I’ve always loved maps. As a kid, I always wanted to be the navigator on car trips, map in lap. When I owned fourty-acres of land in Maine, I made sure to search out a topo map of the land and spent many pleasurable hours hiking the area. With my canoe, I had several maps of lakes in Maine and Vermont, complete with depth charts. Now, I often find myself reading a book with Google Maps opened up. And don’t even get me started on Google Earth. So when I saw this book reviewed somewhere, I knew I needed to check it out – literally. From the library. And a beautifully designed book it is. Elegantly layed out with maps of fifty island, with a short commentary on the facing page.
There’s a nice preface. And Schalansky writes of that vertiginous feeling (familiar to me) of contemplating why are people born where they were? How did that happen? What if…And the book is broken down into islands of Arctic Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and Antarctic Ocean. Below, I’ll pick my favorites from each section. The commentaries are sometimes historical – telling a story, and oft-times lyrical, even poetic. Author Schalansky (an East German) has a reverence for maps as well. But not political maps.
I have not trusted political maps, in which countries float on the blue ocean like vivid scarves. They grow out of date quickly and give barely any information apart from who is currently running which scrap of color.
Later, she notes that
Mapmaking follows on the heels of discovery; and a new place is born with a new name. This foreign land is both occupied and possessed, and the act of conquering it is repeated in the map. Only when a place has been precisely located and measured can it be actual and real. Every map is the result and the exercise of colonial violence.
And she writes with this in mind
It is 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 theater of the world.
In Bear Island (9 residents) the birds of the island are described, captured by the ‘bird baron’. The party (1898) shoots a rare bird for a specimen purposes. “While they size up their prize, a flock of gulls devours the remains of a whale carcass on the beach.”
Shipwrecked on this island, the survivors are rescued after fifteen years. “They leave nothing behind on Sand Island apart from the charred wood of their dead fire and the name of their savior, an officer of the French Royal Navy, the captain of the corvette: the Chevakier de Tromelin.”
PACIFIC OCEAN (This section has several tales of islands of literature)
This appears to be a true story. A six year old boy is taught a foreign language in his dreams. Marc Liblin soon speaks the language fluently, but no one has ever heard it before. By happenstance he meets a Polynesian woman who speaks the language. “Marc Liblin, who has never been outside Europe, marries the only woman who understands him…”
“The whale skeletons show white against the dark sand, the water is red with blood and the stench of rotting flesh fills the air. Thousands of plundered bodies decompose in thee crater’s overflowing pond.”