In 1978’s Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino envisions all the ways cities might be built or imagined, and the lives those cities could lead to. With a nod to Calvino, Angus Peter Campbell’s Invisible Islands asks the same question of an imagined Scottish archipelago. In doing so he counters head-on the bias that cities are where the world happens, and that rural communities — especially islands — are as isolated culturally and historically as they might be physically.
These islands occupy the same networks and webs as the rest of the world, connected by satellite, cellphone, and email. The dead on the island of Liursaigh are stirred by BBC broadcasts of their own voices and stories, recorded perhaps by folklorists bent on preserving indigenous cultures before they disappear. The island of Craolaigh hosts “The telecommunications mast which now dominates the island from the air… erected ten years ago by the BBC and Quadbandfon who uniquely combined to erect a bi-system, in direct competition with Murdoch and his allies,” placing this uninhabited “lump of molten rock” at the center rather than periphery of global media empires — and, if communication is king, at the center of the world’s cultural and current events. As anyone along that network already knows, a large percentage of that communication is junk, but rather than simply celebrate traditional knowledge over contemporary (as often happens in sentimentalized rural fiction), Campbell writes,
If analyzed, of course, the marvellous archive from the island of Clàraigh would reveal much the same fact: if the archive hadn’t been edited and chosen, the same human silt would have gathered, concerning itself with boils and hemorrhoids and lusts and desires and small hopes and failures — with the things which the vast majority of our daily lives. If there are great songs and poems and stories and tales and myths and legends and beliefs in the annals, they are there because fortune happened to gather them, in the shape of a passing collector, or a travelling scholar sponsored by a university or a government momentarily distracted from a war or from economic development.
Other nets enmesh these islands, too. The military installations on Armaigh link them to the world of war and destruction, as do incoming accounts and survivors of terrorism in London and the world’s other cities. Islanders are no more immune to the world’s ills and anxieties than their urban cousins — not only is no man an island, no island is either. Religion, too, and its centuries of conquests are mapped on these outposts, in particular empty St Eòinean’s:
But whether Eòinean ever actually stayed on the island more than a single prayerful night in a cartographic sense doesn’t matter. Following the formal expulsion of the Vikings after Largs in 1263 and the establishing of the Lordship of the Isles he became part of the great theological mapping of the late-13th century when Reginald, First Lord of the Isles accompanied the Bishop of Sodor on the great journey which saw so many ancient Celtic sites re-claimed and re-dedicated to the indigenous saints.
The bareness of the island today is, therefore, full of substance: the tiny gap between the finger of Adam and the finger of God is filled with the awesome history of the whole world and the grand plan which Michelangelo Buonarrotti mapped out for the Sistine Chapel….
The awesome glory of Rome is brought to full life on the bare rock of St Eòinean’s which no one ever visits…
Like radio waves and cartographically inclined bishops, islanders are constantly coming and going, and emigration creates problems and possibilities of its own, as on Colathaigh, where elders urging the young to study history are met with arguments in favor of “of the tremendously successful system in the United States of Amnesia where the more you forgot the further you progressed and were rewarded.” Such tension between past and present, tradition and innovation is reflected in geography, in history, and also in language as on Labhraigh, where each word and gesture expresses past, present, and future at once. Perhaps most of all, it is present in the misleading name of Cumanta:
the Island of the Commonplace or, if you prefer, Ordinary Island.
Here is where nothing extraordinary ever happens: an island chock-full of ordinary people, some happy, some sad, some old, some young, some male, some female, some drunk, some sober, some employed, some unemployed. It has all the things that other ordinary islands have, though none of the things that other ordinary islands have….
The difficulty is to know where the lie originated — when did the most extraordinary thing that ever happened become ordinary?… Who gave Cumanta its name, and defined its history and mythology and has given this people this definition of themselves and their place as ordinary and common, making them citizens of a falsehood?
In charting his twenty-one islands, Campbell reveals the lie of the ordinary time after time. In doing so, he also reveals the lie of drab, distant places far from the cities where “everything happens,” replacing that outdated myth with a vaster universe than we might imagine could fit on a single archipelago in the northern Atlantic.