Tuesday, April 5, 2011

This Is Way Better Than Everything Else So Far

Schalanky’s cover is uncluttered, clean, a little tense but for the relief of the gray silhouette of an island. The dab of orange in the penguin logo at the far bottom corner prepares us only a little for the expanse of global orange inside the bindings. The effect is exciting. Schalansky designed “Atlas of Remote Islands” and typeset it herself. The design, which is perfectly and inevitably deliberate, will put you in mind of a text book, but a more artful than any textbook you were ever issued. The kind of textbook that you imagine brilliant and talented children read in their father’s studies. It is raining. Dust stings their palms. The book is colorful and arid enough to evoke some nostalgia for what a better childhood might have been like. A childhood where the maps’ paper smelled of sea salt and your brother didn’t spit pennies at you.

Maybe it’s only the kind of childhood that you can imagine in adulthood, when you know what elegance can be, how quiet actual romance is. This is a book that so seduces you with its cover and endpaper that you’ll dwell on the relative blankness of the title page. I can only describe Schalansky’s use of blue and orange as incredibly satisfying. It makes me wish I knew more about colors, knew better names than just blue and orange. I’ll try: The blue is like a robin’s egg, but darker, so maybe the robin was sick or under a lot of stress.

Seriously, everything about the design is perfectly aged and perfectly new. The book is the marriage of Robinson Crusoe and The Life Aquatic. It brings perfect form to something I’ve always wanted to see but didn’t quite know it yet. This is where Schalansky’s essaying starts, in the artfulness of the design. She says in her introduction that “it’s high time for cartography to take its place among the arts, and for the atlas to be recognized as literature, for it is more than worthy of its original name: theatrum orbis terrarum, the theatre of the world.” She describes cartography with quill strokes that were “so perfect that it seemed barely possible it could have been made by a human hand.” Schalansky has replicated these kinds of strokes and put them in the proper context, framed them as they ought to be framed: as I imagine you would find them if they were done by a masterful cartographer. After her preface, the format of the book is incredibly simple: we spend one page of text and one page of map on each of the fifty islands, three of which are in the Arctic Ocean, nine in the Atlantic, seven in the Indian, twenty-seven in the Pacific, and four in the Antarctic. We are not plied with information. Each entry has the island’s coordinates, the island’s position on a very helpful globe, three line graphs which situate the island in relationship to other places, and finally, a sparse timeline of the island’s history which, very often, efficiently helps us read the island’s story by acting as something of a key. We might learn the year. Or the truth about what’s plaguing the island’s inhabitants.

As with all good literature, this is a book executed with deadly seriousness but with no real day-to-day utility in mind. Thankfully, Schalansky has put together the most impractical of atlases. The atlas and the island here are a stage: “Everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature.” On the stage of the island, we hear stories of abandoned research stations, messages in bottles, pirate radio, nuclear bombs, ufos, the history of nature science. All the ecstasy and brutality of the human condition can play out: there are siren songs and consequence-less sex, mutiny, exiled conquerors, murder. As made explicit by the title of her preface, the island is both paradise and hell. Like the Garden of Eden, its inhabitants are made powerful by both beauty and their ability to suffer. Infants throats seize shut; others are laid face down to die; men are pecked to death by penguins. Some of these islands are given names from mythological traditions, science fiction, explorers, vessels, kings. The island, Schalanksy suggests, is potent because something about it remains unknowable, haunted. Imprisoned by the expanse of the ocean, our better angels and the monsters we harbor tread too closely to one another for violence to stay in abeyance.

This stuff had never occurred to me until I read this book. It is a good book. Some of the islands’ entries are expository, some are narrative, all of them are elliptical and evocative. We often open to a scene: bloody footprints in the snow; antennae stretch into the sky; Bonapartists demand a whole fleet for their emperor; a slave ship runs aground. Regardless of the scope of the island’s story, the prose remains big, atmospheric, incorporating the details Schalanksy’s original research and putting them into mythological relief: an entry on neonatal relief ends with a newborn “lifted high into the air;” boats are found empty of their crew thousands of miles from their harbors of berth; mermaid-like sea cows are hunted to extinction; whole mountains move for heartbreak. Schalanksy writes that the fact and the fiction of the tales cannot be separated—the details that compose the stories are real, but the stories themselves become much larger than details, because in the best kind of storytelling, actual experience is transferred. She tells us that “the act of looking at [maps] can replace the act of travel.” And for these maps, this rings true: Schalansky creates a stage where not only can we feel the physicality of the islands, but we begin to sense how unknowable they are. These are small continents and the size of their history crashes down on us like the ocean that surrounds them.

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