I’m reviewing an atlas today. Perhaps it should count as my first non-fiction title, but I think not. You see, while this is an atlas of real places, with timelines showing major events on each and a wonderful topographic illustration sitting opposite Schalansky’s descriptions, this is, from the very beginning, a book that highlights the problematic ‘truth’ of maps.
In the introduction, ‘Paradise is an island. So is Hell.’ Schalansky talks about her childhood affinity for maps. As a resident of the DDR (East Germany) she didn’t have the opportunity of travel, and so walked the world with her fingertips. After reunification, she talks about encountering an old West German atlas in school:
The first atlas in my life was called Atlas Fur Jedermann (Everyman’s Atlas). I didn’t realise then that my atlas – like every other – was committed to an ideology. Its ideology was clear from its map of the world, carefully positioned on a double-page spread so that the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic fell on two separate pages. On this map there was no wall dividing the two German countries, no Iron Curtain; instead there was the blinding white, impassable edge of the page. […]
Ever since then, I have not trusted political world maps, in which countries float on the blue oceans like vivid scarves. They grow out of date quickly and give barely any information apart from who is currently running which scrap of colour.
Maps tell us much more when they do not divide nature into nations; when they allow it to form the basis of comparison across all the borders made by man. In physical topography, land masses glow in the dark green of lowland plains, the reddish brown of mountains or the glacial white of the polar regions, and the seas gleam in every possible shade of blue, quite untouched by the course of history.
It is this stance that prevented me from quite loving this book, which is a beautiful object full of wonderful vignettes. Of course the world is touched by human history, and borders must be recorded – if only for the people living within them to be able to place themselves. I see that she is fundamentally against this. That she dreams of a world without borders. It is a utopian idea – against the dictates of nationalism, which I can completely understand as a German she is wary of. But even so, she contradicts herself. Every island she describes is owned by a particular nation, and this she records at the top of the page. Its name in various languages, and who it belongs to, and who first discovered it. She could have left this information off, and the book would not have suffered.
I suppose she is acknowledging the reality of conquest and colonisation while resisting it, through the focus on islands, who have their natural borders defined forever. Still, it sits unsteadily with me. A retreat from a political engagement. A deliberate limiting, marooning.
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 to fact.
That’s why the question of whether these stories are ‘true’ is misleading. All text in the book is based on extensive research and every detail stems from factual sources. I have not altered anything. However I was the discoverer of the sources, researching them through ancient and rare books and i have transformed the texts and appropriated them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover.
She had me for the first two sentences. An island is a stage. Stories to congregate, singular images become distinct entities and take on elements of folklore. But then she says fact cannot be separated from fiction. If this is true on an island, then it is true everywhere. Everywhere that people are, the truth is hard to get at. History is always manipulated. And yet earlier this appeared to be something she wanted to get away from. The deliberate proclamation of herself as ‘chief fact finder/maker’ (which is it?) is something that bothers me.
This is a beautifully put together book, with wonderful descriptive passages (one that sticks out is the tale of Henry Eld on Macquarie Island (Australia) in the Pacific Ocean, disappearing into a tremendous crowd of penguins). I will continue to come back to these, to dance my fingers over the beautiful maps. But reading this will always be problematic, because of Schalansky’s introduction.