book it

The armchair Crusoe

(Jennifer Beeson Gregory)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2011

Judith Schalansky, the author of "Atlas of Remote Islands," needed to get away more than most of us: A child of communist East Germany, she could only travel in the coach section of her imagination. She read atlases, studied maps and spun globes, sating her wanderlust with the names of countries, the shapes of landmasses and the squiggly lines drawn by cartographers.

Then the wall came down. She was free to go. But in the case of the islands she describes in her book, she didn't, as we know from the subtitle: "Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will."

Based on her non-travel book, I sense that she doesn't want us to get our feet wet, either. "Anyone who opens an atlas wants everything at once, without limits - the whole world," she writes in the introduction. "This longing will always be great, far greater than any satisfaction to be had by attaining what is desired." Translation: Skip the plane ticket; buy the book instead.

Encased in a hard aquatic-blue cover with a black binding, "Atlas" consists of a collection of islandographies in five oceans. The isles are organized by body of water (the Arctic has the least; the Pacific the most), with each one receiving a two-page spread, plus a portrait of its best sides.

The layout is very orderly and structured, appealing in its sparseness. The left side of the page features the name of the island, sometimes in a melting pot of languages; the size; population or lack thereof; distances from random geographic points; a timeline of seminal events; and a short essay on an illuminating or fanciful or disturbing episode that helped shape the island's character and/or legacy. On the opposite page, a simple sketch illustrates the funky geometry of the land parcel. Names of towns, harbors and other landmarks reveal the print of a human foot, even if it has since faded. Without editorial context, the maps could easily be mistaken for lab slides of amoebas.

Most atlases are dry resources used mainly for planning or proving your friend wrong about his knowledge of the world. By comparison, Schalansky's slender book is more like Gilligan's journal as ghostwritten by the Professor. The author's prose (translated from the German) is poetic and clever, descriptive and dramatic without falling prey to travelogue cliches. Engrossing as a novella, each entry comes complete with characters (from a self-anointed baroness and her two lovers to lascivious bull seals), a plot, conflict, tragedy and the specter of resolution, such as finding the washed-up remains of a fisherman lost at sea (Taongi Atoll in the Pacific) or the victory of the yellow ants over the red crabs on Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean.

Schalansky's anecdotes are so crisply detailed and evocative, one assumes that she conducted her research in person, even time-traveling to witness certain historical events. For example, she writes of Clipperton Atoll in the Pacific: "A dozen scraggy pigs sprawl under the palm trees, descendents of a stranded herd. They eat orange land crabs, of which there are millions on the island. It is not possible to take a step here without treading on a shell. There is a crunching sound when the governor, Capitan Ramon de Arnaud, walks over the island. As always, he is attired in Austrian parade ground uniform, and his wife in an elegant evening gown, with diamonds on her fingers and round her neck." (Spoiler alert: He turns into an immoral monster and the womenfolk smash his face with a hammer before flagging down a ship and escaping.)

To be honest, she didn't really need to have visited the islands. By book's end (Peter I Island, Antarctica), I felt that I had traveled to all 50, my mind's wings tired from all that flapping.

Atlas of

Remote Islands

Fifty Islands I Have Never

Set Foot on and Never Will

by Judith Schalansky

Penguin Group. 143 pp. $28.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company