First Published: 2009
Translation Published: 2010
Pages: 143 (Hardback)
Form: Non-Fiction, Geography, Maps
Winner of the German Arts Foundation prize for the most beautiful book of the year.
Born on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, the only way Judith Schalansky ould travel as a child was through the pages of an atlas. Now she has created her own, which takes us across the oceans of the world to fifty remote islands – from Iwo Jima to Tristan da Cunha and from Easter Island to Disappointment Island. On one page are her perfect maps, on the other unfold cryptic stories from the islands. Rare animals and strange people abound: marooned slaves and lonely scientists, lost explorers and confused lighthouse keepers, mutinous sailors and forgotten castaways. Armchair explorers who undertake these journeys will find themselves in places that exist in reality, but only come to life in the imagination.
So first thing’s first: this is a beautiful, wonderful book and the three stars up there reflect my experience reading it much more than they do the quality of the book itself. It’s a gorgeous, quirky, little book. Fifty islands from around the world: on one page a detailed map, on the opposite page a few basic facts and a little vignette about an event in the island’s history. I loved, loved, loved the idea when I first picked it up and flicked through it in the bookshop, and there’s nothing wrong with the execution either – it’s precisely what I expected. But three stars simply because I realised that I didn’t love the idea as much as I thought I had.
The maps are gorgeous, no question, and the little vignettes which accompany them are fascinating – weird evocative little stories of explorers, indigenous peoples, castaways, marooned slaves, scientific experiments, inbreeding, murder, mutiny, all the sorts of things a lifelong fan of Treasure Island should absolutely love. And I did love them, I just found the lack of facts or reference points slightly maddening, a lot of the stories were so interesting that I wanted to look them up, check out the history behind the vignette, but was only given enough information to try for a google/Wikipedia search and then go link-crawling from there. But the book isn’t meant to be 100% factual, referenced, history so complaining about something that wasn’t meant to be there not being there is a bit silly. What the book actually sets out to do, it does very well. It is as much, if not more, about the imagination and the literary idea of the ‘remote island’ as it is about real places. written by an author who grew up in East Berlin and could only experience the wider world through maps and literature, this is something for everybody who once played at being a pirate or an explorer or a sailor when they were children and dreamt of visiting far off and undiscovered places and having wonderful adventures. And, disappointed as I was not to enjoy the book as much as I had hoped, I so still count myself among that group of people who spend far too much time imagining adventures on weird and remote islands and wishing they were a pirate.
I think it’s one of those books that was just the right book at the wrong time but that, given a bit of time and a more ‘dipping in and out of’ approach, will probably go up and up in my estimation. I can’t say I love it yet, that’s why it’s only three stars, but I do think that I will come to love it. I just need to let it sit for a bit and pick it up only occasionally and when in the right mood and it’ll probably become as much a treasured possession as my much-loved encyclopedia of classical mythology.