There is something about islands which captures the imagination, about which every person has an instinctive reaction. Perhaps that reaction is fear: a terror of being trapped or contained, a horror of being isolated or alone. Perhaps that reaction is exuberance: the prospect of forging your own destiny unhindered by wider society, the idea of being free and independent, self-reliant. Our reaction to the idea of an island may depend on mood. Perhaps in a good frame of mind we envisage our island as a paradise rich with bird and plant life, luscious blue seas and a cocktail bar on the beach. In more forbidding moods we may imagine our island to be tiny and desolate, edged by vicious rocks and a wild sea, a tempestuous wind. Even for those of us that live on an island, as I do, the islands of our imagination rarely match the real thing and it can be hard to conceptualise the idea that we are alone and isolated, cut off from the mainland, though ringed by seas that cannot be bridged without reasonably advanced technology. There are so many of us here, after all. Yet something about this reminds me how once I became trapped in an elevator, and the whole time I felt like a person abandoned on an island, isolated and alone. I quite enjoyed it, but the experience lasted only around 1 hour and 15 minutes and I was well provisioned. Surviving on a remote island may be a different proposition entirely.
“It struck me for the first time that islands are in fact small continents and that continents are in turn no more than very large islands. This clearly outlined piece of land was quite perfect and yet lost at the same time, like the loose sheet of paper on which it had been drawn. Every connection to the mainland had been lost. There was no mention of the rest of the world. I have never seen a lonelier place.”
Judith Schalansky explains in the detailed introduction to this book, tantalisingly sub-titled “Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will”. I often skip book introductions, impatient to get to the ‘meat’ of the story, but this introduction is well worth reading as though it Schalansky explains both the concept for this book and what the exploration, from the safety of her study or library, has taught her about what islands mean to people. “a land surrounded by water is perceived as the perfect place for utopian experiments” is one answer; “The attraction of a beautiful void” another. Perhaps more disturbingly “the island that has been the focus of so much yearning often turns out – as might have been expected – barren and worthless” or “a remote island makes a natural prison: surrounded by the monotonous, insurmountable walls of a persistent, ever-present sea”. Chilling just to think about it.
The fifty islands themselves are an eclectic bunch, and their stories are unique and, whilst brief, strangely satisfying. It is a book to read at leisure, taking time over each story to absorb its brief beauty. Organised by ocean, Schalansky devotes a page to text and a page for a map of each island. She shows us islands inhabited and uninhabited. Islands abandoned and islands claimed. Islands which are remote, inaccessible, frozen and lifeless. Islands with unusual and dying customs. Some islands are more familiar than others: Easter Island, for example, that monument to human folly; Iwo Jima representing folly of a different kind. But it is the stories themselves that fascinate, like here as Schalansky describes Lonely Island, a Russian island in the Kara Sea shaped, curiously, like a decaying leaf. Now abandoned, a record of the island’s history remains in the log book from polar observatory that had existed on the island and Schalansky draws our particular attention to its last entry:
“The final entry in red felt-tip pen spills over the confines of the columns: 23 November 1996: the evacuation order came today. Pouring the water out. Turned off diesel generator. The station is…The final word is illegible. Welcome to Lonely Island.”
But this book, whilst focused on the islands, is also a love letter to the art and adventure of cartography. Schalansky didn’t set out to find these islands, instead she traced them on dusty old rolls of paper hidden somewhere in an archive or the dark belly of the public library. What she learned of the islands, she learned through meticulous exploration of records and archives, old newspaper reports and notes from scientific journals. “It is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts,” she says, “and for the atlas to be recognised as literature, for it is more than worthy of its original name: theatrum terratum, the theatre of the world.”
I’m inclined to agree. I, too, have a love of maps. I remember, as a child, tracing the outlines of countries in my hand-me-down Australian encyclopaedias that had belonged to my brother and sister when they had lived on that rather larger, warmer island than the one I found myself growing up on. I remember my own drawings of islands: imaginary ones and those intended as representations of the real, taking care over all the tiny twists and turns of the coastline refining, perhaps, inaccuracy to something in the order of hundreds of miles. Even now I have a ritual when we go camping that I will always pick up the Ordnance Survey map of the area, and it is a small excitement unfolding the map, laying it out on the uneven ground and tracing the contours I can see if I only look up and around me. Finding the odd place names and trying to imagine how they came to be. The secret pleasure in being able to refold it properly, which always seems near impossible. My children, on account of this exposure, have inherited this love too, and this makes me wonder if the joy of map tracing is something of a dying art, as the world moves to a more ‘accurate’ and less romantic digital view. Perhaps as long as gorgeous books like this one exists, the art of cartography and the joy of map exploration on a damp Sunday afternoon will long continue. I hope so.