Wednesday, April 6, 2011

More Than Maps

First, yes, Atlas of Remote Islands does look good. No one’s arguing that. Why would we? But I don’t think critical engagement with this book stops and starts with the orange and the gray-blue. If it were just the colored maps than I’m not sure we would be discussing it now. In other words, Peter Turchi’s actually:

As readers, we know that if a work’s conclusion is disappointing, if we aren’t satisfied with where it has taken us, the guide has let us down. A map may be beautiful, but if it doesn’t tell us what we want to know, or clearly illustrate what it means to tell us, it’s merely decoration. The writer’s obligation is to make rewarding both the reader’s journey and his destination. (“Metaphor: Or, The Map” 22)

Given this, the question is: What do we want to know? The answer should be: We want to know about these islands. Schalansky, however, doesn’t care about that question. At least she doesn’t care like a traditional cartographer might. The question that she does care about appears to be the relationship of maker and map. This atlas perhaps more deftly surveys Schalansky’s own tension with her material than it surveys the islands themselves. To her, the facts—or whatever she has attained through research—aren’t reliable or sufficient for her, and therefore she is not content to report them in the most straightforward way. This decision is evident by her preface; “What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction can no longer be separated: fact is fictionalized and fiction is turned into fact” (20). She makes bold choices about how these islands will be—not described—but written about. And those choices represent, at different times, two different ideals.

1. Exploitation: Schalansky argues that “Every map is the result and the exercise of colonial violence” (20). Interestingly, in a book about islands that have been invaded by colonials and strangers, Schalansky occasionally, though not always, writes from the point of view similar to those invading rather than the natives—“This is a topographical disaster,” she writes in anger about the under-siege Trindade (44.) We, as the reader, come to town, bear witness to a catastrophe or tale of woe, and then move on to the next island. The form, then, comes across as exploitative, a device that she barely addresses “I have transformed the texts and appropriated them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover” (20). Is that good enough? What if we’re taking part in the laziest, most artistic form of neo-colonialism? Basically, the way in which Schalansky presents her material, possibly even twists it, has to indicate a relationship between the recorder and the recorded. Schalansky seems to care about, even admire, these islands, but “Experience reminds us that there is often a world of difference between what we hope to find, or think we might find, and what we discover. Goals of our exploration, then include refining our intention and determining the best way to present it.” (Turchi 15). Schalansky is wrestling with the way to be part of her islands’ history, and this tension of where to stand in relationship to material is what underpins the book.

2. Exploration: At other times, Schalansky doesn’t seem to be investigating the world of the islands as much as she’s imagining it. Thus, the choice of what information or non-information to provide eventually tells us more about her—they become almost confessional. This echoes one of the ideologies from her preface; “Geographical Maps are abstract and concrete at the same time; for all the objectivity of their measurements, they cannot represent reality, merely one interpretation of it” (10). Rather than ignore the artifice of that reality, she opts to let the reader in on her own manifestation. And it’s an incredibly rich and complicated manifestation aided by her obvious research and her ability to unmoor the presentation of that research. For instance, she writes some expressive and unnatural things, like “St. Kilda – you don’t exist. Your name is just a faint cry made by the birds that make their home on the high cliffs” (34). This exemplifies a fear and doubt, probably her own, of meaningful living in these dire places; Schalansky even accuses the visitors of being “obsessed by the thought that they might be left behind and be forced to eke out their existences on this lonely island for the rest of their days” (17). So, even as this world emerges, plenty of Schalansky does as well. Turchi says that’s inevitable:

No matter how hard we work to be “objective” or “faithful,” we create. That isn’t to say we get things wrong, but that from the first word we write—even by choosing the language in which we will write, and by choosing to write rather than to paint or sing—we are defining, delineating, the world that is coming into being. (14)

Schalansky does define her own world, and we are surprised to see it as a dreamy and personal one because it is posited next to scary, difficult facts. But that surprise grounds her exploration while humanizing her maps. In that way, the author and material enhance each other.

In conclusion, Schalansky responds to a surprising but provocative question: How can I talk about a land that I have never been to and never plan on going? How can I present the unknown? Turchi suggests that “The earliest maps are thought to have been created to help people find their way and to reduce their fear of the unknown” (11). Throughout the book, Schalansky navigates these questions with a variety of approaches that help understand the nature of the unknown even more. Understanding this, I am ready to admit that the book sure is something to look at.

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