Until they perfect the techniques to clone
You all better remember you’re all alone
Because nothing is true, she said everything is permitted
– Jim Carroll, Catholic Boy, “Nothing Is True” (1980)
When last we saw Vincent Vega he was deeply ensconced in pooping and reading a book on countries flushed from history, An Atlas of Extinct Countries by Gideon Defoe (no relation to Daniel that I know). Moments later, Vega was flushed from history himself, when he opened the toilet door and found the boxer Butch waiting, Vega’s gun in hand (he’d left it in the kitchen to take said poop). Vega had been waiting in Butch’s kitchen to kill him for double-crossing a Black gangster (who would later be sodomized by the zipped-up, pent-up Gimp, instead of the intended Butch, after having been just run over by Butch with a car and who thn chases Butch to a pawn shop run by two white supremicists with a backroom Gimp), when the urge came to poop; Vega left his gun on the counter. Butch, on the lam, had come back home to retrieve a heirloom watch that had been stowed up P.O.W. poop chambers during the “gook” war and finally handed on to young Butch as a gift from Dad, delivered by a war buddy with an angry narrative about “slopes.” Butch pulled the trigger of the gun and Vega, An Atlas still in hand, went down like a sack of GI-issued powdered eggs. Vega was extinct. Butch grabbed his pop tart and ran. Later, he made mad love to his goofy French girlfriend who’d left the watch behind and was all mea culpa with tears. There are a lot of assholes in this film.
Gideon Defoe’s book, An Atlas of Extinct Countries: The Remarkable (and Occasionally Ridiculous) Stories of 48 Nations That Fell Off the Map, is very much like the paragraph above, full of crazy historical characters, offbeat places, unusual shituations*, and wildass things that only happen to the human species (as far as we know, there are no torture Gimps among the wildebeests, say) and that the rest of the Animal Kingdom must look on with wonderment applied and not a little terror, and in no hurry to evolve, if that’s what it comes to.
Atlas has four sections: Chancers and Crackpots; Mistakes and Micronations; Lies and Lost Kingdoms; and, Puppets & Political Footballs. Each of the 48 entries is headed by
an information section, often humorous, containing Population data, Capital, Languages, Currency, Cause of death, which real country absorbed them, and the geospatial location (using what3words), in case you wanted to locate the place on a map. There are countries like The Kingdom of Sarawak, The Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, The Soviet Republic of Soldiers & Fortress-Builders of Naissaar, Ottawa Civic Hospital Maternity Ward (no, really), The Great Republic of Rough & Ready, and Yugoslavia (proud home of the putt-putt Yugo, a small republic on wheels that disappeared without a trace). Each section is an easy breezy 300-500 words. There are spunky footnotes that make you laugh aloud. There are short sections on silly flag designs and anthems short and long.
What’s the purpose of the book though? Who gives a thit about failed states in a world falling apart? Defoe writes,
These are the obituaries of the nations that fell off the map. The polite way of writing an obituary is: dwell on the good bits, gloss over the embarrassing stuff…The life stories of the sadly deceased involve a catalogue of chancers, racists, racist chancers, con men, madmen, people trying to get out of paying taxes, mistakes, lies, stupid schemes and a lot of things that you’d file under the umbrella term of ‘general idiocy’.
These bits could qualify as cautionary tales at a time when we have such idiots looking to set up shop on Mars, colonize the moon, and, as Jeff Bezos intends, to build a small nation-state in near space that he rules over. Him. Not you. Back to work.
Some places are familiar, and some un. For instance, in the opening section, Chancers and Crackpots, we get:
The Kingdom of Bavaria
Population: circa 6.5 million (1910)
Languages: Bavarian, Upper German
Currency: Bavarian gulden, German goldmark
Cause of death: bad genes and Bismarck
Today: part of Germany
I’m keened and rub my hands together: I have precious saved memories for Bavarian tales and hold on to tightly them like Butch’s watch, as I parse the page and a half of precious detail. I have images of Bavarian cream pie and, of course, beer. And of driving down the LA Überbahn, convertible VW Bug top down, kite high, with similarly sailing buds, sounding out to the blasts of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Someone shouting out one of Nietzsche’s final public utterances in Turin before he was dragged away to the asylum, “Are we not content? I am the God who created this caricature.” Arrivederci, Nietzsche.
Many people may even know about the Kingdom of Bavaria and don’t even know it. It’s the home of Mad King Ludwig and his fairy castles, one of which became the model for Disneyland. Defoe tells us, “Every morning, Ludwig II, the fourth King of Bavaria, would have his barber tease out his hair into a weird bouffant that made his head look massive.” Bavaria is the home of the Oktoberfest. Of Hitler’s Munich beer hall putsch. Of the escapades of legendary flirt Irish (wink: Spanish) Lola Montes, a subject later converted to a Criterion Collection film gem. (A footnote: “After her stint in Bavaria, Lola headed to California where appreciative miners would supposedly throw gold nuggets at her.” Hmph, it’s twoo, love hurts.)
But most of all Bavaria was the kingdom of Mad Ludwig II who was nuts — about music:
It’s unfair to say that Ludwig didn’t care about ruling Bavaria – he worked quite hard at the job – but it certainly wasn’t where his heart lay. That was with opera. More specifically, the operas of genius/allround horrible anti-Semite Richard Wagner. Ludwig was Wagner’s number one fan. He built his idol a world-famous opera house [at Bayreuth].
Indeed, debtor’s jail threatened Wagner throughout his career, and L2 saved his bacon on more than one occasion. There but for Mad Ludwig we’d have no Ring Cycle, no Parsifal no co-optation by the Nazis of his more bombastic overtures.
And then there’s the Kingdom of Sarawak in Borneo, where crazy Brit James Brooke was given a small kingdom to play with and oversaw an imdigenous population “skirmishing
with each other, though mostly in the form of violent dance-offs,” a fact that recalled my time in Papua New Guinea and the famous annual sing–sings of tribes in the highlands. Brooke apparently went el tropo at some point and, says Defoe,
set up a court of justice to bring law to his new domain, and famously sentenced a man-eating crocodile to death (because, though he respected and sympathised with the animal, he didn’t want the other crocodiles to get the wrong idea about what was ‘acceptable behaviour’)
Probably a croc of shit, but the book is full of such lively details that the entertainment value makes it worthwhile.
The telling of The Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace was disorienting in its dimensions. Hong Xiuquan desperately wanted to become a Chinese civil servant. He went to Nanjing to take the exam, and twice failed it. On the way out of the second exam, Defoe writes, he passed a religious pamphleteer who handed him material consisting of “a slightly garbled translation of the Bible’s greatest hits, with added demons.” He saw symbols in the material, including one for hong, his name, “which means ‘flood’, and he noted that his namesake ‘destroyed every living thing upon the Earth’” Defoe notes that after he failed the exam a third time, “he had a nervous breakdown.”
In a sweaty dream of evangelical power, Defoe writes that “ Hong skipped a few logical steps and concluded that he must be the Chinese younger brother of Jesus, and that his mission was to rid the world of demons.” He fought against the “oppressive” Qing dynasty, and managed, with an army, to seize Nanjing, “where he established the capital of his Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace.” Fierce fighting took place, we’re told, and in a pushback for the ages, the Qing army and Hing’s army did battle underground. Defoe writes, “Qing forces dug tunnels to get past the city’s impenetrable walls, while the God Worshippers dug counter-tunnels, flooding the enemy tunnels with sewage.” It was the end for Hong. The Qing forces seized him and, writes Defoe,
To really make their point, in a literal definition of overkill, the victorious Qing exhumed Hong’s body, beheaded him, burned the corpse and, finally, shot the ashes out of a cannon. Even Jesus’s younger brother couldn’t come back from that.
One of my favorite tales was “The Fiume Endeavor, 1919-20.” Here Defoe larks on about Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio “– flagrant self-publicist, would-be necromancer, womaniser, terrible teeth.” He was the kind of guy, writes Defoe, who “issued decrees and proclamations and nailed them up around town, only to change his mind and issue a
contradictory set later the same day.” He turned Fiume, a section of the Balkans (Croatia today), into a political mess. But not really. It was always a basket case there. Defoe gets right to the point:
‘The eyebrows drawn in such a pure line as to give something indefinably virginal to the melancholy of the big eyes. The beautiful half-open mouth.’ This is Gabriele D’Annunzio’s description of his own face. Ernest Hemingway also described him, but typically he was pithier: he thought D’Annunzio was ‘a jerk’.
Great, two narcissists facing off in the reflection pool. What could go wrong?
Defoe adds a clever bullet-point list of Hemingway’s grievances about the poet:
+ D’Annunzio’s kids weren’t allowed to call him ‘papa’, they had to call him ‘maestro’.
+ He got out of a lunch date by sending his chauffeur to explain that ‘he’s gone up in a balloon and might not be back for ages’.
+ He basically invented all the trappings of fascism that still hang about today.
No word on how D’Annunzio might have returned fire with bullet points of his own.
The best bit about D’Annunzio was when Defoe describes his D’s pal and pilot Guido Keller, who was appointed “Action Secretary” by D, and went around naked, and who slept in bed with his pet eagle, and who once crashed his plane in a field and took a shining to a doney there, and after repairing the plane “strapped the donkey to his plane’s fuselage and flew it back to Fiume as a gift for his boss.” This beats what Mitt Romney did that time, tying his pet dog to the roof of his car and driving that way to Canada — attracting the attention of single malt journalist Gail Collins, who tormented Mitt for ages thereafter. But maybe Keller, of all people, was trying to tell D-meister that he was an ass…?
In the section Mistakes and Micronations, Defoe provides tales of whopping stupidity and bad judgement. He picks on the Scots in “New Caledonia.” The Company of Scotland, looking to break the balls of the East India Company, if not their “global” monopoly on trade (a catalyst for the American Revolution), decided to believe in a fairy tale about the New World, specifically Panama. Defoe describes the honeypot set-up:
Bad luck would have it that Lionel Wafer, a Welsh explorer, had returned from what is now Panama some years previously and made it sound amazing: green jungle, clear streams, delicious wild hogs, giant rabbits, fat bees, grassy meadows, prickly pears and pineapples as big as your head. For people stuck in rainy, impoverished Edinburgh, it sounded like a literal paradise.
They went all Enya (Scottish version) on this Darien Scheme and were in that Orinoco Flow so fast…sailing away, sailing away….
The Company raised and spent 400,000 pounds (“a staggering amount, equivalent to an entire fifth of the country’s economy”) to sail to a place that was a sweltering, mosquito infested hell-hole, leading to a lot of ranting Star Trek Scotties not so keen on the final frontier. The 1200 Scots arrived with “Combs to exchange with the indigenous tribes, loads of Bibles, bonnets galore and a massive amount of whisky.” Only the whiskey was welcomed. But even all shitfaced together, none of them could deal with malaria and the lack of freshwater, and the toll, reducing the colonials to 300 skinny souls within a year. New Caledonia is still a singular shithole. Defoe notes significantly,
Today you can drive 19,000 miles along the Pan-American Highway all the way from Alaska to the tip of Argentina … except for the Darién Gap, still too much of a swampy challenge even for the smart, nowadays version of us.
Jim Beam me up, Scotty!
Defoe’s whimsical description of a vanquished Napoleon’s new digs on Elba is entertaining as well. Elba is a micronation that Napoleon got sentenced to, along with his mother and sister. Defoe puts the situation into a context spin the modern reader-responder can relate to:
It had been a rough few years and, like desperate parents sticking an iPad in front of their difficult toddler, the great powers of Europe decided to give the recently vanquished Emperor Napoleon a little country of his own to play with. ‘It’ll keep him out of trouble,’ went the slightly flawed reasoning. ‘He’ll grow some marrows and settle down and it’ll all be fine. He probably just had too much sugar.’
Had they only thought of oxycontin! How Europe might have been spared!
Defoe says our Eroica tried to make the best of it. “He started a drive to grow more potatoes and radishes, and built anti-pirate fortifications. He erected schools and laid proper streets and even announced that, from now on, ‘no more than five people should have to share a bed’.” And things might have gone just swimmingly along had it not been for the mistakes of the Press back in France (fuckin Charlie Hebdo), who were busy re-working his legacy. Defoe notes,
…the government planted a load of scandalous stories in the press about how the former emperor was not only riddled with various diseases but was also sleeping with his own sister. The smear campaign was supposed to turn the public against him. It didn’t work – all it did was make Napoleon feel more aggrieved. Who were these moral pygmies to disrespect a man of his giant (if entirely metaphorical) stature?
Then came Waterloo, St. Helena and Abba…the song was repeating itself.
In “Ottawa Civic Hospital Maternity Ward,” the reader is amused to find the Canadians so accommodating that, once upon a time, they provided migratory cover for a European royal on the lam. In 1940, after the Nazis invaded the Nethers, Dutch Princess Julianna fled to Canada and somehow managed to get herself very pregnant. But that wasn’t the problem, writes Defoe: “… the Dutch constitution was airtight on the issue – nobody could take their place in the line of succession if they were born on the soil of another country.” Oh, dear, we mustn’t mess with the lines of succession, exclaimed the heads of the Commonwealth nation. So, and just like something Trudeau would do, the government “passed a law that would create an ‘extraterritorial’ zone for the baby to be born in.” Wherever the Princess went she was like an embassy-in-exile on two legs (attractive legs too, I understand). Baby Margriet born, wah! Back to the Nethers. The Princess “a thank you to Canada, she later sent them 100,000 tulip bulbs,” and Defoe adds in a footnote: “If she’d given this gift 300 years earlier at the height of tulip mania, those 100,000 bulbs would have been worth 800,000 fat swine, 1,200,000 fat sheep, 400,000 tons of beer, 100 million pounds of cheese and 200,000 tons of butter.” Party time.
On and on it goes, tale after tale. An effect washes over — that nothing is permanent, nothing is real. Although, one remembers Defoe’s earlier caveat: “…a lot of these places are the stories of Posh White Guys, which is an unavoidable product of a time when only Posh White Guys felt entitled enough to go and set up countries.” Sure, The Mighty Whitey at work and play. But it’s a marvelous crazy quilt anyway. Multiculturalism at work, too. You come away believing that we are a strange species, and that if superior techno-aliens have stayed away thus far, it’s for a good reason. Of course, I’m just extrojecting…wishing I were an alien from outer space right about now, so I astral project.
An Atlas of Extinct Countries is an excellent book to travel with. You could finish it on a cross-country plane trip, people yelling at you to keep the laughs down, as they’re trying to sleep. In which case, you could finish it on the plane John, if you have that kind of olfactory bravery. But your complimentary wine might be missing when you get back. It’s the kind of book that will lighten your load, put some goose in your step, and have you gaily passing its anecdotes and bon mots on to others for weeks on end. Soon you’ll be the life of the party, made commissioner, urged to run for Congress, see yourself as President — only to be brutally ettu-ed as soon as you’ve found your confidence. It’s why people write shit on toilet stall walls. You see your name there, your number, the message “for a good time call.” It’s that kind of book.
Get to your bookstore now, wearing a mask, and, uh, tell them the Gimp sent you.
* shituation was coined by Peter Tosh, as far as I know, on Bush Doctor (1978), “Dem Ha Fe Get a Beatin’”. Tosh was Butch-ed in his own home in 1987. Another revolutionary career (Legalize It!) down the toilet.