August 14: Judith Schalansky, "Atlas of Remote Islands"

As we’ve seen this week, island-based writers have often drawn connections with islands elsewhere, imaginatively crossing vast differences of time and space. Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands (2009) goes so far as literally to draw an entire atlas of islands, each of them given a short description -- really, a prose poem -- on the facing page. Each entry is headed with a selective timeline and a set of distances to other far-away places, together with a thumbnail hemispheric sketch to show the island’s location. Schalansky meticulously drew each island to the same scale of 1:125,000, and as a result some islands crowd the margins of her oversize pages, while others are lost in a sea of blue:

     Christmas island     St Kilda

Both in its overall project and in the predominant melancholy of its descriptions, the Atlas has a good deal in common with Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which we visited in our fourth week, though in place of invisible cities Schalansky gives us unvisited islands. As her subtitle announces, these are

Fifty Islands

I Have Never Set Foot On

and Never Will

In a preface, Schalansky says that “miniature worlds are created on these small continents,” and her prose poems in turn are miniature epics, typically based in some document that she has uncovered in her library in Berlin and then imbued with a poet-novelist’s vision.

Her preface is entitled “Paradise is an island. So is hell.” She writes about the double nature of distant islands, which people have often thought of as “the perfect place for utopian experiments” (here we can think of More’s Utopia itself) and as “paradise on earth.” As she says, “Revolutions break out on ships, and utopias are lived on islands. It is comforting to think that there must be something more than the here and now.” Yet once they’ve actually made landfall, explorers have often found these Edens to be barren and inhospitable. Schalansky is drawn to such stark islands and the stories that unfold on them, though she does occasionally evoke the Edenic side of the island experience. For the South Pacific island of Pukapuka, she describes an American settler, Robert Dean Frisbie, sitting on the veranda of his small store:

Suddenly a neighbor runs up to him, completely naked, wet from bathing, her hair plastered to her golden skin. She is out of breath, and her breasts rise and fall as she asks for a bottle of something. Frisbie quickly passes her what she wants, and as she disappears into the dusk he stares after her for a long time, strangely moved. Although he has lived here for years now, he has still not got used to the nudity. In this respect, he is still the boy from Cleveland who could never have imagined the freedom here.

As Schalansky drily ends her account: “In these matters, Pukapuka certainly has the edge over Cleveland, Robert Dean Frisbie thinks, as he puts out his verandah light.”

Here Schalansky is building on a published source, evidently one of several books that Frisbie wrote about his life in the South Seas, starting with The Book of Puka-Puka: A Lone Trader on a South Sea Atoll (1929). He and his native wife Ngatokorua had five children; one of them, Florence, also became a writer. Her first book, written at age thirteen in a mixture of English, Rarotongan, and Pukapukan, tells the story of her family's life in the South Seas. Translatd by her father, it was published by Macmillan in 1948. Remarkably for our Ulyssean theme this week, it's entitled Miss Ulysses from Puka-Puka. Here Frisbie proudly shows the young author her book:

            Florence Frisbie       Miss Ulysses

"When I think of the past," she writes, "I often think of myself as a sort of Miss Ulysses, wandering from island to island in the Aegean sea. . . . and I find myself explaining things by some story in Homer." Like Derek Walcott after her, she finds her own Calypso, Lotus Eaters, and Sirens on her South Sea atolls.

You really can’t make this stuff up, and Schalansky didn’t. Not that Schalansky mentions Miss Ulysses, or even Frisbie’s books, but her quirky, suggestive commentary can tempt you to explore an island beyond whatever inlet or episode she chooses to showcase. A good example is Pitcairn Island, famous for the mutiny that led the sailors of HMS Bounty to settle there in 1790 after they’d set Captain Bligh adrift in a small boat. Schalansky begins by describing the island’s protective isolation (“There is no better hiding place than this island, far off the trading routes and marked in the wrong position on the admiralty charts”), and the thumbnail sketch of its location shows Pitcairn as a tiny dot in the middle of a world of water, with the earth’s continents barely visible around the fringes of the Pacific:


Yet instead of telling us much about the early settlement, Schalansky veers off into describing Marlon Brando’s visit for the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty. Her account concludes: “The glittering curtains swish together and the most expensive film of all time comes to an end. But the island’s story is far from its end.” It takes a sharp-eyed reader to discern just what this unfinished story may be, but if you look closely at the timeline for Pitcairn, you’ll see a surprising final item: 2002-5: rape trial.

Schalansky says nothing about this trial, at which a majority of the island’s able-bodied men were convicted of multiple rapes of underage girls. Their defense was that as descendants of mutineers, they weren’t subject to British law, and they’d always considered that 12 was the age of consent. The jury assembled from New Zealand wasn’t persuaded, partly because some of the victims were even younger; one was five years old. This is a story that Schalansky has left off the map, leaving just the single trace on the timeline.

Atlas of Remote Islands thus hints at explorations we can continue beyond its pages, but the very incompleteness of Schalansky’s descriptions suits her world of islands, fragments of land that engender fragmentary tales. In her preface, she says that “there is no untouched garden of Eden lying at the edges of this never-ending globe. Instead, human beings travelling far and wide have turned into the very monsters they chased off the maps.” But she adds:

It is, however, the most terrible events that have the greatest potential to tell a story, and islands make the perfect setting for them. The absurdity of reality is lost on the large land masses, but here on the islands, it is writ large. An island offers 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. 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.

This transformation is well illustrated with Robinson Crusoe Island, located off the coast of Chile. From 1704-8, a Scottish buccaneer named Alexander Selkirk was stranded on the island then called Isla Más a Tierra (“closer to land,” to distinguish it from a neighbor farther out). He published an account of his adventures, which Daniel Defoe used as the basis for his pioneering novel Robinson Crusoe. As Schalansky says, “The pirate Selkirk becomes the plantation owner Crusoe who constantly struggles with a restless desire to travel to distant lands, but as soon as he achieves this, yearns for his homeland.” Now the island itself has been renamed, in honor not of the historical Selkirk but of Defoe’s fictional version of him.

Defoe’s novel spawned an entire genre of “Robinsons,” most famously Johann Weiss’s Der Schweizerische Robinson (Swiss Family Robinson, 1812), whose hero isn’t even named Robinson; instead, he is the Swiss Robinson. The name continues to grace more than one island. Some years ago, I gave a talk on Derek Walcott at a conference on African diasporas held on Guadeloupe. A five-minute boat ride from the town of Gosier is the little “Ilet de Gosier.” The islet is a popular destination for devotees of its bar, “Ti’ Robinson” (Little Robinson), whose Creolized name can appeal both to Anglophone readers of Robinson Crusoe and to European admirers of Weiss’s Swiss Robinsons, as well as to locals who may go more for the rum than for the literary associations.


As one Tripadvisor reviewer says, in Creole, Ti’ Robinson offers “Wepas twès bon, alcool au bon degwé. Cadwe magnifiqwe, twès bon accueil. Twanquille donc no stwess. Nous wecommandons.” As the online Caribbean Journal says, the Ilet du Gosier offers “an island oasis in Guadeloupe,” an escape from “the mainland” of Guadeloupe. Every desert island, it seems, needs a desert island of its own.

Most relevant of all for our present purposes is Schalansky’s account of Possession Island, in the middle of the Indian Ocean:

In 1962, the French name their first mission to the northernmost massif after the greatest engineer of fantasy their country has ever produced. Today, a precipitous mountain range on the island of Possession and a crater on the far side of the moon -- both just the kind of places that he might have travelled to on his extraordinary journeys -- bear the name of Jules Verne.

She warns that “Jules Verne’s mysterious island is far away, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, and this is a most inhospitable place for any aspiring Robinson Crusoes.” But then again, Schalansky has taken us there without ever leaving Berlin -- Around the World in 50 Islands, so to say. She clearly feels a special affinity for Verne, whose novels she describes as “daydreams for everyday use, atlases for those who stay at home.” No better way to travel, at least just now. No stwess.