Atlas Of Remote Islands
by Judith Schalansky
translated by Christine Lo
I think I came across this book after seeing a photo posted on Twitter somewhere and a quick search for details about it had my fingers itching to order a copy. How do you resist a book named as the Most Beautiful German Book of 2009? I bought a copy first as a Christmas gift for my dad but then couldn't relax with it sat on the shelf and had to get one for myself too (The punchline is that when I visited him to hand over my gift I saw a copy of the atlas on his desk and will now have to think of some other masterpiece to give him - and a worthy recipient of this excess gift). It is a beautiful object; the boards the same duck-egg blue of the ocean on the maps inside, a spine of black cloth with the title and author picked out in bright white, the pages are edged in bright orange and this simple colour scheme is maintained throughout the book with highlighted words in that same bright orange and the beautiful maps, each specially created by Schalansky herself, using that same highlight to point out the infrequent signs of habitation, roadway or settlement on these remote and barren islands.
Born on the 'wrong side' of the Berlin Wall, Schalansky was fascinated by her atlas as a child, the only means by which she could travel beyond the closed borders of her homeland. At that young age she was unaware of the way in which an atlas is a political object, each committed to its own ideology. Her own placed the two halves of Germany on opposing pages so that 'there was no wall dividing the two German countries, no Iron Curtain; instead, there was the blinding white, impassable edge of the page.' In her fascinating preface, printed in large type like an early reference book, Schalansky enlarges on her theme of map-making, the means by which the empires of the past were established and maintained, for 'Only when a place has been precisely located and measured can it be actual and real. Every map is the result and the exercise of colonial violence.'
Many of the 50 islands made real in this atlas are the property of nations that lie several thousand miles away, most are barren and uninhabited but Schalansky uses the page that faces each of her maps to tell a tale about them. I say tale but the exact definition of the factual text is far more slippery.
That's why the question whether these stories are 'true' is misleading. All text in the book is based on extensive research and every detail stems from factual sources. I have not invented anything. However I was the discoverer of the sources, researching them through ancient and rare books and I have transformed the texts and appropriated them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover.I was reminded of another gorgeous production, A C Tillyer's An A-Z Of Possible Worlds, which created 26 narratives that shared a similar mixture of fact and fantasy. Both read a little like a collection of very short stories and it is hard not to race through them. I had to fight my instincts and try and give this book a bit of time as I was reading it, time to let each island make its mark, appreciate the artistic value of each page and only then make the journey of several thousand miles to the next island through the simple act of turning the page.
Several things are achieved with this kind of 'narrative'. There is a lovely historical reading as each page has a timeline with marks showing the year of discovery and various noteworthy events. One thing this does, a little like that idea of a single day representing the history of our planet and the first human civilisations arriving at less than a second to midnight, is to point out how small a portion of each island's history these events fill. This is no more apposite than on the page for St Helena, found in the middle of the Atlantic ocean almost 2000 km from Angola and site of Napoleon's exile from 1815 until his death in 1821. The diminutive Emperor 'had always failed with islands. Not one battle at sea had he won. Perfidious Albion!" and the timeline shows that his impact on this island was similarly shortlived. Even the text picks up after his death as the frigate arrives to collect his body to return it to France, a somehow poignant end to the humbled conqueror.
As a citizen of the UK there a plenty of hotspots that jump out; just the name of Pitcairn Island throws up the mutiny that preceded its settlement and the scandal of the recent rape trial that exposed how an island's very remoteness had allowed the generations that descended from those mutineers to install a culture of sexual assault. On a more political note we can travel to Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean almost 2000 km from India itself, a military base for the UK, the atoll itself taking 'the form of two fingers spread in a crooked V, a victory sign in the Indian Ocean. But victory for whom?' Presumably not the five hundred Chagossian families forcibly deported and frustrated in the British courts in their fight for the right to return to their homeland.
Some islands are just plain fascinating like Pingelap in the Pacific Ocean, an island devastated by a typhoon at the end of the 18th century that left just twenty inhabitants behind to maintain a community, one of whom carried the recessive gene for colour-blindness. As a result 10% of today's population carry the same affliction (compared to 1 in 30,000 elsewhere) and as might be expected there are plenty of stories about the special powers this alteration of the senses might have lent them.
One thing you can't avoid is the topic of ecology. First of all we can wonder, as Darwin did, at the miracle of some of these islands very existence. He visited South Keeling Island in the Indian Ocean in 1836. There he discovered new species of plants 'all descendants of the stray seeds the sea has carried here' and we learn the process by which the island itself was created. The cone of a sunken volcano covered in coral which goes through cycles of life and death, leaving behind its limestone skeleton.
'Slowly, an island grew out of the limestone, the tireless work of the coral - builder and material alike. Every atoll stands as a monument to an island that has gone under, a miracle greater than the pyramids, solely created by these tiny, delicate creatures.'
Impressed by his visit Darwin would later come to the conclusion: 'the tree of life should perhaps be called the coral of life'. But the fragility of these atolls is made stark and clear when we visit Takuu in the Pacific Ocean, another atoll but this one threatened by shifting tectonic plates and the changing climate, rising sea levels 'gobbling up' more and more of the land. The older generation fight to save it with dykes and prayers whilst the youngsters avoid thinking about it at all by drinking themselves into apathy on the fermented juice of the coconut palm that they collect in plastic bottles. The hopeless prognosis: 'Takuu will sink - next month, next year.'
Suddenly the atlas becomes a historical document not just of shifting politics and ideologies but possibly of the very existence of some of these islands, giving pause for thought, something I recommend again whilst reading this gem of a book. It is hard to refute Schalansky's claim below, made in her preface. A book which is both fact, fiction, art and reference certainly deserves to take its place amongst the most original reads of recent memory.
It is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts, and for the atlas to be recognized as literature, for it is more worthy of its original name: theatrum orbis terrarum, the theatre of the world.