Fifty islands I have not visited and never will

This is the subtitle to Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands. I discovered it eleven years late, because this year Marko Niemi translated it into Finnish. I ordered the German original straight away and despite the pandemic it arrived promptly by post.

It was the perfect book to read in lockdown, or in my case, in a summer cottage a few hours drive away that you had finally made it to after months of being stuck at home, but in the full knowledge that travel abroad remains a distant dream. This is a feeling the author, Judith Schalansky, understands, as she was born in 1980 in the then German Democratic Republic, almost a decade before the Berlin Wall came down. I love her work in general, not only because she puts together titbits of knowledge from an extraordinarily wide range of fields from geology to history, but because she knows how important the visual and physical object of a book is. In her books the fonts fit, the paper is weighty, the line drawings are fine.

The islands she writes about are tiny dots in the middle of vast oceans. There’s the one where Amelia Earhart landed to refuel on a round-the-world flight. After which, she was never seen again… There’s the one where the people know that they only have enough land and food for so many; when food gets low, they simply swim out to sea to give their lives so the others can live. There’s the one that, every November, is covered in a hundred million red crabs making their way down to the sea. There’s the one on which sixty enslaved people were shipwrecked for two months and miraculously, seven survived. This is an atlasful of stories, some terrible, all strange.

In English translation by Christine Lo, Penguin has produced a pocket edition – like a mini London A–Z, it could be handy to take with you around the world I suppose. But my German original published by Mare is big and beautiful. And the Finnish edition is by Poesia, who also produce gorgeous volumes. This is a book to pore over and return to again and again. Until you visit one of those fifty islands. Maybe one day, you really will.

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Posted in books, history, Illustration, translation

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