October 7, 2011 by markstani
When I was young I had a small globe I used to spin and dream of trips to far-flung lands. The place I dreamed of most was Chad: with its geographical position slap-bang in the heart of Africa and its pleasant light green hue, it promised both political power and fertile soil: out there, somewhere, a real-life land of plenty.
I’m still obsessed with going to Chad. Even a touch-down at N’Djamena airport would be enough (and probably wisest). I’ve read all about its despotic rulers and shrinking lake. I know it never enters World Cups. I know it’s got a bit of a problem with the Sudanese. I know the nearest Chadian Embassy to the UK is in Belgium, and I know you can fly direct with Air France from Paris. I dream of exiting customs, planting my feet firmly on the edge of a hot, deserted, dusty highway and thinking: what on earth now?
Judith Schalansky’s contention is that I should let it stay that way: a dream. In the introduction to her Atlas Of Remote Islands – sub-headed ‘fifty islands I have not visited and never will’ – Schalansky writes: ‘Anyone who opens an Atlas wants everything at ones, without limits – the whole world. This longing will always be great, far greater than any satisfaction to be had by attaining what is desired.’
The conceit for Schalansky’s book, published originally in German and translated into English for Penguin, is both blatant and brilliant: a travel book about places that will always be off-limits. Of the fifty islands featured, many are uninhabited, others home to a remaining handful of hardy souls: all, though so small, possess mountainous histories.
Schalansky’s venture is lent added poignancy by her childhood growing up on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. Poring over atlases was her one means of escape: ‘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.’ Thanks to Robinson Crusoe and Fletcher Christian, desert islands have always been served up as stereotypical Utopian paradises, where food and fresh water and happy, scantily-clad natives abound. The narrative snapshots presented by Schalansky alongside the beautifully detailed maps of each island are designed, it seems, to shatter that myth.
There are stories of shipwrecks and castaways, right enough, but most fall short of Tom Hanks-Hollywood endings. The Disappointment Islands in French Polynesia are so named because a boat of starving sailors led by Ferdinand Magellan, jubilant at making land after fifty days drifting at sea, eating soaked leather mast-straps to survive, discover precious little to satisfy their hunger or thirst. When a French slave ship runs aground on the Indian Ocean island of Tromelin, less than one kilometre square, in 1760, the slaves are the only ones to survive, left to consider their fate: ‘they are free, but trapped as never before, slaves now to their desire to survive.’ Fifteen years later, the remaining seven women and a baby are rescued by a passing ship.
But while the tales of tragedy and hardship in ‘Atlas Of Remote Islands’ bring home the fragility of human existence, they do not quench the thirst for adventure, nor do they shatter the inherent romanticism of the distant voyage. On the contrary, they impel you, from the safety of your armchair, to set out from the harbour and see what you can find. One day, some day, if I do indeed find myself stood on that dusty highway in powerful, fertile, thoroughly landlocked Chad, I’ll have Judith Schalansky to thank for it.