Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Atlas of Remote Islands

In this age of GPS tracking satellites and Google Earth it might seem like books of maps and atlases are little more than quaint collections of geological and political demarcations painted in dusky tones from some other era. How much fascination can there be in looking at a collection of remote islands, their contours shaded by pointelest dots against gray and white surrounded by seas of pale blue, each facing a page of text that gives their location, their distance from nearby land masses, their size, and a bit of history?


Judith Schalansky, in her introductory essay to Atlas of Remote Islands, was born in East Germany and calls herself "a child of the atlas," a person who never imagined going beyond the limitations of her country's borders much less see the exotic lands that peppered her schoolroom maps.  Looking at maps was her way of escaping, of grounding daydreams. As the political lines on her world map changed radically with the fall of the Berlin wall and dissolution of the Soviet Union what remained unchanged were the islands, and each of those lonely places had their own stories to tell.

Scott Moorman grows up in Southern California watching a TV series called Adventures in Paradise and dreams of living in Hawaii. And when he grows up he does just that, moves first to the mainland and then to the east coast of Maui.  One becalmed morning he and his friends go out fishing but by afternoon find themselves in a hurricane.  That evening the boat is reported missing and search parties find no evidence of the boat or its passengers.  Almost ten years later a marine biologist finds a wrecked boat on the sandy shoals of the Taongi Atoll, 3,750 kilometers west of Hawaii.  There is a pile of rocks and a driftwood cross atop a pile of bones that are discovered to be the remains of Scott Moorman but there is no evidence of the other men who went fishing with him.

This is typical of the stories that accompany each island map in Atlas of Remote Islands.  Schalansky has done extensive research and freely admits that while she can source the stories themselves she cannot vouch for their authenticity.  "I have transformed the texts and appropriated them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover."  In doing so she's given every island a personality that somehow fits its remoteness.  Some contain buried treasure that lured obsessed hunters who never found what they were looking for, others the temporary (and permanent) homes of those shipwrecked or marooned.  Some stories are told matter-of-fact, other read like poetic ruminations. Fifty tales in all, and like a short story collection no two alike and yet they all contain that one thematic thread that binds them.

In the discussions over whether the digital book will replace the analog, this book is a clear argument in favor of the idea that paper won't fully disappear.  Each spread contains text on the left side, an illustration of the island on the right, and it's this ability to scan back and forth between the sides that fills the gaps between the island and its story.  When you read of a postal ship breaking through the thin crater wall of a once volcanic island as it runs aground you cannot help but look over to the island to search out the spot where it happened.  Right there, you think, they landed on the gravel shore and encountered... two men stationed there to register whaling ships that never come? The interplay between the pages and the ability to scan back and forth at once is a satisfying experience not easily replicated on a smaller digital screen.  It's decided lack of color – the blue and gray, with population dots and divider pages in Penguin's signature orange – give the book a clean-but-old-school feel, giving the overall impression of a remote island itself in a world full of splashy color demanding technological attention.

Atlas of Remote Islands
Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will
by Judith Schalansky 
translated from the German by Christine Lo 
Penguin Books  2010


Colleen said...

I'm reading this book right now and really enjoying it - so much I did not know! I wish she had an accompanying reading list to go with it though...a way to research further all things she shares. But really that is a minor quibble as I wouldn't even know most of this if she hadn't told us in the first place.

Just wicked cool idea and presentation - total candy for map lovers (like me!).

david elzey said...

i think if i'd encountered this as a teen i would have probably tried my hand at writing stories based on things i imagined from maps.

it really is a cool collection.

tanita✿davis said...

My friend's young son and his cub scouts were at the house the other day, and they sat quietly for a good hour with atlases on their laps, discussing the best place in the world to live. They are ten and eleven, and sounded quite mature as they debated why Jamaica wouldn't be as good as Aruba -- !

I love how maps waken the imagination.