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Painting of small island with boat in water.

The Atlas of Remote Islands, Both Poetry and Cartography


Miniature worlds, prisons, spaces suitable for madness and inspiration, remote islands will always be those mysterious territories we want to touch.

The biggest adventure waits for us in the streets where we grew up.

– G.K. Chesterton

The islands illustrated in this unique atlas exist in remote places, as though remote is their very essence. One of the most beautiful books ever printed, the geographic and literary portrait of “Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will” – and all that this implies.

The Atlas of Remote Islands, by German author, Judith Schalansky, is a bestiary. It’s a catalog of maps, drawn by the author, and accompanied by data such as the name of each island, the number of its inhabitants, its distance from other territories and a timeline of the most relevant historical events. Finally, each of these small spots in the middle of the immeasurable sea is the setting for brief stories that happened there or that are happening now.

Between parallels, meridians, descriptions of mountains and mountain ranges, hydrography and other historical and geographical data, are these tiny islands which in a conventional atlas might appear magnified in boxes, as if to emphasize their insignificance. Earthly bodies are like ghosts whose presence is hardly relevant when contrasted with the dimensions that attract people’s interest. Here are the stories of melancholy, loneliness, misery and silence. Importantly, most of these narratives are far from paradisiacal. Rather they’re terrifying and even stark.

Deception Island depicted on a map in a book.

What seems at first like a pocket atlas, then, becomes a compendium of shipwrecks, of the madness of colonial prisons, utopias and failed expeditions, misadventures in sterile territories, tales of cannibalism, rape and murder, the delirium of disturbed conquerors, and the homes to ecological and nuclear disasters. Sorrowful though it is, there is no garden of Eden yet untouched by these most terrifying of human passions – but if one exists, it is only our ignorance of it that acts as that Eden’s protector.

These 50 islands are each described in unique, microworld scenarios. This is perhaps because of their remoteness and perhaps because of their exotic natures. What happens on a remote island nearly always deserves its telling. An island can be a paradise or a hell, says Schalansky in her preface. On these islands, facts can’t be separated from fiction, legend or myth. On the veracity of the events told in the book, she warns that although they come from reliable bibliographic sources, it is and will be impossible to confirm them – a confirmation which isn’t really necessary anyway.

A place is born when it’s named, Schalansky says. That’s to say, the island begins to exist when the first person finds it on the horizon and then speaks its name. (This is so even when that name doesn’t coincide with a name the inhabitants originally assigned the island.) Schalansky’s book questions the colonialism that’s ignited human ambitions for centuries, even down to this day.

Cover of book The Atlas of Remote Islands

Among all the islands awaiting us in the Atlas, we’ll mention here but a few. The island of Pitcairn is inhabited by 48 people. At the end of the 18th century, a group of rebels from the British Empire were stranded here with their wives after being kidnapped in Tahiti. There’s also Tikopia, of almost five square kilometers, and where the population never grows. When it does, single women commit suicide. This is because there’s only enough food produced to keep 1,200 human beings alive. On Easter Island, trees no longer grow due to the drought and devastation brought on by the inhabitants. Deception Island was named for its inability to satisfy the hunger and thirst of Magellan and his crew. Clipperton, Santa Kilda, Iwo Jima, Bear Island and Solitude, like the other 41, also bear their stories, each worthy of being related.

Judith Schalansky was born in East Germany. For a long time, her only way of traveling was by stroking the surface of the maps and globes within her reach. She describes the act as deeply erotic, full of desire. The islands in the Atlas were never visited by the writer. They were selected by the author from the State Library of Berlin. This may force us to rethink the meaning of a journey and just how necessary is any movement across physical space. The beauty and the deep poetry of the book lie here. Perhaps, in a world of fast airplanes and satellite maps, travel itself will become a bravely metaphysical act.

*Images: 1) Edward Gennys Fanshawe, Pitcairn’s Island, Augt 12th 1849; 2) Michael Mills video; 3) goodreads

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