Saturday, March 31, 2018

Hostile Shores

The scope of the portfolio I’ve assigned to this blog is quite broad.  This post presses even those generous limits.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest opens aboard a boat with a ferocious storm threatening to sink the vessel.  One of the passengers, Gonzalo, “an honest old councilor,” speaks into the wind:
Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an acre of barren ground – long heath, brown furze, anything.  The wills above be done, but I would fain die a dry death.
(Act I, Scene 1)
For him, a dry death even on a barren bit of land, a hostile island, is preferable to drowning.  Though that fate does not await Gonzalo (he and the others on board are miraculously brought alive to an island of threatening magic and mystery), his words amid the raging storm lay out our stark choice – escape the dire reality of the present for an island, any island, nothing Eden-like, just something solid and dry.  We should be very careful what we wish for.

Set aside the image of a beautiful and lush island with white sandy beaches that immediately arises with the word island, say a Guadeloupe or a Bermuda.  Rather, conjure up another mental picture, this one of a barren, very, very isolated tiny dot of land, perhaps with sharp steep volcanic cliffs, lapped by a rough sea that stretches away in all directions with other land, other people impossibly far away.  There, that’s the kind of island that populates Judith Schalansky’s curiously wonderful and wonderfully idiosyncratic book, Atlas of Remote Islands:  Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will (2009).

Remote is the hallmark of all of these islands as is unforgiving.  On some, people have lived or are living out their lives, amid a terrain sometimes offering a stark beauty but in nearly every case inimical to their mental and physical well being.  Some of these places are volcanic in origin, others the product of reef building by coral.  Some are blindingly hot, others are covered in ice.

The atlas offers a single-page entry for each of these islands with a facing map that sets the island in a broad sea of very pale blue.  Schalansky does not give the reader a straight forward description of each island nor an account of its history, rather she almost always tells some story of a human encounter with this place which creates an indelible image of the island and usually leaves the reader moved by the fate of those people.

Among the islands covered in this atlas are a few familiar ones, such as St. Helena, Easter Island, Iwo Jima, Pitcairn, and Howland Island.  But most are new to me, such as currently uninhabited Cocos Island, out in the Pacific, 550 kilometers from Costa Rica to which it belongs.  Schalansky devotes the entry for this little island to the story of August Gissler who, convinced by various maps that pirate and Spanish treasure is buried somewhere in its 24 square kilometers, spends 16 years of his life digging holes.
To search is more blessed than to find, Gissler thinks.  Every empty hole is only proof that the treasure must be somewhere else . . . .  When he finally leaves the island, in 1905, he has dug so any holes that his beard reaches to his knees.  All he has found are thirty gold pieces and one golden glove.  Shortly before his death in New York on 8 August 1935, he is still saying, I’m sure there is great treasure in the island.  But it will take a lot of time and money to unearth it.  If I were young, I would start again from the beginning.  (p. 120)
And that sad story is among the happier in the volume.  At least Gissler survived his encounter with the island.

For Schalansky, Tromelin, a French island in the Indian Ocean, offers a grimmer tale of death though leavened a bit by a small number of survivors.  Hit by a storm, the East India Company ship, the Utile, carrying 60 slaves among its “cargo,” is wrecked on Tromelin (a dollop of sand with a few palm trees, it is known at that time as “Sand Island”).  It is July, 1761.  With the wreckage, the survivors build a boat, but only the French sailors sail away (to some unknown fate).  The slaves “are free, but trapped as never before, slaves now to their desire to survive.”  Fifteen years later, the pitifully few survivors, seven women and a baby, are rescued by the French corvette Le Dauphin, whose captain is the Chevalier de Tromelin.  This reader wonders about the ultimate fate of those few survivors.

Her piece on the South Atlantic’s Tristan da Cunha, the most remote of all populated islands in the world, speaks to one impulse for journeying to a remote island.  Here she writes about the 20th century German writer Arno Schmidt, who saw in the egalitarian social and economic structure established early in Tristan da Cunha’s history, a template for the fictional island described in the massive, 18th century utopian novel Die Insel Felsenburg, a novel with which he was obsessed.  She describes Schmidt as seeking to relocate to Tristan in an effort to recreate Felsenburg, a move he never made.  As she describes Schmidt’s attraction to the island, she alludes to some of its history and muses about the attraction of utopias:
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. . . . Those who have failed in the larger world are always best suited to life in utopia.  A new beginning, a fundamentally better life, another ‘I’ is possible.  (p. 48)
But the searched-for utopia is never realized.

For Tristan da Cunha, at least, I have to take issue with Schalansky because she leaves the reader in too dark a place.  Yes, the history of Tristan is one of struggle against the island and sometimes against fellow human beings.  But this place has its attractions and it is actually one of those “unknown” islands about which I know a fair amount.  I collect the stamps of this dependency of St. Helena, a British Overseas Territory, and have purchased some of its fine wool.  Though I can communicate with the island over the web, its isolation, even today, is quite real.  The mailing of products is dependent upon the vagaries of the schedules of visiting ships which arrive and take aboard accumulated mail that will be carried to South Africa.  In one of my orders from Tristan, came a small stone from the island, pumice, I believe, for this island is an active volcano.  In 1961, the entire population of over 250 was evacuated to England in the face of eruptions and only allowed to return two years later.  The inhabitants are limited to living on a narrow strip of arable land at the foot of the volcano, but despair does not mark their existence.  They are surrounded by a unique flora and fauna, and by a beautiful landscape, small as it is, captured here in one artist’s views:

Throughout this atlas, the trials and tribulations of the people who come to these remote, unforgiving places are the main event, the central stories, but natural history, mostly geology, makes frequent appearances.  To the best of my recollection, fossils appear only once in the atlas, in the entry for Russia’s uninhabited Lonely Island, or as it’s called in Russian Ostrov Uyedineniya.  Schalansky’s entry for this place, which sits in the Arctic Sea, is mostly about the brutally cold weather (average winter temperature of -16 degrees Celsius and summer highs hardly above freezing) and about the weather station that was shelled by the Germans in WWII, rebuilt during the Cold War, and then abandoned in 1996.  Though sinking into the snow, the buildings with their furnishings and equipment are preserved in this deep freeze.  Schalansky notes in the timeline for the island that here a cervical vertebra of a plesiosaur, an ancient marine reptile, was discovered.  In the entry proper, she writes, “A prehistoric dragon’s skeleton was found here.”  Fanciful.  According to the Paleobiology Database, P.V. Wittenburg collected a vertebra of a Plesiosaurus latispinuin in 1936 from a formation dated to the Cretaceous Period’s Aptian Age (125.5 to 112.6 million years ago).

How did Schalansky come to write this beautiful volume about places often terrible and frightening?  She grew up in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and it was through atlases that she traveled the world and had imaginary adventures.  These were journeys she felt, no, she knew she could never undertake in reality.  With Germany’s reunification, Schalansky found
it suddenly became possible to travel the world, and the country I was born in disappeared from the map.  But by then I had already grown used to travelling through the atlas by finger, whispering foreign names to myself as I conquered distant worlds in my parents’ sitting room.  (p. 8)
That begs the question of why her focus is on these mostly forsaken places.  Islands, she posits, are “natural prisons” set off by the sea.  They inspire “horror” in their few visitors who fear that “they might be left behind.”  Indeed, “peaceful living is the exception rather than the rule on a small piece of land . . . .” (p. 19).  It’s these very aspects of islands that Schalansky knows make them the best setting for stories:
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. (p. 20)
Translated by Christine Lo from the original German into English, the prose in this volume is breathtaking.  I assume the original text is as flowing and literary; if not, more praise for translator Lo.

But, fair warning, were the atlas to be read cover to cover, the darkness of human trials on these islands would be too much to bear.  I dip in, read a story, trace the outline of an island with a finger, ponder the names on the map (who?  why?), and give thanks for what I have.

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