Fortunate and unfortunate isles


Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands—Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will

Judith Schalansky, London, New York: Penguin, 2012. 240 pp

The West is writing over all the world’s white spaces. The unrolling triumph of Occidental enlightenment and exploration has meant the near-complete charting of the planet—conquest of the tallest peaks, penetration into the remotest forests, sounding of the deepest submarine trenches, and attainment of the abstract Poles. We have stripped shadows from the world and bathed it in harshly antiseptic light. As we have driven back the frontiers of geography we have driven into extinction the many-headed monsters that once patrolled the edges of all atlases. Although there will never be an End of History, sometimes it feels as though we’ve come to the End of Adventure.

How ironic that such an anticlimax should be the outcome of the greatest adventure of all—those eager centuries when the little countries at the westernmost end of the Eurasian “world-island” sent out their best and bravest to find new trade routes, to spread the fame of their country and deity, and to seek knowledge and excitement. The resounding language of the King James Bible expresses something of the mixed motivations and restless romance of the great explorations:

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;

These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.

The caravels, carracks, galleons, galleys, pinnacles, sloops, and whalers of the Europeans crept down perilous coasts and breached brooding horizons, often to die in the doing—bringing catastrophe (and civilization) to native nabobs, ancient insular cultures, and overly specialized ecosystems.

A desire to bring magic back to maps motivates Judith Schalansky—a German graphic designer who cannily combined her cartographic and typographic interests to produce a beautiful atlas-as-literature. “Now that it is possible to travel right round the globe,” she observes, “the real challenge lies in staying at home and discovering the world from there.”

Her Pocket Atlas, translated almost faultlessly into English this year, brings together depictions of some of the world’s loneliest rocks with whimsical or appalling tales from the islands’ past or present. It propels readers across thousands of miles of ocean until we are alongside the author, bobbing off some black-cliff behemoth in the banshee-winded south, or floating apparently on air in a white-sand-coconut-palm fringed lagoon while giant manta rays wing below.

Islands are paradoxical places where even evolution bends its rules, to make tortoises that can carry men, and pigeons that once bulged grotesquely into doomed dodos. They are places we approach in unlimited hope, where convicts can become kings. No man can be an island, but we project onto them our deepest desires. As Schalansky notes:

The island seems to be in its element, still in its natural state, unchanged since the beginning, paradise before the fall from grace, innocent and unblushing.…A land surrounded by water is perceived as the perfect place for utopian experiments and paradise upon earth.

I think of Stevenson’s Tahiti or Margaret Mead’s Samoa—or a thoughtful young girl growing up in East Berlin, flicking longingly through the People’s Democratic Atlas and ignoring the socially significant statistics in favor of tiny yellow blobs floating in fathomless reaches of azure. The Pocket Atlas is awash with accounts of incurable romantics and seekers after spiritual peace or fabulous treasures.

But islands can also be pointless places where convicts simply stay convicts, such as the notorious Norfolk Island penal colony north of New Zealand. Islands can even be pocket hells where kings become convicts, such as Napoleon on St. Helena—places of eternal exile from decency as well as society, where evil is amplified because there is no alternative or escape. As the author notes ruefully,

Human beings travelling far and wide have turned into the very monsters they chased off the maps.

We bring freight when we arrive at any island—rats in our luggage that race into the pristine paradise to lay waste the new land and replicate the troubles we have fled. Like the schoolboys in Lord of the Flies, we are imprisoned by inner-animal limitations as well as by logistics—and the open-eyed author duly brings us artfully imagined real-life horrors.

There is the dystopia of Tikopia, 700 miles to the east of Fiji, so small that even in the center of the island one can hear the waves’ maddening boom, home to 1,200 people who until recently practiced a ruthless euthanasia policy for all whom the island’s knife-edge ecology could not sustain. Only elder sons were permitted to reproduce, with superfluous newborns placed on their faces to suffocate.

There is the saga of Pitcairn Island, where Fletcher Christian’s fugitives landed on the run from Royal Naval retribution and literally burned their boats to become rulers for a time, only to fight murderously and eventually inbreed themselves into casual acceptance of systemic sexual abuse.

There are cast-up corpses on the Marshall Islands, murder mysteries from the Galapagos, rumors of Antarctic anthropophagy, and the melodramatic tale of Clipperton Atoll, a Mexican colony forgotten when Mexico dissolved into revolution and the rest of the world into World War I. The US Navy offered the residents evacuation in 1915, but the proud governor paraded his mound of ancient guano in Austrian-inspired parade uniform, arm-in-arm with his bejeweled wife, to reassure the governed that they could weather the world storm together, even on an island without grass and infested by millions of ravenous crabs.

But the ships from Acapulco stopped coming, their food ran down, and scurvy came calling to whisk one after the other away. The governor was drowned when he set out in a boat to get to a (possibly imaginary) passing ship, and soon the only man left was the lighthouse keeper/king, who raped and killed for two years before one of his victims beat him to death with a hammer. A providential US warship then took off the few women and children survivors, who recorded looking back at their receding prison and for a long time being able to see the orange of the crabs.

The author ranges across all atlases, strewing insular images across our mental maps. We see whaling charnel houses where jawbones jut from still-sticky sand…grass-covered shipwrecks surrounded by defensive penguins…the genetic color-blindness of the people of Pingelap…the bird-faced goddess of Banaba…the last radio message of Amelia Earhart…atom bombs on atolls…the sad tale of the trusting Steller’s sea cow, hunted to extinction…US Marines iconically raising the Stars and Stripes atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi…and dozens of other highly theatrical productions lent force and poignancy by the smallness of their stage.

Finally, she gives us some of the world’s last few untouched islands, still too difficult or dangerous to reach, or simply thought not worth visiting. Judging from the harm caused by human visitors and their forces of progress, such places are probably safer being ignored. Perhaps we have a psychic need to know that there are some islands still inviolate and that sometimes it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

This article first appeared in in October 2012, and is reproduced with permission

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