Judith Schalansky: Atlas of Remote Islands

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.”


  1. Great review. Looks like an elegant, chilling little tome. It’s funny: you can see this volume being co-opted as a stocking-filler for the chuckling arcana crowd, but I daresay the author had things in mind other than curiosity and anecdotal value. Did you feel, when you turned the final page, that this was, in paramount, a solemn environmental piece?

  2. Yes, I’ve been one of those tweeting away in your timeline about this one. Having bought a copy for my dad for Xmas there was a very real danger he wouldn’t ever receive it, so lovely did it look on my own shelf. I’m glad to read such a positive review as I decided to indulge myself and ordered another copy. The problem now is that I’m sorely tempted by Foer’s Tree of Codes, another pricey objet d’art. How about you?

  3. Lee, yes it has an environmental message, but there is more than that – something more solemn yet about our place in the world, which I can’t quite put my finger on.

    Will, I am tempted by Tree of Codes, but not enough to want to buy it (yet). There’s an excellent piece on it here, which at the moment is enough to satisfy me.

  4. I knew it was a pretty book, but it’s good to hear that it’s an entertaining read as well. From your description, it reminds me a little of An A-Z of Possible Worlds.

  5. Looks like a beautiful production – I particularly like the orange edging effect.

    Lee’s point about “the chuckling arcana crowd” is well made! I also like your comment about “the truth [being] larger then facts”…maybe it’s somewhere in that gap between “facts” and “truth” that the thing you can’t put your finger on resides….

  6. Apologies to Judith Schalansky here: the next booker panel has been announced. I admire and respect two of those deemed acceptable. I presume the others are good friends.

  7. The panel is, for those interested, Chris Mullin (former Labour MP whose memoirs have been acclaimed), Susan Hill (novelist best known for The Woman in Black and the Simon Serrailler crime novels), Matthew d’Ancona (journalist and novelist), Gaby Wood (the Telegraph’s “head of books,” as they now name their literary editor) and chaired by Stella Rimington, former head of MI5 and now a writer of spy thrillers. I’m given to understand that Rimington’s first novel, At Risk, was written in collaboration with Luke Jennings, the Observer’s dance critic and author of the much-praised memoir Blood Knots – she thanked him in the acknowledgements for “help with research and the writing.”

    I did have some help. We had a little team of three with my publisher and a journalist called Luke Jennings, so it’s been a rather fascinating creative process with all three of us striking sparks off each other.

  8. kept see your tweets about this it is a beautiful concept john and like rob said and yourself like a to z and calvino both of which I enjoyed have see if they got it in waterstones nottingham tomorrow if I remember ,all the best stu

  9. Brilliant review! Reading it, I made the decision to gift my father with this for Christmas, the choice reinforced by Wm Rycroft’s comments above. My dad’s brother (19 yrs old at the time) was a Marine coxswain during the New Georgia campaign in the summer of 1943. During battle, he became separated from his men and spent several days lost on New Georgia island. He always talked about the special sense of disorientation he felt at being alone in the jungle on such a small island. This Atlas and the stories will thrill my dad. Thanks for bringing it to light!

  10. Thanks for a timely review as this is a book already on my wish list for Christmas though I can’t remember how I came across it. It looks and sounds from your review absolutely beautiful.
    Dea Birkett has written a book about Pitcairn called Serpent in Paradise focusing on the recent rape trials and although the content is inevitably depressing it’s also a fascinating portrait of the inward looking and claustrophobic lives that the inhabitants live there. There’s a French writer Jean Paul Kaufman who is interested in writing about remote islands. His book The Dark Room at Longwood is a fascinating study of Napolean’s last few years on St Helena where boredom seemed to be his biggest enemy and his sense of hopeless exile from anything that mattered. He was reduced to taking up gardening for a while. There’s also his book Voyage to Desolation Island which recounts a recent visit to this really godforsaken spot. Owned by the French on the edge of Antartica but not iced over, it provides a scientific base where groups of international researchers live there under extremely harsh conditions – probably a bit like the Falklands only bleaker. However there was an attempt to colonise it at one point and there’s a vivid description of a group of wretched houses where some families tried to live and provide for themselves early in the last century. And by the way,is anyone else old enough to remember the time the entire population of Tristan da Cunha were ‘rescued’ from their volcano in the 60’s and spent an unwilling year or two as exiles in the UK? They couldn’t wait to get back.

    1. To nitpick: Dea Birkett’s Serpent in Paradise, while it is about Pitcairn and the uneasy period she spent living in the very close community of the islanders, does not ‘focus on the recent rape trials’. It was published in 1998, whereas the abuse cases only came to court in 2004.

      There has not, as far as I can tell, been an updated edition issued.

  11. Thanks for the comments Stu, Elizabeth and Mary. The book includes St Helena, Mary; its approach is to describe the removal of Napoleon’s body after his death (“The emperor is returning home”).

  12. Hello – the connection you make between this book and the Calvino is interesting, given that Calvino’s cities have many of the properties of islands (and “all the text in the book is based on extensive research and every detail stems from factual sources” sounds like something Calvino would write). It put me in mind of this:

    ‘Calvino’s invisible cities inhabit undifferentiated space. The only thing in the landscape is the city, and the camel trains or solitary ships which do not so much connect them as oscillate imperceptibly, if doggedly, between them….Kublai Khan, sitting listening to Marco Polo…, forced to consider the troubling plenitude and multiplicity of his domain, does not really need to know where each city actually is, only the nature of its quiddity.’ (Anatomy of Norbiton – in the section entitled Cartographical – it’s at anatomyofnorbiton dot org)

    On which note, your mention of the tribal chief on Amsterdam Island (“we receive signals that tell us who we are”) is extraordinary – hadn’t occurred to me to think that the cities themselves are defined, or dignified, by Marco’s visits – that the Khan is not just taking data in, but sending it out too, in the form of pulses of emissaries and wave-form camel trains, like a relay station.

    But I’m drifting off the point – I just wanted to say, nice post – but with this subject matter, if Schlalansky’s publishers have really made this into a coffee table book, as you suggest, or an object that puts you in mind of a coffee table book, then hasn’t she rather missed an opportunity? (I mean, for example, how useful are the timelines? Seem like a bit of a space filler)

  13. Thanks for the interesting thoughts, Civ. It’s been a while since I read Invisible Cities, but your extrapolation of my initial impulse is fascinating. There have been other titles which take an equally clear inspiration from Calvino, such as Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, David Eagleman’s Sum and A.C. Tillyer’s A-Z of Possible Worlds (though the first two eschew the geographical for timelines and afterlives).

    Yes, the book is definitely being sold as much as an object as for its contents – at £25, it is expensive by any standard for a slim volume – and while this will in one sense limit its sales (I hope a future paperback edition will be much cheaper), it also attracts people – as you can see from the comments above – and helps augment the idea of this as a version of a real atlas, with all their production values (including information overloads such as the timelines).

    Steerforth, alas! No El Hierro or Kerguelen.

  14. What a brilliant concept. It could inspire a whole series of similar volumes. Fifty pairs of trousers I have not worn. Fifty cocktails I have not drunk. Fifty jobs I have not tried. It is indeed remarkable that people live on some of these far-flung islands and that they have such intriguing histories.

  15. Beautiful book! Thanks so much for writing about it or I would have know nothing about it. Not only does the writing seem great, but the illustrations are beautiful! This would also be a great Christmas present!

  16. Interesting to read your post John; I came across this book on sale at Fullers Bookshop in Hobart, Tasmania a couple of days ago and picked it up to browse, the byline ‘Fifty islands I have not visited and never will’ particularly caught my attention.

  17. My copy arrived two days ago and yes, it is a beautiful, un-Kindleable book.

    The Calvino comparison is apt because in spite of the author’s “extensive research”, the result is a tantalisingly elusive text. Each entry is like a meringue: almost weightless, providing a brief but intense pleasure. Thanks for recommending it.

  18. Thanks for a clear and thorough review.
    I find Schalansky’s book very strange and peculiar, and to be honest, it doesn’t remind me of anything I have ever read before. Compared to Calvino, I find her way of writing more temperate and lucid. I really like the way she has chosen to use facts – jumping back and forth in history, letting her fiction decide what to retell or (re)write.
    And I have to admit I love her subheading: “Fifty islands I have not visited and never will”, I find it very witty.

  19. The explanation of the neo-natal mortality rate on St Kilda, by the way, is that they were in the habit of putting a blob of fulmar oil on the newborn’s navel. Or so the story goes.

  20. Thanks for that information, Harry. Never having heard of Fulmar oil, I googled it and found this link. I may be reading it wrongly, but it suggests that the Fulmar oil was a possible cause of the neonatal tetanus – in the same way, I suppose, that any breach of the skin can lead to it (the oil presumably entered the bloodstream through the umbilical stump).

  21. Being intrigued by this book from your review I got it just recently, and am currently, slowly, making my way through it; an island-a-day sort of thing; seems a shame to rush to the next island with so many miles of water in between. It certainly is an impressive book. I make books myself, so one of the main reasons to get it, for me, was from intrigue of its overall design.

    I’m curious though as to what you think on a couple of points: with the introductory pages, for instance, did you get the feeling, as I did, that they went on just a bit too long? I wanted to get right into (onto) the Islands themselves, but 30 odd pages of introduction got in the way, and (from a design point of view) seemed to unbalance the layout of the book. After a few pages (not, I should add, uninteresting pages) I skipped the intro and went to the Arctic. Still, I feel maybe one or two pages intro and one or two pages outro might have worked better.

    Also, not quite sure what to make sometimes of the style/manner of her writing. The ideas are so good, and the language almost poetic. But that “almost” is the problem. I feel sometimes that she’s trying to write a prose-poem, but using slightly clunky prose, or poetry, which is which. Although, subconsciously, I’m attributing this sense of not-quite-ness to it being a translation.

    It’s still good, despite my uncertainty on the above points, and I find myself, having read each text, really studying each Island, trying to fit her story into its roads and peaks and bays, yet within the limitations of linear detail that maps invariably give; which only makes the experience more interesting. I certainly wouldn’t do the same on a normal atlas. Schalansky’s singling out of these few remote spots on the globe makes such activity far more appealing.

  22. Thanks for your comments John. In fact when I read the book I did think the intro was too long, though when I was writing my review I found myself returning to it often because of the wealth of information it contained. I think in some ways Schalansky used it to include details on certain islands which she thought were interesting, but had no place in the story she had chosen to tell on the dedicated page for each island. After reading the whole book, I actually had a hankering to go back to the introduction and read it more patiently.

    I agree too about the pleasurable difficulty of fitting each story into the maps given – this is one of the things I liked about the book, even though it frustrated me to begin with. The reader has the experience of several different aspects of the island – the map, the timeline, the geographical data, the story – which can be looked at independently or combined in the mind to make a greater whole. But the reader always has to fill in some gaps themselves.

  23. I think you are quite right, and, having left my comment the other day, I then went back and read the rest of the intro that I had previously half-skipped. And it is good, and informative, and well-written, and I’m glad I read it (though I surely would have at the end). I suppose it was just the positioning that seemed irksome, as is the same for most lengthy introductions. I guess I find appendices a better method.

    And yes, tough too when she has chosen that particular double-page-spread format for each island. It is limiting, but that is the intrigue. There will always be aspects she will have to leave out (even were each entry several times as long) so it’s what she puts in that should be of note, and what she hints at by leaving out that should be of intrigue (in a different way).

    It’s very much an art book. Closer to a book of poems than a non-fiction work. But more like narrative poetry than lyric, with a simple singular theme running the length of the work. And since I don’t find lyric poetry particularly easy to read, this appeals to me. In fact it was that aspect, gleaned from your review, that most prompted me to give it a go. I am, alas, a very difficult reader to please.

  24. Searching through the remnants of the stock of what I guess was my favorite bookshop- I came across this “Atlas”, half a day ago.

    I’d knocked back fine books still left there, but this one hit me there and then: for I, like Judith, had dreamt of islands incessantly in my childhood: not from East Germany, but from southern Australia.

    “Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will”: I’d already ripped the book from the shelf, but as soon as I saw the subtitle- well, I sized up, what were these islands. Was Heard Island there? No. Was Pitcairn? Yes. To be more honest, I was looking for the “Auckland Islands”- which did not appear: but then Campbell, & Antipodes, were there, as was Deception, with the notable crater: but no reference to what I understand to be current practices there.

    What’s more regretable is that Judith neglected to mention the internment camp there that the Australain Government has maintained there for many years: not mentioning the death of 35 people on Christmas Island late 2010 is understandable, but the “Tampa Incident” there in 2002 should have been included.

    This is a fascinating book, though, as already suggested, the text seems to eulogize or barstardize particular events in the history of each island.

    There were several questions that were resolved promptly once I got the “Atlas” home.

    Firstly, all maps were on the same scale (I hadn’t noticed the little legend at the left bottom of the maps, which I trust is accurate).

    Secondly, that’s why Heard Island- and Kerguelen, and I think Auckland Island- which has it’s own share of horrors for the register- were not included. They were too big to fit on a page at that scale, despite being rather incredible islands in their own right.

    The Auckland Islands have a special significance for me, since it was there, in my teens, I parked my Utopia for a while.

    One thing Judith Schalansky doesn’t mention in her “Atlas” is the Islands which have disappeared off the map: most notably around the Antartic continent. “The Royal Company Islands” & “Green Island” have both disappeared: apart from my callow research as a teenager in the State Library, I do have a few old maps …

    What Judith Schalansky didn’t mention about Deception was the hot water in Port Foster: which is a tourist attraction, these days. I moved my teenage tropical paradise from the Aucklands to the Royal Company Isles a long, long time ago.

    I’m sure they’ve just been overlooked.

    Precious book: highly recommended.

  25. My oceanography professor just bought this book and I am dying to get my hands on it and just pore over it. I have always been fascinated in not just marine life/oceans/beaches, etc. but in islands, and not just any island, but uninhabited and the most remote/smallest of all islands, those places no one has heard of before. Those are the coolest and I can’t wait to learn more about it; seems like this book is something that might be on my wish list!

  26. Judith,
    My son received your book as a gift this morning and he called to tell me that Pingelap was mentioned. Last year as he was returning from Tanna in the Island chain of Vanuatu I was flying out to be the first chiropractor to serve the Island nation of Micronesia. My primary base was Pohnpei. I spent four glorious days on the Island atoll of Pingelap. I understand your comments about the color blindness of the inhabitants; however, they were the most kind, gentle, and hospitable people I have ever met. I was a “white man” visiting a brown-skin people, yet they received me as a family member who had just returned home. Car batteries provided energy for lights, TV, and barber clippers. The clinic building had a solar panel that provided me with lights, a fan, and Wi Fi. The lack of fresh water was inconsequential because coconut provided all of the liquid nourishment necessary. They are all christians and observe Sunday as the Lord’s day and a day of rest. It was my first true experience with the sense of village. Most of the photos from my collection depict caretakers for the children, yet none of the children were their sons, daughters, sisters or brothers. They all care for each other. The Pingelapese are infamous for seeking higher levels of learning. Generally, Peace Corp volunteers will provide grammar school education. They will go “off Island” to Pohnpei for high school and two years of college. They will continue their education “off Island” in Guam, Philippines, or the US for college and post grad work. There is a population of around 1,000 Pingelapese in Kansas City. Of the 600 plus Islands in the Federated States of Micronesia, the Pingelapese are know for their ambition to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, IT specialists, etc. If you would like to see the images from my collection please visit my website: http://www.johnmarelliphotography.com/OnPurposewithDrMarelli/Pingalap-Island-People/18965610_LtCQrQ#!i=1472420759&k=QTCR65T. I would invite any of your readers to contact me if they would like to hear more about the Island that adopted me and I now consider my family.

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