This spring, In Partial Disgrace, a novel by the late Charles Newman more than twenty years in the writing, is being published by Dalkey Archive. Since the book concerns an imaginary Central European nation, Cannonia, we asked its editor, Ben Ryder Howe, to come up with a list of ten novels featuring mythical countries.
A good mythical country is not a place that doesn’t exist. It’s a place that does exist but you weren’t aware of it, either because you didn’t look at the map carefully, haven’t spent enough time in that particular part of the subarctic Eurasian hinterlands, or simply got confused by the exotic-sounding name. (For its part, Cannonia, the setting of In Partial Disgrace, is a country that is “effectively all border,” and usually covered on maps by the compass sign or coat-of-arms.)
1. Costaguana - The setting of Nostromo, Joseph Conrad’s acid 1904 political novel about a revolution-torn, resource-cursed country plagued by the meddling of cynical and idealistic Westerners. Since it combines aspects of Colombia, Peru and most of all Panama (none of which Conrad ever visited, interestingly), its location is thought to be somewhere along the coastline of northern South America.
2. San Lorenzo - An impoverished, densely populated Caribbean island run by a psychopathic dictator known as Papa. Not Haiti, surprisingly, but the home of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 cold war satire about scientific hubris and the end of the world, Cat’s Cradle.
3. Hinchagara and the Kingdom of the Wariri – Not a country (so far as we know) but a region somewhere deep in central Africa, possibly still awaiting recognition by the outside world, and forming the scene of Saul Bellow’s armchair classic about Africa (which he too had never visited at the time of writing), Henderson the Rain King, a classic fantasia about getting purified (read: deliriously lost and naked) of Western neurosis in a primal wilderness.
4. Amerika – What’s weirder, Kafka’s America, which E.L. Doctorow called “gloriously insane,” or the real one (which Kafka too never visited)? Which one really exists?
5. Uqbar – You don’t know where it is and you never will, because the men who created it, a benevolent conspiracy of master-scholars in either seventeenth-century London or Lucerne, didn’t want you to. However, you could read “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” the lead story in Jorge Luis Borges’ Ficciones, which tracks down the conspiracy’s origin in the missing pages of a pirated encyclopedia, and soon leads to the discovery of an even larger conspiracy: an invented universe.
6. Zembla – As anyone who has read Pale Fire knows, one interprets the novel at one’s peril; a deeper, more nuanced, more comprehensive reading always awaits. Some doubt the existence of Zembla. Some say it’s just a stand-in for Nabokov’s lost Russian homeland. Some point to the mysterious and actual Russian island of Novaya Zemyla. Probable location: a part of the human mind inaccessible to people of sub-Nabokovian intelligence. Ask Borges for help.
7. Trieste – Wait, you say – isn’t that a real place? It won’t feel like it after you read Jan Morris’ Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, in which the incomparable Welsh travel writer describes “a hallucinatory city, where fantasy easily brushes fact, and . . . anything might be true.” Trieste for Morris is both at the center of everything and a blind spot, an ancient port of transience. (And if you want a book by Morris about a real nonexistent place, if that makes any sense, try Hav, her travelogue to an imaginary city-state somewhere in the Middle East.)
8. Inner Horner – Writers love small, random-seeming countries (aren’t all countries random, the conceit seems to say) run by ordinary people-turned-megalomaniacs. However, George Saunders’ Seuss-ish creation, from the The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, may be the smallest, with only six residents, just one of which can fit in the microscopic nation at a time.
9. Evarchia - A baroque little Balkan country, once a monarchy, run since the late seventies by a military coalition, and paralyzed by bureaucracy, as if any of that really mattered to its creator, Brigid Brophy, who in Palace Without Chairs was more interested in inventing a non-place in which her Firbankian heroes and heroines might encounter lovingly described obstacles and antagonists without ever really worrying about such louche impositions as the world as we know it.
10. Absurdsvanϊ – Before Gary Shteyngart’s 2007 novel, Absurdistan, few Americans outside Washington DC or the Halliburton headquarters in Houston had heard of this post-Soviet mini-republic (the “Norway of the Caspian,” as it was once briefly known) damned by an unfortunate name but potentially redeemed by geostrategic value.