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
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London