Introduction: The Map Is Not the Territory

Sigrid Rausing

In the film Birdman, there is a note stuck in the frame of a mirror in a seedy dressing room: ‘A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.’ This enigmatic sentence, connected to Raymond Carver’s story ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ (a play within the film), echoes our title, ‘The Map Is Not the Territory’. The phrase was coined by the scholar Alfred Korzybski in the early 1930s to illustrate the distinction between perception and reality. The pieces in this issue of Granta are all concerned, in one way or another, with the difference between the world as we see it and the world as it actually is, beyond our faulty memories and tired understanding.

Some of the fiction transcends reality altogether. China Miéville’s ‘The Buzzard’s Egg’, a monologue by a guard in charge of a minor captured deity, is one of them:

Good morning.

No? Are you still sulking?

Fine. Be sullen. It makes very little odds to me. I get my food either way.

‘The Gentlest Village’, an extract from Jesse Ball’s A Cure for Suicide, is another:

— This is a chair, said the examiner. A person is made in such a way that he can sit where he likes. He can sit on the ground,

she knelt and patted the floor.

— Or even on the table itself,

she patted the table.

These compelling and curiously timeless stories seem to me part of the present zeitgeist. They are not exactly futuristic, but then we live in the future, of course: this world of digital devices, of a creeping loss of privacy, of machine conceptions and unmanned missions to Mars and Comet 67P.

The non-fiction pieces in this issue remind us of the human cost associated with the divergence of map and territory. Janine di Giovanni writes about the sense of doom in Iraq before the American invasion. The map, for the coalition forces, was political abstractions and doctored reports; the territory real life in a real country. The degree of difference between the two correlates to the calamity that ensued.

Arenas of conflict in the world evoke their own media clichés. But the Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh’s gentle memoir about the loss of his mother goes beyond the language of occupation, which makes it all the more powerful. Similarly, Ludmila Ulitskaya’s piece, ‘Life and Breasts’, is about cancer, but it is also a terse commentary on the present state of Russia. Like many people who lived through Communism, which made the distinction between image and reality a political art form, Ulitskaya’s writing is stubbornly dedicated to real life in all its surprising details:

My breast is completely absent: there is even a dent. It has been interred in a special burial ground at the Givat Shaul Cemetery. Lesha Kandel buries all the amputated Jewish appendages from his orthopaedic department there. ‘For some reason, Muslims and Christians seem totally unconcerned where their removed organs or body parts lie,’ is what he said.

My left breast is at rest in the land of Israel. Perhaps only a first instalment!

Sigrid Rausing

The Gentlest Village