Tuesday, April 5, 2011

An Argument for Judith Schalansky’s "Atlas of Remote Islands"

“It is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts, and for the atlas to be recognized as literature….” This statement Judith Schalansky makes at the end of her introduction for her "Atlas of Remote Islands" is possibly the strongest reason for me why her book “essays.” This atlas excels in, I think, the criteria that a successful essay should have. How deeply is it explored? How accessible is the essay? Is it interesting? How powerful is it? Does it ask a question?

Schalansky asks us to look at something we never really would. How many of us really ever think about remote islands other than the occasional exceptions of maybe St. Helena, Trinidade, or Easter Island? Those still include stories that play up to the theme of “island as stage.” Each island’s narrative portrays the afflictions of territorial isolation. While the approach was original in Raman Bahrani’s “Plastic Bag” by comparison, I felt the message was not. There are have been other media approaching the use of plastic bags. The idea of dedicating a book to this literature as an atlas, to me, is totally unique.

I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t take an interest in this book. I could give it to my teenage niece or if I give it to my father, and I bet both would enjoy flipping through the stories. However, if I pulled up an autotune remix of a newsreel, I think my father just might consider it weird noise and “crazy things kids do with the computer.” A YouTube video might get 77 million plays (which has to be divided since mostly those are repeat plays), but popularity and breadth of audience are two different things. You could reach 1 million of one demographic: a small age range of YouTube watchers but there’s much more to be said for being universal.

Visually Stimulating
It won the German Design Prize 2011 for communication design and the German Arts Foundation Prize for Germany’s most beautiful book. Robert Macfarlane of The Guardian described it as, “It is an utterly exquisite object: atlas as Wunderkammer and bestiary, bound in black cloth and sea-blue card, its fore-edge bright orange, and its pages populated by rare creatures and lost explorers.” Clearly, Schalansky had a heavy hand in the creative control of the design. She typeset and illustrated this story book all on her own.

Mentally Stimulating
I have to admit that I approached this book with a skeptical eye. It is “a little precious.” I also admit that some of the stories are over-wrought, like the entry for Iwo Jima. The last lines of this section are a good example: “This image is now part of every battle scene. Three New York firemen raise the flag in the dusty ruins of one September- the summit of Suribachi is reborn on Ground Zero.” However, other more fable-esque pieces use the space to control how we’re feeling. The first piece “Lonely Island” sets the tone with description and imagination. She also has control over each island, the pieces themselves are islands since her space for writing is so limited.

Judith Schalansky conceived, wrote, illustrated and typeset this book. How many authors do that? It’s not to say that collaborative work is weaker by any means. However, the amount of work that went into this piece was tremendous. Don’t know what else to say beyond that. I admire this woman and the achievement in this book.

For me, the greatest aspect of this book is that the literature is fiction. That is, it’s non-fiction but as we say in class— non-fiction is also fiction. It’s art. In her intro she writes, "What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction can no longer be separated: fact is fiction and fiction is turned to fact. That’s why the question whether these stories are ‘true’ is misleading. … I have not invented anything.” That is her main statement about history books and atlases. “…they cannon represent reality, merely one interpretation of it.” In an interview with Spiegel, she gives the impression that she went out looking for happy stories but only found ones of desolation. (Though, I'd argue Pukapuka seemed like a paradise). It's not so much that the stories are factual, but they are truthful, which is the definition of fiction.

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