25 January 2012

Review 9: Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky

"Judith Schalanksy was born in 1980 on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. The Soviets wouldn’t let anyone travel so everything she learnt about the world came from her parents’ battered old atlas. She has spent years creating this, her own imaginative atlas of the world’s loneliest places. These islands are so difficult to reach that until the late 1990s more people had set foot on the moon than on Peter I Island in the Antarctic.

On one page are perfect maps, on the other unfold bizarre stories from the history of the islands themselves. Rare animals and strange people abound: from marooned slaves to lonely scientists, lost explorers to confused lighthouse keepers, mutinous sailors to forgotten castaways; a collection of Robinson Crusoes of all kinds. Judith Schalansky lures us across all the oceans of the world to fifty remote islands – from St Kilda to Easter Island and from Tristan da Cunha to Disappointment Island – and proves that some of the most memorable journeys can be taken by armchair travellers.”

A beautiful book both physically and linguistically. Lovely maps of fifty of the most hostile and remote islands in the world with an accompanying anecdote about each one that range from the factual to the unnerving and cover insane lighthouse keepers, shipwrecked slaves, Amelia Earhart and atomic bombs.

First Line: 'I grew up with an atlas.'
I was lent this book by a friend who had been singing its praises. It sat by my bed for weeks until he asks for it back and I made an effort to flick through it before ending up reading it from start to finish in one sitting. I had been expecting something far more dry and factual but this is a wonderful and almost fantastical look at fifty islands that most people will never set foot on. The book begins with an introduction to Schalansky's fascination with atlases. Born in Germany on the wrong side of the wall she was unable to travel, let alone to places such as these, and so found excitement in her family's atlas. Her ode to the wonder of atlases is personal and lovely.

The majority of the book is made up of the islands themselves. As the blurb explains, each island has a double page spread dedicated to it. On the right hand side is a simple map of the island is greys and blues. There are two main elements on the left hand side. At the top of each page we get the basic details about the island, population, when it was discovered etc. as well as a brief timeline of the events that have taken place there. Underneath these elements that are purely factual is an anecdote about the island. I struggled to find a word to describe them, an anecdote is not really accurate. Many of them are historically proven events, and they all all based in truth. Or if not truth, precisely, cultural remembrance. Schalanksy makes it clear in her introduction that none of them are pure fiction and she has based them all on either accepted fact or stories and tales she has read or heard. I found myself fascinating with these windows into these islands, many of which I had never heard of. Some of them are creepy and unnerving with stories of scientists and experiments or the only surviving man who abused the surviving women until they killed him and then were rescued soon after. Some of them are sobering, such as the island destroyed by nuclear bomb tests or the boat that was lost from a Hawaiian shore and the grave on a remote island that was discovered years later. Others are inspiring or entertaining stories of survival against the odds and freedom, although these are definitely the minority, for as Schalansky writes, 'Human beings travelled far and wide and have turned into the very monsters they chased off the map.'

Schalansky is an art historian, typographer and graphic designer and her talent is plain throughout the book as it is entrancing in its simple beauty. It's bound in a beautiful duck egg blue hardback - which is actually my favourite colour and the colour of my kitchen so it appealed aesthetically right from the start. When it was published it won the German Arts Foundation Prize that celebrates the most beautiful book of the year and it is not difficult to see why.

This is a wonderful, beautiful book that manages to be both a lovely coffee table book for its aesthetic appeal but also a powerful, magical read.

Try it if... you are a traveller in reality or in your mind and to discover stories that may or may not be true about places you will never visit.

1 comment:

  1. The review is very atractive. I like to explore new, strange places, new culturies with their rites. Ilands are somehow far away from civilisation and they are staying authentic.