Here is one of those books which defies the current bookworld gloom: the gloom which asks, does anything interesting get published any more? And, are ebooks going to consume us all? It is a beautifully-produced, expensive title which has become a talked-about, or at least cooed-over, favourite (on my Twitter timeline anyway). High concept; slim volume.
Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands (tr. Christine Lo), subtitled Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will, is that rarest of things, a coffee-table book which is actually worth reading. It combines elegant pointillist illustrations of fifty of the most remote and hostile islands on earth with fable-like narratives of their histories on the facing page.
One point of comparison here would be Calvino’s Invisible Cities, though Schalansky assures us in her introduction that “all the text in the book is based on extensive research and every detail stems from factual sources.” However, as “I was the discoverer of the sources … I have transformed the texts and appropriated them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover.” This is just as it should be: “only that which is written about really happened,” and Atlas of Remote Islands is a vivid persuader that truth is larger than facts.
For me, into whom the Google Earth homepage drives a chill of dread, these faraway, isolated places seem initially frightening, so distant from what we think of as civilisation, so detached from what supports our way of life; so alone. In fact many of the smallest or most polar are uninhabited, such as the volcanic Semisopochnoi, where “the earth mutters to itself,” or Howland Island, where Amelia Earhart was expected to refuel in her equatorial circumnavigation in 1937 but never arrived, disappearing “just beyond the date line on a flight into yesterday.”
Some of the islands are inhabited only temporarily, by researchers or the military. On Ascension Island, midway between Africa and South America, there are over one thousand residents manning satellite dishes and transatlantic cables, “eavesdropping on the continents, listening to the world.” St Kilda, beyond the Outer Hebrides, was evacuated in 1930: before that, “the island’s future is written in its graveyard. Its children are all born in good health, but most stop feeding during their fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh day, their palates tighten and their throats constrict. […] Between the seventh and the ninth day, two-thirds of newborn babies die.” (The mystery is unresolved in the text; only in the timeline above do we learn that these babies were dying from neonatal tetanus.) On Amsterdam Island, site of a meteorological station in the southern Indian Ocean, the district chief proclaims, “There is no such thing as isolation. Even on Amsterdam Island, we are cogs in a huge wheel; here, too, we receive signals that tell us who we are.” That, perhaps, is a theme of the book: people are incorrigible, however far you go to find (or avoid) them.
The permanently inhabited islands are easily identifiable at a glance: the images contain a few orange lines – roads, a runway – and a vibrant splotch or two near the coast (a settlement! – leading to more wonderment than ever. ‘People live there?’). The initial disappointment at the omissions of a full history of each island – a silly demand, as it wouldn’t fit, and anyway that’s what Google is for – is assuaged by the charm and precision with which Schalansky tells her stories. On the Pacific island of Rapa Iti, all we get is the bizarre tale of Marc Liblin, who in 1954 at the age of six begins to be “visited by dreams in which he is taught a completely unknown language” – which turns out to be the tongue of this remote Polynesian island, to which he decamps in 1983, having married a native speaker. It has the symmetrical perfection of a fairy tale.
The delicate shading of the drawings, showing perfectly the topography of the lands, looks disappointingly pixellated up close, but this doesn’t prevent the reader from marvelling at the unpromising forms which will support human life. If the book has a recurring thread, it is of humanity’s brave thirst for knowledge of every square kilometre of land on earth, and of its folly in believing that it can or should always be turned to our advantage. Many of the islands are atolls, fragile circles of coral, where the British forcibly deported five hundred native Chagossian families (Diego Garcia), or France tested its first hydrogen bomb (Fangataufa): afterwards, “nothing remains. No houses, no installations, no trees, nothing. The entire island is evacuated because of radioactive contamination. No one is allowed to set foot on Fangataufa for six years.” For Pitcairn Island, we get an interpretive account of Marlon Brando’s death scene as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty. Only the closing line (“But the island’s story is far from at its end”) hints that Pitcairn’s greatest notoriety is yet to come, with the rape trials of the many descendants of Christian in 2004. In the introduction, Schalansky observes that sexual permissiveness is “a classic theme of the literature on the South Seas.” In Pukapuka, in the south Pacific, a recent immigrant from the USA finds that there “sex is a game, and jealousy has no place. […] A word for ‘virgin’ does not even exist in their language.”
The limits of space and resources on these tiny spots of land means that many of them are further advanced than most of the world in today’s urgent issues, such as population growth. On Tikopia, a 4.7km² island east of Papua New Guinea,
the chiefs of the four clans preach the ideal of zero population growth. All the children in each family must be able to live from the land it owns, so only eldest sons can start families. […] A couple stop having children when the eldest son is old enough to marry. This is when a man will ask his wife, Whose child is this, for whom I must fetch food from the field? He decides whether the baby lives: The plantations are small. Let us kill the child, for if it lives, it will have no garden. The newborn is left on its face to suffocate. There are no funerals for these children: they have not participated in life on Tikopia.
More significantly, it is the spectre of climate change which strikes the reader when looking at these fragile lands. What will happen to the low-lying islands of South Keeling, Tromelin, Napuka, Taongi (reciting the names in these pages gives another layer of aesthetic pleasure, like listening to the shipping forecast) when the sea levels rise and cover the coral atolls? The subject is touched on in the entry for Takuu: “The beach is narrower after every storm. Entire pieces of land disappear overnight. The sea is gobbling up more and more of the land. It is now covering the roots of coconut trees and turning the groundwater brackish, so the taro plants are withering and meals are too meagre to stave off hunger.” The inhabitants do not believe it, or refuse to think about it. In this, they are perfectly human.
Perhaps it would have been apt for Schalansky to close her Atlas with the story of Easter Island, well known as an exemplar of man’s rapacity toward his habitat. “The twelve tribes of Easter Island compete against each other: they make bigger and bigger monoliths, and secretly topple their rivals’ statues in the night. They exploit and over-cultivate their pieces of earth, chop down the last tree, sawing off even the branch they are sitting on.” As an ironic counterpoint, she adds that today, “the airport’s landing strip is so enormous that a space shuttle could touch down on it in an emergency.” So if the book began – for me – with fear of these unreachable places, so far from us, it ends feeling like an elegy. “The end of the world is an accepted fact, and Easter Island is a case in point with its chain of unfortunate events that led to self-destruction; a lemming marooned in the calm of the ocean.”