When Fiction Meets Fact

November 15, 2010

“Paradise is an island.  So is hell.” So opens Judith Schalansky’s new book, Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will, which chronicles the history and geography of fifty miniature continents dotted around the globe.  Each page-spread offers a portrait of an island: a historical vignette paired with a hand-drawn, true-to-scale map.  The vignettes range from fantastical to frightening; the islands have names like Possession and Deception. Schalansky debunks the edenic stereotype often applied to faraway lands, revealing the dystopian realities beneath.  

For these islands, “paradise” is often prison.  Rife with disease, rape, infanticide, and cannibalism, many of the islands function as receptacles for the dark side of human nature.  But despite some heavy content, Schalansky’s portraits are not without whimsy. Meet Lonely Island, near the North Pole, where “a former polar observatory has sunk into the snow and abandoned buildings doze in the belly of the bay.”  Papuka Island, also known as Danger Island, held a nudist colony in the 1920s whose native language contained no word for “virgin.”  Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean, closes its roads during crab migrations.  

In the end, these islands appear more imagined than natural.  Each chapter expands the limits of reality, describing landscapes surreal and unimaginable. As Schalansky puts it:

“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 into fact.”