This essay, published in 2001, would not meet Granta’s editorial standards today. We are committed to engaging in a critical way with our institutional history, and all previous issues of the magazine will remain accessible to our subscribers. We welcome any comments our readers may have.
I am met in Yaoundé by a young Dominican missionary named Stanisław Gurgul. He will take me into the forests of Cameroon. ‘But first,’ he says, ‘we will go to Bertoua.’ Bertoua? I have no idea where this is. Until now I had no idea it even existed! Our world consists of thousands – no, millions – of places with their own distinct names (names, moreover, that are written or pronounced differently in different languages, creating the impression of even greater multiplicity), and their numbers are so overwhelming that travelling around the globe we cannot commit to memory even a small percentage of them. Or – which also often happens – our minds are awash with the names of towns, regions, and countries that we are no longer able to connect meaningfully with any image, view or landscape, with any event or human face. Everything becomes confused, twisted, blurred. We place the Sodori oases in Libya instead of in Sudan, the town of Tefé in Laos instead of in Brazil, the small fishing port of Galle in Portugal instead of where it actually lies – in Sri Lanka. The oneness of the world, so unachievable in the realm of empirical reality, lives in our minds, in the superimposed layers of tangled and confused memories.