mauro, cartographer to the court of Venice by James Cowan, Hodder, pounds 12, Maps and History: constructi ng images of the past by Jeremy Black, Yale, pounds 25

Branwell Bronte studied street-maps of London, as the next best thing to making a real escape from Yorkshire. He held gin-soaked conversations about the city with travellers. They never guessed he hadn't been there, so lovingly had he memorised the geography. But it's a proof of the nature of maps that - of course - he couldn't take himself in. The familiarity you gain from looking at the two-dimensional landscape of symbols cannot be mistaken for the view from any point within it. Map knowledge and direct knowledge can supplement each other, occasionally contradict each other, but never completely overlap. Jorge Luis Borges demonstrated the point by imagining a nation so besotted by cartography that it commissioned a 1:1 map, covering itself from border to border with a life-sized paper translation. Every tree aligned with its charted shadow, but clearly the map never became the country. A symbol is not a thing.

Like this Borges story, philosophical fictions about maps have tended to focus on the paradoxes of knowledge thrown up when the principle behind the Ordnance Survey sheet for Surrey is taken to extremes. In a tradition stretching back to the Enlightenment, they take a commitment to order and reason to the limits where order confutes itself. Borges and Calvino did for maps what Godel's theorem does for the system of numbers, showing that the simple logic of signs implies abysses of strangeness.

You may well think this a desiccated choice of topic. For most of us, the things we represent are much more important than the medium. We want to say stuff with language, read a map in order to travel, use numbers to do sums. But, dry though they may be, such works are celebrations of logic as well as deconstructions of it. They have to be lucid, not just to be pleasurable, but to be intelligible as they demonstrate where lucidity leads.

It's because James Cowan's historical novel is scarcely lucid on any level that A Mapmaker's Dream is a disaster. Packaged as small-format mind-food on the model of Dava Sobel's Longitude, this story of a Venetian mapmaker who assimilates the world without leaving his monastic cell is remorselessly fuzzy. To tell their tales to Fra Mauro so he can fix new wonders on his map come a ship's captain, a learned Jew, a Levantine merchant. They spout awkward verbiage: "Good friar, my monastery happens to be the world." They report unprodigious prodigies (a statue oozing honey, people who worship the wind). In return, Fra Mauro's commentary flubs distinctions, softens differences, draws vacuous conclusions. "Had they not enjoyed during their lifetime an uncommon clarity, and perception, in their worship of nature, which had granted them the grace of such freedom? It was hard to tell." It is hard to tell anything, from sentences where you can shuffle all the abstract nouns without making less (or more) sense. Though the irony of Fra Mauro's stationary globe-trotting is supposed to be important, map knowledge and the knowledge of the senses go indifferently into Cowan's Magimix.

Theoretically, the whole of Asia as the Renaissance imagined it lies at his disposal - the Other to Europe's Self. But that way of figuring the line between known and unknown doesn't interest Cowan, either. The book is vague in the service of a vision which turns everything to Self in the end. So travellers "are forever trudging towards the prospect of knowing more about themselves". Christian missionaries are "more intent on transforming themselves". For a moment, when a papal emissary describes Tartars listening to the sunrise and drinking fermented mares' milk, or "cosmos", it looks as if difference stands a chance. But no: "Whether it is cosmos we drink in or the sound of the sun, each draught leaves us feeling more intimately at one with ourselves." Cowan may think he has given Fra Mauro a tolerant gaze. In fact, the insistence that everything is in inward agreement homogenises the world. Whatever Fra M sees, turns into Fra M. The outlook of A Mapmaker's Dream belongs to the New Age rather than the Age of Reason.

In any case, do maps have much to do with dreams - real, sleeping dreams whose currents tell us what we want even if we don't want to want it? The knowledge maps represent seems much more conscious. It's daydreams that they reflect, as Jeremy Black's fascinating study of the historical atlas makes clear. Maps of the past are moulded directly by the present's favourite ideas. The tabling of history on folded paper began because the Bible and the Classics gave Europeans an imaginative stake in Greece and Palestine. The invention of chromolithography in the 1850s gave British cartographers the opportunity to extend Johannes Hubner's original idea of coloured countries by filling the globe with imperial pink. Nazi mapmakers loved arrows. Wicked, menacing arrows showed foreigners attacking Germany; dynamic, virtuous arrows showed the Master Race hitting back. These were the graphic expressions of the waking mind's schemes. Maps aren't dreams. "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again". OK, but you didn't dream it had 8.3 hectares of deciduous woodland crossed by an unimproved B-road, did you?

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam