Donogoo-Tonka — a city in deepest South America, entirely made up by a French geographer (M. Trouhadec). The most unbelievable aspect of this story? That he is disgraced for such a thing. The main character — a vaguely depressed and almost suicidal young man named Lamendin. Serendipity casts him in the path of a friend who refers him to the Institute of Biometric Psychotherapy. He is hooked up to wires and alchemical mechanical things, and then this:
To be present this very day at Buci Intersection at 5:15 p.m. To watch attentively, from that moment on, the hackney-coaches that shall enter into the crossroads, coming from the Rue Mazarine.
To count sixteen occupied carriages (the empty ones remaining uncounted).
When the seventeenth appear, to rush to it; to seat yourself in it by any means; but as much as possible with courtesy and without violence.
To express to the occupant, or to the principal occupant, that his protests are useless, that he will be accompanied in spite of himself…
…to indicate to him that you put yourself without reservation into his hands… (4)
Lamendin follows his instructions, and thus begins the quest to make Donogoo-Tonka a reality, rescuing the reputation of the geographer whose carriage he has entered. Thus begins one of the most enjoyable and unique things I’ve read in ages, written as a ‘cinematographic tale’, describing the action scene by scene (or even sometimes simultaneously screened) with intertitles — strange and often not very intertitly intertitles — in boxes strung through text and descriptions of images that move from the fantastical to the surreal and back again.
Lamendin realises his prescription means he is to work to convince the world that Donogoo-Tonka exists so Trouhadec can enter his learned society, and so creates a film, distributes propaganda. There are illustrations of this imagined city (and best of all, at the back of the book, more illustrations from other versions!). From my version:
From other versions:
Word gets around to adventurers in ports and border towns around the world, and then look! Word arrives in London’s East End:
One of the smokiest pubs on Commercial Road, two steps from Stepney Station. Around a rectangular table, a dozen men, very diverse in appearance, shout, argue. On the table, with a bit of charcoal, they trace plans, maps, itineraries. They compute on their fingers and start complicated calculations again. (33)
What I love is that this is my own station, now the Limehouse DLR station but it was indeed once Stepney East station on Commercial Road.
Anyway, that’s a complete aside.
In partnership with a banker, Lamendin makes presentations, spreads rumours, starts a company, sells shares. The city must then be founded. Lamendin sails off, arrives with pioneers to find it already founded, by some of these adventurers pulled from these smokey bars who have sought after the imaginary. Gold was promised, and gold has been discovered.
Lamendin rides down the Avenue de la Cordillere in the brand-new Donogoo-Tonka the day after his arrival. And here is what he believes is needed for the founding of a new city, urban planners take note:
He makes frequent stops. He questions the notables. “Whose shop is this?” He turns toward two of the pioneers in the first row, architects from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. “The alignment will need to be restored. We should take advantage of it to construct a sidewalk. Too close, all of this. We’re suffocating.”
The cortege arrives at the former prairie. It is definitely here that it is appropriate to erect the General Company building; all the offices, all the services. Plenty of land remains available. They will lay out a stately square, bordered by buildings. Three new avenues will be opened up. (65)
We arrive at the Sixth Part, serving as an epilogue — describing the building of the squares and palace, the arrival of women, a bar fight. Then there is this:
Donogoo-Tonka Corporation for Instantaneous Structures (73)
Which contains a description of ridiculous automated building. Amazing. And then? The Decrees:
The virtues of geography to be among the most discussed subjects. My little geographer heart swooned away. That’s not even mentioning the evocation of the national cult of Scientific Error. They build temples and everything.
This is the best of this wonderful little book.
The worst is so bad because it’s both expected and awful and boring and you just don’t want it here. You want him to be better, you want him to mock colonialism along with geography and science. Yet we turn to the residential palace, where Lamendin has brought all his old cronies from Paris:
Lamendin and his friends have cool drinks. They smoke. They speak little…
Two black women do the serving. An Indian attends in particular to the lighting of the cigars and pipes, and sees that they draw regularly.
The Pioneers, since they tend to be noisy, have been crammed into a lower room with forty bottles. (79)
I think there is one other mention of all the many people who actually already inhabit South America. They are never heard and rarely seen, and then only when serving whites. Infuriating.
He was just a man of his time, you may argue. He couldn’t escape the racism of his colonial setting. That’s as may be, but then there is this, from the admirable afterward (how do I love introductions that come at the end of the book? Let me count the ways…) by Joan Ockman.
Not surprisingly, Romains’s dalliance with themes of charismatic leadership and ritual violence led some readers to associate Unanimism with fascism. (124)
And he did indeed flirt quite a lot with fascism, until he had to flee France with his Jewish wife in 1940. But before he did that, he wrote L’Homme Blanc in 1937. Epic verse to the Aryans — “the white Man, the first Man, the beautiful race.”
That tidbit of his personal history is saved for the end, however. After the interesting stuff on his theories about the urban. So I wasn’t quite sure if I should just light a match under my notes on Romains’ ideas of unanimism. I still can’t pronounce it, which makes it impossible to talk about out loud. Probably why I had never heard of it. The unitary urbanism of the situationists is much better on that level, undoubtedly indebted in some ways to unanimism but probably like me, unable to pronounce the debt.
It’s interesting, this narrow line between belief in the collective as opposed to the capitalistic individual, fascism and white supremacy. Mostly because I don’t understand how that line exists much less why it should be so narrow, but so it is. It forces me to re-examine some of my faith in the collective, which after reading and thus remembering these connections, I know is a good thing. So to look at Unanimist Urbanism, we return to Joan Ockman on Romains:
…the jostling scene of pedestrians, automobiles, buses, shop windows, and buildings suddenly revealed itself to him as evidence of an immanent, all-encompassing collective reality. This intuition, which amounted to a full-fledged conversion or religious experience in the sense of William James, caused the young poet to revolt against nineteenth-century habits of thought centered on the individual, and eventuated in his conception of the quasi-mystical materialism of the unanime as the vital principle of modern life. (104)
Donogoo-Tonka is all about a semi-mystical serendipity, a coming together of many different people for their many different reasons to build a successful city and create lives of leisure for the lucky.
He writes in Power of Paris’, which I think I will look for:
Space belongs to no one. And no being has succeeded in appropriating a morsel of space to saturate it with [his own] unique existence. All intercrosses, coincides, cohabits. Each point serves as perch to a thousand birds. There is Paris, there is the Rue Montmartre, there is an assembling, there is a man, there is a cellule on the very pavement. A thousand beings are concentric. One sees a little of some of them… (106)
This is from a translation by Ezra Pound from 1913 in The New Age. Ezra Fucking Pound. Ezra Pound, of course, didn’t even walk the line, he crossed the whole way over, moved to Italy in 1924 and supported Mussolini, Mosely and Hitler for a few decades. But back to this interesting piece that continues:
[G]roups! They are not precisely born. Their life makes and unmakes itself, as an unstable state of matter, a condensation which does not endure. They show us that life is, at the origin, a provisory attitude, a moment of exception, an intensity between abatements, nothing continuous, nothing decisive. The first togethers take life by a sort of slow success, then they extinguish themselves with catastrophe, no element perishing in the breaking of the whole. The crowd before the foreign barracks comes to life little by little as water in a kettles that sings and evaporates. (106)
The connection to fascism comes here, in the elements required to condense a group. As Ockman writes:
Within the unanimist schema it is the animateur who embodies this problem…Endowed with the task of awakening the crowd from its state of somnolence to self-consciousness, and often an authorial surrogate.
Romains wrote another novella, ‘The Town Regenerated’ in 1906, so you can see he first took aim at the dreams of urban planners before moving on to geographers. It begins with the arrival of a stranger and his piece of graffiti on the municipal urinal:
‘Those who posses live at the expense of those who work; whoever does not produce the equivalent of what he consumes is a social parasite’
Not much to complain of there. This sets off discussions, debates, interpretations, and results in complete transformation of the town:
Within a year the populace has become an extroverted collectivity, and the nameless town transformed into a humming industrial center whose factory chimneys belch “black dreams.” (107)
A sad dream perhaps. Both in some ways remind me that a key aspect of fascism is about belonging to something greater than yourself, of being important and finding meaning because of this belonging. A belonging defined through hatred and oppression of the other.
So altogether Romains represents a sad pairing of geographic imagination and love of the collective and playfulness and white supremacy and fascism. There is more to tease out there, but so much has been written about fascism that I don’t know about, I feel sure someone has already done it.
Not that I won’t look into it more.
But for now I will end with a celebration of the awesomeness of the physical object of this book from the FORuM Project, and the pages near the end with covers and illustrations from designers who loved it: