Foreword History as well as life itself is complicated – neither life nor history is an enterprise for those who seek simplicity and consistency.’
Jared Diamond1. For me, knowing where you are in the world has always been the very meaning of life.
I show up wide open and wide-eyed every summer when I take a week off to hike down along the coast of Europe. Systematically I follow every cove and every quay, walk along sandy shores and over dikes, through storm and searing sun. It has taken me eleven years to cover the distance from Hirtshals in the north to Saint Valery-en-Caux near Le Havre in the south, and every step of the way is imprinted on my body, complete with smells and consistencies, colours and noise, as if on a map where I myself am the scale. Slowly but surely, I am conquering the planet.
With a touch of melancholy, I’ve gradually come to realise that it will be difficult to make it the whole way round. Of course, I could change tactics and walk every day all year long for the rest of my life. But naturally that’s impossible, physically and otherwise. Prompted by this realisation, I’ve embarked on two supplementary projects, whose common trait is that they let the world come to me instead.
The first is collecting flotsam washed up on the shingle beach below the house where I live. Plastic, wood, whatever. Quality and beauty are a secondary concern. The most important consideration is that the objects have been marked by their journey, preferably in such a way that I can reconstruct it. The patterns thus created gradually encompass more and more of the planet, almost bordering on the intimate. One of the gems in my collection is an algae- and barnacle-covered tin can stamped with characters from the Hudum alphabet. It may be from Mongolia or from the Republic of Tuva in the Russian Federation. Either way, it originated in a country that does not have its own coastline, and the first leg of its journey must have been along the Yenisei River, through Siberia to the Arctic Ocean. The fact that the can is still unopened is the icing on the cake, although it’s hardly surprising. It isn’t at all unusual for the beer and soft drink cans we find along the seashore to be full – thanks to the little air bubble secreted in most of them. I don’t know what’s inside my Hudum can but one thing’s for certain: it will be opened on my deathbed.
And then there’s the stamp collection. I collect stamps; but not just any old stamps. My aim is to collect a stamp from every country and every regime that has ever been active since the first Penny Black was issued in England in 1840. An unused stamp isn’t especially exciting. The more signs there are of handling and of life, the more valuable it feels. I take out my stamps, sniff them and stroke them, maybe lick them: the taste of crumbling gum arabic, vegetable starch and hide glue – and in the best of cases, an indefinable something that may go back to previous licks, licked many years ago in some remote corner of the world. Impressions that are not my own, but which I share in as they stream by.
Thus I conquer the planet and existence on three flanks in one big pincer movement.
The book you are holding right now takes as its starting point the increasingly important flank of stamp collecting, and it’s about a bunch of countries that no longer exist. There’s plenty of material here. Worldwide, more than a thousand regimes have considered themselves important enough to issue stamps. Some have mysterious names like Obock and Sedang and Cape Juby, which very few of us connect with anything at all. Others may stir up associations, such as Biafra and famine, Bhopal and environmental disaster. Often altogether sorry affairs. Because although many of the names may have an almost benign ring to them, behind each without exception lies a tale of manipulation and the exercise of might. After all, the main purpose of encircling a territory with borders has never been to increase the happiness of its people. Just how badly things can go wrong becomes clear if we look at Africa and the Middle East, where the colonial powers only rarely carved up the territory along the lines of the traditional tribal regions. And in the Balkans, political jockeying between the great powers of the east and the west led to the intermingling of different population groups. The consequences flare up continuously in the form of bloody conflicts.
The motifs on the postage stamps give a fairly clear indication of what it’s all about: an almost monolithic masculine culture of monarchs in all their pomp and circumstance, monuments to military conquest and loyalist heroes of all stripes. Preferably represented as strutting peacocks or puffed-up, chest-drumming gorillas. Behavioural ecologists would quickly pigeonhole the entire business as pure showing off, whose main purpose is the acquisition of power – and, in the last instance, ladies – and whose crucial ingredients are exaggeration and self-deception.2
This leaves us men looking like slaves to testosterone. Or at any rate, it may often seem that way. But there are clearly other reasons for going to war too. One of them is boredom, although we prefer to call it adventurousness. Now and then, we all need something extraordinary in our lives, something that will expand our existence, for better or for worse, win or lose. Those who happen to be emperors, presidents or charismatic prime ministers can set the ball rolling themselves. And it can be transmitted through the ranks, all the way down to the humblest soldier. Women also throw themselves into things, hoping to experience the intoxicating sense of being at the mercy of savage powers. Not for humanity’s sake but for their own sake. Most often, people return home crestfallen, with the wretched feeling that they’ve been tricked into taking part in a tedious pissing contest, no more and no less.3
Of course, kings, presidents and power politicians cannot legitimately justify wars and conquests on the basis of testosterone or boredom. Instead, they talk in terms of covering material needs, securing markets and ensuring access to raw materials to maintain or increase their own consumption. Or they claim it’s a question of saving a neighbouring population from a despot, or imposing a system of government or religion that will be better for the inhabitants. These aspects have a tendency to get entangled.
But irrespective of the reason for establishing a new country, the following always applies: the plan works for a while, for anything from a matter of days to over a hundred years, but after that, the fall always lies in wait – as inevitable as it is inexorable. My investigation is based on three levels of documentation: the stamps themselves, eye-witness accounts and later historical interpretations.
Here, the stamps serve as the very core, providing concrete proof that the countries did in fact exist. Just as certainly, though, they lie. On the stamps, the countries will forever try to present themselves exactly the way they want to be seen: as more dependable, more liberal, more merciful, more awe-inspiring or better at governing than they actually are. The stamps must therefore be viewed as propaganda, in which truth will always be of subordinate importance. Even so, we can still rely upon the consistencies, colours, textures, smells and tastes of the stamps – they’re as reliable as the salt in the sea.
Next come the eyewitness accounts. These are texts written in direct contact with the events. I have therefore assigned them a special place, like the basic formulae in a maths textbook. They can be used to conjure up images that are as close as possible to the truth. But it’s important to be on the alert: there is trickery here, too.
The third and most unreliable level is the second-hand knowledge conveyed by historians and novelists, with or without political agendas. These are the sources that deal in hindsight and analysis of what actually happened. I have tried to exercise my critical faculties when it comes to this material, although without always feeling that I am in control. Professional historians can easily become antiseptic and heavy on dates, while novelists generally strike out in the totally opposite direction and romanticize things.
To enable readers to check my interpretations and to broaden their experience, I’ve included suggestions for further reading. For several countries, I’ve also recommended music and films, and on some occasions I’ve provided recipes too. During the process of writing, I’ve eaten my way through a variety of local dishes as a way of grounding myself. And I’ve included some of the most effective ones.
Finally, I would like to thank everybody who has contributed to the work on this book. Of all the world’s librarians, special mention must go to Sofia Lersol Lund, Lars Mogensen, Stian Tveiten, Anette Rosenberg, Anna Fara Berge, Maria Rosenberg, Svanhild Naterstad, Trond Berge, Dag Roalkvam, Julio Perez and Gerd Johnson.
And before you read any further, I want to stress that this is absolutely not intended as a guidebook to send people off in search of the ruins of forgotten countries and kingdoms. Because we’re not talking package tours here, but long, complex journeys involving multiple different means of transport, and whose climate implications go far beyond respectable levels – probably without bringing the reader an inch closer to the adventure. You’d be much better off looking at this book as a collection of bedtime stories to feed your dreams and carry you off into sleep. Bjørn Berge