A review of Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands

Nauru isn't covered by Judith Schalansky in her Atlas of Remote Islands – just published in English by Penguin – but the found narratives woven into the histories of the fifty other islands profiled, will strike a chord with those familiar with the Pacific island’s tragic story. In her introduction Schalansky, a typographer by trade, explains she harboured a long endured fascination with maps and the exoticism that they hold within their careful cartographic coding, stemming she reasons, from the isolation of her childhood growing up behind the wall in East Berlin. Schalansky’s still-maintained preoccupation with the romantic notions of islands, which she raptures about, is strange given the stories of paradise lost, betrayal and criminality that she unearths in the histories of many of the fifty inhabited and remote islands subsequently profiled.

Each island is given a double page spread, with a carefully illustrative map on one side, faced with a short anecdotal history on the other, researched by the author through rare books. Also included for each is a timeline and a figure charting the diminutive population size of these communities. The reader hears stories of rotting whale carcasses subsuming the uninhabited Antarctic island of Deception; the tinpot despotism of the lighthouse keeper of Clipperton Atoll in the Pacific Ocean; the death of marooned sailor Harry Eld at the beaks of a thousand birds on Australia’s Macquarie Island; the much media-covered abuse rife among the 48 residents of Pacific Pitcairn; and the historic high child fatality rate among the Hebridean people of St Kilda. The histories that Schalansky recounts are not verifiable fact, but they offer a narrative in which – for all the geographic symbolism of the maps therein – humans play the central role. The reader cannot help but be left with a pessimistic take on our condition. That as a species, we are prone to the kind of horror that Joseph Conrad subjected Charles Marlow to as the protagonist in Heart of Darkness, one that, given isolation from distraction, people’s propensity to instigate an unnerving terror on each other, comes to a frightening fore.

Oliver Basciano