The Island of Lost Maps: a true story of cartographic crime

Miles Harvey<em> Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Miles Harvey is in the business, as we all are now, of writing meta-narrative. It is not enough for him to tell the strange story of Gilbert Bland, the unassuming American who was jailed in 1996 for pilfering ancient maps from sleepy university libraries. Nor, given the slightness of the plot - guy steals maps, guy eventually gets caught - is it enough for him to thicken the book with background briefings on all the other map thieves in history. Instead, Harvey does what any self-respecting writer of "creative non-fiction" does these days - he puts himself at the heart of his own story. The Island of Lost Maps, then, becomes an account of how Miles Harvey came to write his first big book.

In a narrative as tricksy and plotless as this one, the mapping metaphor is naturally made to work overtime. There seems to be no subject that Harvey can't wrench into some kind of cartographic analogy. Tracking Bland's early shape-shifting through school, Vietnam and the lower law courts becomes an extended meditation on the unexpected difficulties in trying to chart a man's official biography in postwar America. Access to the self-protective world of commercial map-dealing provides a chance to talk about navigation and discovery. Retracing Bland's steps in and out again of various academic libraries becomes the point of departure for a detour on the thrill of border crossings. By the end of the book, Harvey has, predictably, even managed to turn himself into a map - or at least a landscape in desperate need of one. "With each passing month," he declares, "it seemed that I was searching less for an actual person named Gilbert Bland than for some dark and unexplored part of my own existence."

Harvey's ambition is huge, almost as if he wants to redraw the entire social, cultural and intellectual history of mankind. His references (with no footnotes) read as if he had been let loose in one of the libraries in and out of which Bland so often slipped unnoticed. Everything gets thrown into the narrative, including Gulliver, Ptolemy, Michael Crichton, Humboldt, Harpies and a lot of cod-Freud. Although able to map-read and pinpoint the intellectual sources of his story, Harvey is quite unable to stay with them long enough to find out how they fit into the big picture.

Still, it might have worked if Harvey had the kind of polished prose that would have allowed him to massage away the botched joins and big, flappy gaps in his story. But he merely adds to his troubles with an uncertain authorial voice that swerves through several registers in the course of a single page. Sometimes he is colloquial, even slangy. At other times, he sounds as if he is trying to imitate a South American magical realist from 20 years ago. The showy shifts in tense serve no obvious purpose, except to call attention to themselves and, in the process, the choppy, disjointed nature of his narrative. Above all, Harvey reads like a journalist who is simultaneously careless with little things (repetition, cliche), while straining after a kind of significance that his story simply cannot bear.

In the past decade or so, a whole sub-genre of life-writing has emerged in which an outward task or journey becomes the starting point for a parallel story of self-discovery and disclosure. Janet Malcolm has done it brilliantly with biography, Jonathan Raban with travel writing. In their hands, the process feels exactly like that - a genuine flow of experience out of which a bifocal position naturally emerges. But in Harvey's hands, the whole thing feels as if it has been stage managed, as if he had decided from the outset just how the experience of going after Bland would affect him.

Towards the end, Harvey reveals that, in the Great Depression, his maternal grandfather suddenly disappeared from the family home, leaving his little daughter (Harvey's mother) with an equal dread of knowing and not knowing what had happened. In a passage of ponderous self-analysis, designed to look like refreshing candour, Harvey explains that he has inherited his mother's odd combination of "inquisitiveness and skittishness", and that this has been the cause of his failing properly to understand Gilbert Bland, who refused all requests to be interviewed. "I had not penetrated his thoughts, only imitated his actions - sneaking around the edges of his life, just as he had crept around libraries, slicing away little pages of his past, then secreting them home."

Bland's fall from something resembling middle-class respectability (map thievery must be the ultimate white-collar crime) here becomes an uncanny echo of Harvey's own grandfather's disappearance in 1930s Kansas. But saying something is the case is not the same as making it so. Once again, Harvey has mistaken the map for the territory.

Kathryn Hughes, a biographer of George Eliot, is working on a book about Mrs Beeton

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Mandelson