I’m one of those people who tend to believe that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Chronically restless, I frequently book flights, plan short trips and read travel magazines – but more often I just daydream of road trips, wildlife, and having adventures.
Judith Schalansky’s Atlas der abgelegenen Inseln: 50 Inseln, auf denen ich nie war und niemals sein werde (mare, 2009) is an effective remedy for any travel bug and the perfect book for the dreary post-Christmas bleakness that is the month of January.
After choosing 50 remote islands and researching their history and geography (but without visiting them in person – the central premise of the book), Schalansky wrote a one-page historical vignette and designed a true-to-scale map for each one of them (she is both a writer and a trained graphic designer).
This beautiful and intelligent book makes a strong case for armchair travelling, for what the stories strongly convey is that islands are not only receptacles for dreams and utopia, or testing ground for explorers, scientists and missionaries, but also, and fundamentally, sites of cruelty and violence.
The atlas abounds with tales of incest and rape; of deprivation and isolation; of disease and invasive species; of bleak, barren and infertile landscapes; of shipwreck and mutiny; of disappointment and deception. These characteristics are reflected in the names of some of the islands: Deception Island in the Southern Ocean; Danger Islands in the Pacific Ocean; or Seclusion Island in the Arctic Ocean. Robinsonades aren’t exactly romantic, it turns out.
So set out on an imaginary journey with the Atlas of Remote Islands in hand and the classic of armchair travelling, Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage autour de ma chambre (1794) in mind, and climb Mischief Mountain, before refreshing yourself in the Lost Lake and following the river Styx to the Fortune Rocks – leaving behind Afterworld Ridge, Storm-Petrel Plateau and the Basin of the Thousand Colours (all on Possession Island in the Indian Ocean).