Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will
by Judith Schalansky
Reviewed by Brian Doyle
I am no bibliophile, not having much money or shelf space or bibliomania, but there are a few books that have survived the fitful urge to purge not only for their crucial content but their extraordinary beauty; books in which the material delivered and the manner of delivery are both masterful, a double-play that seems rare. The most beautiful and powerful book I have ever seen like this is the Pennyroyal Caxton (King James) Bible, with haunting engravings by the genius Barry Moser. The second most beautiful and amazing book like this I have seen arrived, slim and stunning, on my desk days ago: Atlas of Remote Islands, by the young (age 30) Berlin typographer and designer Judith Schalansky.
"Give me an atlas over a guidebook any day," writes Schalansky. "There is no more poetic book in the world," and she proves this remarkable assertion with not only 50 meticulously drawn maps of far-flung islands in every ocean, but with a brief story for every one, drawn from the often-bloody history of the place, and infused with her vivid imagination. (She is coy about the imaginative leaps in some of the tales: "The absurdity of reality is lost on the large land masses, but here on the islands, it is writ large. An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature ... fact and fiction can no longer be separated ... I have not invented anything ... however I have transformed the texts and appropriated them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover.")
Saint Helena, deep in the Atlantic, where Napoleon spent his last five years a brooding prisoner of the rising English Empire. Clipperton, in the Pacific, where a Mexican lighthouse keeper ruled as king. Tromelin, in the Indian Ocean, with its four residents. Iwo Jima, Sulphur Island in Japanese, in the Pacific, where six exhausted American soldiers raised the American flag on Mt. Suribachi in 1945, a moment that led to the most famous war photograph in our history. Pingelap, in the Pacific, where 10 percent of the residents are colorblind but are able to see shoals of fish in deep water at night, a strange gift. Banaba, officially uninhabited, with 300 residents. Norfolk Island, from which no prisoner of the harrowing English penal system ever escaped. Cocos Island, where a man named August Gissler spent 16 years digging for treasure on the beach, finding one golden glove. Fangataufa, where in 1968 the French exploded a hydrogen bomb hundreds of times more powerful than an atom bomb, blowing every house and tree and bird on the island to smithereens. Rapa Iti, to which a man named Marc Liblin finally repaired after being taught a strange language in his dreams as a boy in France; at age 35 he discovered the language was Rapa, and he sailed to the island where people spoke the language of his childhood visions.
"When I was eight," writes Schalansky in her lovely introductory essay, "I dragged our atlas down from the shelf ... and heaved open our map of the world," and soon, even as her own native East Germany disappeared from the world's maps, she "had grown used to travelling through the atlas by finger, whispering foreign names to myself ...." Twenty years later that love for the visionary aspect of maps, their subtle ability to spark our dreaming and imagination, yields a beautiful and provocative book.
"It is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts," she concludes, "and for the atlas to be recognized as literature, for it is more than worthy of its original name, the atrum orbis terrarium, the theatre of the world ...." To which I say amen; if ever there was an extraordinary proof of the way an atlas can inspire the imaginative pleasure at the very heart of literature, this is it. For a child itching to see the world, for the child inside an aged and creaky vessel, for all of us who never stopped dreaming of faraway islands draped in amazing languages and wild stories and a wholly new angle of light, this is a perfect gift.