The Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky – Review

Atlas of Remote Islands

Judith Schalansky

Particular Books (2010, first published as Atlas der abgelegenen Insein, 2009), 144 pages

Foyles, £25

Awards: Winner of The German Arts Foundation Prize for the Most Beautiful Book of the Year

Country: Germany Germany

This book is subtitled, “Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will” and this descibes the relationship most readers will have to the book’s contents.  I’m fairly well travelled but have never visited any of the islands and have only heard of ten of the fifty.  Schalansky’s book has the look and feel of an old  cartographical tome created for exploration.  The MVB Sirenne font and the 115 gsm paper enhance the feel of an old book rediscovered.  The maps are beautifully drawn and, like all good maps, allow the imagination to wander amongst the towns, mountains, and forests they encapsulate.  Schalansky implores, “Give me an atlas over a guidebook any day.  There is no more poetic book in the world.” (p. 23)  It’s hard to disagree when you open an atlas as rich as this one.

The Atlas of Remote Islands opens with an essay entitled, “”Paradise may be an Island.  So is Hell.”  Schalansky recounts her childhood in East Germany, an island of sorts, where movement beyond its borders is restricted (and which, ironically, used a wall to make West Berlin and island in a sea of East German communism).  Maps and borders are not natural constructs.  They serve a purpose, often a political one.  Even an island, with it’s own natural coastal border can be divided as Ireland and Hispaniola are.  It’s hard not to recall Brian Friel‘s play Translations where an attempt to interweave language, love, and colonial mapmaking have deadly consequences.  Likewise Schalansky doesn’t attempt to romanticise her islands, “Mapmaking follows on the heels of discovery; and a new place is born with a new name.  This foreign land is both occupied and possessed, and the act of conquering is is repeated in the map.  Only when a place has been precisely located and measured can it be actual and real.  Every map is the result and exercise of colonial violence.” (p. 21)  Some islands are now deserted (such as disease-stricken St. Kilda), others inhabitants are forcibly removed in the name of colonial militarism (the inhabitants of Diego Garcia), an island is haunted by contemporary child abuse (the horrific case on The Pitcairn Islands).  Schalansky’s prose is beautifully direct.  She focusses on one aspect of the island’s history (although a timeline and number of inhabitants for each island give a glimpse of past events) and leaves the reader desperately curious for more.  Not all the stories are sad ones.  There are tales of Christmas Island crabs, the chance to join a team if 10 people on Raoul Island, and the remarkable story of  man speaking the lost language of Rapa Iti.

Atlas of Remote Islands 2

With every page turn you can feel the gentle sway of your boat in harbour, smell the sea and hear distant birdsong,  as you’re about to step ashore onto a mysterious island.  Schalansky states that,  “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 than worthy of its original name: theatrum orbis terrarum, the theatre of the world.” (p. 23)  Schalansky has certainly accomplished her aim of transporting cartography to literature.



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