An Atlas of Remote Islands (and Pocket version, right), by Judith Schalansky and translated by Christine Lo (Particular Books, Penguin).
When I woke up this morning I was worried, because I had no translation to review today. Indeed, I had nothing to review (I’m halfway through three books, which is a situation I hate being in, and other options for review are awaiting a blog post I will be writing tomorrow) whatsoever. Then our extremely cheerful postman arrived with the book on the left, and a feature that I had been planning for next week suddenly became possible. Hey, it is even a translation – perfection is a chance discovery.
As you can see from this photo here, there are two formats of this book currently available, because it has been around for ages (hardback was released in 2010 I believe). The difference between the two is what really caught my attention at first, because they are so different. Not just in size and cover, either. This is what they look like edge-on:
Now I imagine you are probably thinking Is he never going to talk about the content, this is all just aesthetic! and you are completely right, but I ask you to indulge me, once again. Because in this post-ebook world print books have a duty to prove why they are made of atoms rather than pixels (I know that pixels are made of atoms, I’m just trying to make a point, ok?) and what we have here are two artefacts, beautiful examples of design that are screaming out to be bought and treasured for generations, and that is a Good Thing, which should be lauded when seen.
I’ve used all my images now, I’m afraid, so unless I steal some more from the internet then the following will be quite wordy, because I am about to Talk About The Content (cheers! applause! dancing in the streets!)
The author, Judith Schalansky, grew up in the GDR during its latter years, and as with the rest of the non-elite of that state, had pretty much no hope of going abroad. I’m sure that it would have been possible to go to other Communist states, but she doesn’t elaborate. Instead she looked at maps and fell in love with their contours and inaccuracies. This book is a celebration of that act (and I’m sure I am not alone in being able to relate to this), of sitting with an atlas, map or globe as a child and imagining yourself in any number of far-away places whose names were utterly strange or strangely familiar (coming from Norfolk I always found Norfolk Island very confusing).
Within these pages you will find fifty islands that the author has ‘not visited and never will’ (rather a defeatist attitude). Divided into Oceans, it is a fantastic evocation of the remote. Each odd page has the drawing of a tiny island, with population centres highlighted in orange, and heights in small black numbers, and around it is
A vast expanse. It makes the blood quicken. On the facing page is more isolating material – a small graph detailing the closest islands/mainland, often hundreds if not thousands of kilometers away. And beneath that is a story. A small vignette of life on the island, taken from a variety of accounts – from tales of shipwreck to that of life on a research station. Judith says of these stories,
An island is like 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. What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction is turned to fact.
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.
And so the colonisers become themselves colonised, their rare mark upon the earth taken and incorporated into this book. I’m not going to give you any of the stories: there are only fifty of them, and you can always read one in the bookshop if you want to. Fifty stories is not much, and the books are expensive (the hardback is £25 and the paperback £12.99) but it isn’t the stories alone you are buying here; you are buying those minutes spent pouring over a tiny island in a massive sea, tracing the edges with a fingernail and planning adventures. I hope you will agree, those moments are sublime.