Matt Leibel: The Last Book I Loved, Atlas of Remote Islands

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Maps, at their best, are more than representations of the world. They are worlds unto themselves—endlessly explorable, enigmatic, complicated, and alive. I remember the first globe I owned as a kid. I liked to spin it on its axis, as hard as I could, as if it were the big-money wheel from some cheesy game show, Wheel of Fortune or The Price is Right. I’d close my eyes, place my index finger on a random spot and imagine winning a trip to wherever my finger ended up when the spinning stopped. Which, more often than not, was the middle of an ocean, or some distant, exotically-named island the size of a pencil dot—Midway, Guadeloupe, Reunion, Mauritius, Cape Verde, Kiribati, Tuvalu…

Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will is a time machine that sends me hurtling back into the vivid heart of those childhood cartographic dreams. Straddling the line between real-world scientific representation and pure poetic license, this book uses islands to explore ideas, myths, and strangely enough—despite the sparse or non-existent populations of its subjects—people. Schalansky’s thoughtful intro makes clear her ambitious intentions: “It is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts, and for the atlas to be recognized as literature…” She’s laying her cards on the table here: each island’s backstory is going to come from her research, sure, but it’s also going to be a little fabulist, a little weird, a little factually murky (deliberately so, like say, certain works of “creative nonfiction,” or the exhibitions on display at the Museum of Jurassic Technology), a little Borges-inflected, a little Calvino’ed up.

Schalansky shows us a map of St. Kilda and then tells us that the island “doesn’t exist” but is instead “just a faint cry made by the birds that make their home on the high cliffs at the furthest edge of the United Kingdom.” On Pukapuka, there is no word for “virgin” and no such thing as jealousy. On Pingelap, colorblindness is so rampant that “even the pigs are black and white.” Atlasov, in the North Kuril Islands, is a “single lonely mountain” that “towered so high in the sky that it blocked the light from the neighboring mountains,” who then became envious, and forced the forlorn volcano out into the sea.

We get nuclear test islands, islands where the natives have been displaced for a golf course, “skeletons of ships in a sea of penguins,” Charles Darwin, Amelia Earhart and Robinson Crusoe. These islands are remote but beautiful as rendered in these small, enigmatic maps. The writing here has a similarly remote beauty, as it hovers between the clear and real and the otherworldly. If an atlas is to be literature, then it’s the geography itself, the landscapes, perhaps, that must bear the burden of character. And surprisingly enough, these obscure outposts as described by Schalansky quite often feel like well-formed characters, each with their own unique physicality, distinctive personalities, and complicated histories.

Most of the tiny outposts mapped and imagined here—often rocky and craggy, icy and uninhabitable (many sound like prison colonies and some, like Norfolk Island, actually were)—are not exactly the sort of places I would be ecstatic to win an all-expenses-paid trip to from Bob Barker during the “Showcase Showdown.” Nevertheless, they are places, as this Atlas reminds me, that make this planet more odd and more fascinating. They also make it seem less lonely, somehow. As the district chief of the tiny Indian Ocean research station of Amsterdam Island tells his fellow researchers, “There is no such thing as isolation. Even on Amsterdam Island, we are cogs in a huge wheel; here too, we receive signals that tell us who we are.”


Matt Leibel is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. His fiction has appeared recently in places like Hobart, Kill Author, Redivider, and Carolina Quarterly. He hopes to travel to some medium-sized islands soon, and meanwhile can be found online at web.mac.com/mattleibel. More from this author →