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Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City by Dung Kai-cheung, translated by Dung Kai-cheung, Anders Hansson, and Bonnie S. McDougall [in Library Journal]

AtlasFirst published in 1997 – as an indirect response to the Hong Kong handover – Atlas marks Hong Kong native Dung’s English debut in translation. A self-described “verbal collection of maps” imagines the reclamation of a future city of Victoria (Hong Kong) through maps, memories, anecdotes, and legends in an uneven hybrid mixture of fact and fiction, history, and invention.

The 51 essays are grouped into four sections – “Theory,” “The City,” “Streets,” and “Signs” – and what begins as clever wordplay about maps as indicators of ‘place’ – “Counterplace,” “Commonplace,” “Misplace,” “Displace” – quickly devolves into lit-crit jargon – “Utopia,” “Supertopia,” “Subtopia,” … “Unitopia,”  “Omnitopia.” Most memorable are the (re)created histories of street names. Most promising is how “map legend signs enriched the vocabulary of maps,” at least temporarily.

Verdict: Although Dung “has been described as Hong Kong’s most accomplished writer,” according to translator McDougall, choosing Atlas with which to introduce his work in the West might prove to be a misstep. While readers devoted to intellectual engagement out of their narrative comfort zone (Calvino, Eco, Barthes, Borges, are referenced in the slim volume) might enjoy the literary gymnastics, most will probably not have the curiosity or patience to reach book’s end.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, June 15, 2012

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)


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