Maps, Sense & Holub

In the poem below, Miroslav Holub immortalised a bizarre incident that happened to a group of soldiers on military manoeuvres in Switzerland.

“The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps
sent a reconnaissance unit out onto the icy wasteland.
It began to snow
snowed for two days and the unit
did not return.
The lieutenant suffered:
he had dispatched
his own people to death.

But the third day the unit came back.
Where had they been? How had they made their way?
Yes, they said, we considered ourselves
lost and waited for the end. And then one of us
found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down.
We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm and then with the map
we discovered our bearings.
And here we are.

The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map
and had a good look at it. It was not a map of the Alps
but of the Pyrenees”

Miroslav Holub, Brief Thoughts on Maps. TLS, Feb 4, ’77

Perhaps good information gets too good a press?

  • I once read a similar story about a Ghurka soldier who escaped from a Japanese POW camp in SE-Asia, and walked all the way back to India. He avoided villages and towns, and when asked on arriving in India how he had found his way he said he had a map.
    The map was of the London Underground.

    Can this be urban legend? (Also I don’t think there were ever Hungarian troops roaming free in Switzerland, except perhaps in Roman times.)

  • Doesn’t matter if it is real or not, the poem is a bitter reminder of the ways in which we imprison ourselves.

    The soldiers were trained to take orders from external sources. When all commands abandonned them, they were lost. When an external source arrived in the guise of a map, they were found. What actually happened was that they discovered the solution by themselves, but even in their success they failed to realize the deep source of their survival.

    It’s a tragedy.

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  • I think imprisonment is probably right. As has been said before, I think the story would have been even more remarkable if they knew the map was the wrong one.

    I’m not sure I agree about the order and all commands bit, though. It was by following orders wrongly that they became lost in the first place, wasn’t it? I think what abandoned them was order as in structure, (rather than order as in command). And I think what helped them find their way out was yes their own ingenuity, but also the spur to action the map gave and the structure (wrong though it was) that it gave to their orderless environment.