Book review: Zone of the Marvellous

If the Great Southern Continent didn’t exist, someone would have had to invent it. And so they did.

A couple of years ago I took the grown-up step of having some proper bookshelves built for our Auckland apartment. Not a day goes by when I don’t stop to marvel at how grown up they look. Better still, the week after the shelves went live, I separated the fiction and non-fiction—categorised the latter, and put the former in alphabetical order. More recently, I put the whole lot up on Library Thing, the social networking site for bibliophiles.

But now I have a problem: where to put Zone of the Marvellous, from the able pen of Martin Edmond who, in a brilliant, and idiosyncratic foray into the realms of geographic fiction/historical travel writing, has come up with a history of how the ancients and the contemporary have imagined and written about the Antipodes.

It’s a wonderful effort and already, almost before the ink is dry, won the Copyright Licensing Ltd Writers Award 2009. Note the neat way they avoid the fiction/non-fiction test. So maybe that’s it: I need to create a new shelf, call it the Zone of the Marvellous, and then spend the next ten years happily finding and reading the dozens of texts Edmond has traversed to bring to us this account.

That said, I’ll have trouble locating Ptolemy’s second-century Geographia, reported to have been in two parts—a discussion on the data and the method used, and a set of maps where for the first time the notion of a great southern continent balancing the weight of the northern hemisphere appears as fact rather than fiction. But though the original is lost to antiquity, elements resurfaced over the next millennium from Dante through to some of the first works of the early printing presses.

Subsequent sources include the esoteric and definitely fictional Travels of Sir John Mandeville, the apparent fictions of the declared fantasist Marco Polo and the downright marvellous search for the lost world of Prester John.

Closer to home in both time and place, he brings into the play 15th-century Portuguese travellers like de Quiros, who reached Vanuatu where he reported the beaches strewn with pearls, rubies and emeralds. Moving through the 16th century we encounter the entirely fictional Thomas Moor’s Utopia, and the definitely real Abel Tasman whose journals and accounts of his historic voyage set the terms of the modern search for reality amid the fantasy of the original great southern content myth. Thereafter we go swiftly onto the likes of Dampier (who may or may not have marooned Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe and first to describe encounters with the Australasian aboriginal) and the modern by way of Cook.

And, then to a final touch: how, even now, we look to resurrect the myth in the search for the lost continent of MU, while for others the appeal of Maori as the lost tribe of Israel continues to fascinate.

Edmonds’ account is a lovely conflation of doubt with certainty courtesy of a scholarship whose sureness of touch effortless carries the depth of his thinking into a quiet lagoon where we can all enjoy this history of histories. Highly recommended.

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