Rodrigo García Bonillas / The Spine of Atlas

For Rubén García Palafox

‘[S]he was now only ten inches high…’
Lewis Carroll

Back then, the world was made of countless continents. Every page in the atlas illustrated some corner of the infinite globe: boundless, the entire earthly bestiary paraded past. My childhood believed that each silhouette was a discrete part of a diverse, stammering geography, barely recognizable in the maps displaying the anatomy not of a single cadaver, but rather of a mass grave.
space I was a child and I often nosed about my grandfather’s Reader’s Digest atlas.
space To me, in the book I beheld, Cuba was no smaller than Europe. Greenland was embedded in the Cape of Good Hope. The Polynesian Islands would serve as the steppingstones I’d need to leap across the Mediterranean without dampening my pant-cuffs, and the Mediterranean could embrace the Bay of Bengal in its own waters. The five continents were a forgotten archipelago between Alaska and Japan. Nothing was contained inside anything else: the hundreds of maps existed without dependencies.

Until one day, when I was still very small, I discovered that the atlas’s infinite planes were all located on the master map. Each one was not, in fact, a distinct person, but rather parts of a single body: this one, the face in profile; that one, the outline of the middle finger; that other one, the bust in three-quarter view. If a certain page displayed a continent – Africa, for example – the following fifty pages weren’t other continents of the same magnitude, but instead a dissection of Africa’s territories, viewed sometimes through a magnifying glass and sometimes through a fisheye lens.
space Disappointed, I realized that the bestiary had been re-ordered into the three kingdoms of an impoverished zoo: the Americas, the Old World, and Antarctica.

To confront the shards of a fracture is to touch chaos with trembling hands. These splinters are the cranial bones of an infant that haven’t yet fastened their corners together. They are the first steps of a mapless stranger in a foreign city. And, too, the snatches of flesh that a lover grazes, gazes at, kisses, sniffs, generally without full awareness of the fact that every erotic exercise involves a prelude to the decomposition of the beloved’s body: flesh, fluids, bones, cartilage, disentangled from their human features.

My childhood envisioned the world, unknowingly, as it may have been in other times: when the valley of my birth was underwater and its fossils were shellfish; when today’s temperate regions were veiled in glaciers as they slept; when the Pangaea hadn’t suffered butcher’s cuts across its cloak.

That day, I understood my grandfather’s maps as Atlas: they carried the skeleton of the world on their backs. Little by little, I grasped the rules of the earth’s scale and order, beggared into five contents, encompassable at a single glance. Ignorance gave way to contempt for a terrestrial sphere with so little imagination in its silhouettes. God hadn’t lost any sleep when he populated the abyss of the sea.

Then the opposite happened. In knowing about the unexplored terrains, the many cities separated by vast deserts. About the thousands of tiny, timid islands. Or in staring down from an airplane at shrunken fields. Eventually I came to see, again, that this modest world wasn’t so simple. I stopped seeing it through a scientist’s telescope and returned to the fact of its chaos, the impossibility of capturing it all at once.

Perhaps my own map of the world oscillates between those two childhood poles. At one end, coarse reality, sweeping, secret. At the other, the rational efforts to contain that reality in maps, in an arrogant, discontinuous distribution, embraced by coasts and dyed by nations.

Many days later, I fly across the ocean. I come from a distant country. When I was there, in that place, beyond Europe, I thought of Mexico: I imagined its Chac-Mool silhouette on a map like my grandfather’s, right within reach. Europe had lost its preeminence: the continent was just a hollow that occasionally filled up with the memory of its details. I thought of Mexico often. And so space struck me as insurmountable, but not remote. I extended my imagination toward my country from behind the bars of a cage. Although, in my head, what held me back wasn’t the distance, but rather the bars: a ticket, the hours of travel, the layovers. Now, as I fly over the Atlantic in a parenthesis that lasts twelve hours in real time and five on the clock, I realize, with empirical, visual information, that the bars were false. There exists a visible distance that exposes the falseness of any imagined proximity. The blue monotony and its pale stains exist. The abyss of the Atlantic exists and I confront it with the size of my body.

In that moment, I feel troubled. I shift from the fracture of the world to its spine. I move from the spine to the fracture. But isn’t that, perhaps, what reality is? A conjugated fracture, a conjugation that splinters? No. Reality loses hold of me. There are no oscillations between maps and lands. There is the mysterious thread that passes through it in the dark with an imperceptible violence: a sinuous violence that throbs in the pith of its nerves. In that crucible, between steps and blueprints, the essence of space is distilled and the flesh of the world rises up.

(Translated by Robin Myers.)