On that island there are two kingdoms, equal in area, and both are distinct in character. The northern is a state of order and precision; the southern is a realm of chaos and indecision. Two borders with a narrow neutral strip between them mark the frontier. The northern is a wall of constant height that traverses the island in a perfectly straight line; the southern undulates randomly over the mountains and marshes.
There is no commerce between the nations, no diplomatic, cultural or academic exchange. The frontier is impassable; both regions are isolated and self-reliant. They receive foreign visitors rarely and discourage them with different methods; in the northern zone, by ignoring them until they leave; in the southern, by failing to protect them from violence. They are worlds unto themselves, reticent, exclusive.
Yet even divergent evolutionary paths can circumnavigate the sphere of possibilities and end up leading in the same direction. So finely tuned was the northern territory that no aspect of modern civilisation was absent from it and every facility enjoyed by the citizens of the most sophisticated outer countries was available to its denizens too. For example, it featured a zoo that was a public political experiment.
In this zoo was an enclosed area in which volunteers lived a life under the same conditions as the occupants of the southern zone. Law and order did not exist there; rules and regulations were made only to be violated as rapidly as possible. It was a capsule of chaos, a self-generated embassy of turmoil from the other extreme of the social spectrum, a stain on utopia, a logically necessary ugliness inside exactitude.
The rate of loss of volunteers was high, murder being the main reason, but there was no shortage of replacements. In such an ordered society, the zoo was the only opportunity for excitement and adventure. And it was in tune with the ideals of the kingdom, which was to manage everything in a competent and scientific manner, including brutality. A spot of anarchy in the lacquer of accuracy is part of that accuracy.
Unbeknown to the rulers of the northern state, the southern also had a zoo, but this had come about purely by accident. One day a man erected a fence haphazardly and the unplanned fence went in a ragged loop, joined up with itself and formed a compound. Inside this compound the random laws of chaos produced order, as they sometimes do. The order stabilised and persisted, another product of randomness.
Inside this compound people lived as citizens of the northern land did. They enjoyed security, reliability, equality. And so the two separate lands meshed at these points only, but not by design, only thematically. It was a wonderful illusion of mutual influence, and for years nothing occurred in either zoo to disrupt the situation on a grander scale. Both countries had a different system; and both had exemplary zoos.
Then logic played a trick, but whether that trick was mischievous and generous, or malignant and flamboyant, is still a matter for debate among those who ponder such topics. The zoos began a process without obvious end. The occupants of both demonstrated that the compounds really were authentic microcosms. An inevitable development, yet surprising to those who noted it, one that occurred simultaneously.
Thanks to the whims of chance, the volunteers in the chaotic northern zoo erected a fence that enclosed a smaller zoo in which order ruled. And those who lived in the disciplined southern zoo constructed a smaller zoo that contained a miniature state of chaos and flux. The next stage was for the residents of these smaller zoos to assemble even smaller zoos that had the opposite characteristics, and so on forever.
I suspect that you now believe the northern and southern kingdoms to be called Ying and Yang, but that would be too neat and allegorical. They have their own indigenous names that are hardly worthwhile giving here. I am one of the few foreigners to have visited both lands. My aircraft was in trouble; I bailed out. My parachute opened like the bloom of a pale sky flower with an aroma of fear, sweat and grime.
It was a cloudy day. I had lost my bearings. I was unclear whether my accident took place above the northern or southern half of the island. My landing was gentle and those on the ground completely ignored me. I was a stranger to be disdained. Unable to cope with this soul-eroding attitude, I tried to escape overland to the other kingdom; I did so and the physical integrity of my body was subsequently menaced.
It remains a mystery to me whether I landed in the northern kingdom and crossed to the southern, or whether I landed in the southern zoo and simply vacated the compound, or whether I landed in the northern realm and then entered the zoo there. Or perhaps my escape was from a smaller zoo to one even smaller. I lost count of the walls I scrambled over. At last I abandoned the attempt to establish my bearings.
Always the switch between law and chaos, stagnation and screams. It seems I am a necessary part of the equation. I have never left the island. I wander through geometries of harmony and confusion until I reach a wall over which I climb into a negative reality. I feel I am probing deeper into a labyrinth with the ultimate secret of human psychology at its centre, and not that I am merely lost in an extravagant conceit.
© 2018 by Rhys Hughes
Author’s Note: My story ‘The Divided Island‘ was inspired by my love for the work of Italo Calvino. His fiction often consists of fantastical thought experiments in which a concept or situation is rigorously subjected to both linear and lateral logic. The results are usually original and amusing. This is a type of fiction I love to read and also try to write.
Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He works as a tutor of mathematics. His first book, Worming the Harpy, was published in 1995, and since that time he has published more than forty other books. His fiction is generally fantastical and whimsical. A lover of paradoxes, he incorporates them into his fiction as entertainingly as he can. His most recent book is a series of stories set in Africa called Mombasa Madrigal.