This book caught my eye a few years ago in the Harvard Bookstore. I wasn’t at the time acquiring books, since we’d been moving so much, so I wrote down the title in Evernote on my phone and promptly forgot about it. This spring, as I was trying to clean out some stuff from my phone hoping to squeeze another few months of life out of it, I came across the note and remembered being intrigued by the subtitle: Fifty Islands I have Never Set Foot On and Never Will. I’ve long been intrigued by cartography as an art form, and the presentation of this book is absolutely stunning, tickling my interest in the book as an art object in an increasingly digitized world. And of course its translated.
The concept is fascinating: each island is drawn in exquisite detail in black, white, and orange (for cities and roads) and stranded on an expanse of pale blue. The layout evokes the isolation, the constant threat of the ocean. On the facing page is a small bit of factual information about the island: size, population, name, language, latitude & longitude, distances from three nearest land masses, and a timeline of its discovery. Below that is the text of the book, a single paragraph telling the story of a single aspect of the island. It is brief, clipped almost, and highly poetic prose that sometimes borders on cliché (“feathered tribe” for example) and I wonder about the translator striking that balance between accessibly poetic and trite. Though the language can get saccharine (an unusual problem in my experience of translations from German, so something I definitely wondered about) the facts are exquisitely chosen.
In some cases she focuses on the people, or a person: a horrifying historical event (hundreds of babies dying of tetanus), or something so surreal as to be unbelievable (Marc Liblin learning Rapa in his dreams as a six year old living in France). Sometimes its an environmental disaster, or surprising geographical feature. Very few are unremarkable – like most books intended for a mass market audience the pieces are dense with sensationalism disguised as fact. And some of these stories are easily verified by internet searching (the tetanus epidemic), and the sensationalism of the telling becomes quickly justified. But others, like the Marc Liblin story, is more or less unverifiable.
As a proponent of lying in creative non-fiction it doesn’t trouble me too much. The idea is the more important thing, and stories can have an emotional truth without having a journalistic truth. She asserts as much in the introduction:
“That’s why the question whether these stories are ‘true’ is misleading. All text in the book is based on extensive research and every detail stems from factual sources. I have not invented anything. However I was the discoverer of the sources, researching them through ancient and rare books and I have transformed the texts and appropriated them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover.” (20)
Of course the Marc Liblin story takes place in the 1960s, so sources would not have been in “ancient and rare books,” and yet the only hits from a google search are other reviews of this book. So what. The story has all the resonance of a Borges story, and for that reason I accept it as an imaginative truth if nothing else.
The book is immensely pleasurable, and engages also in a cultural and environmental critique. Focusing on the cruelty of humans to one another, the extremes of cruelty made possible or exaggerated by the extreme isolation of their setting, she asks us to consider the legacy of exploration, of scientific discovery, and of conquest. Used to thinking of discovery as exclusively positive, and essentially neutral (gathering knowledge for all of humanity!) its startling to be so flatly confronted with the consequences of these acts. Driving species to extinction, or even merely “collecting” specimens by killing adult birds, capturing young and unborn birds, polluting entire self-contained ecosystems, and irradiating entire islands through weapons testing. The human consequences are equally devastating: displacing entire native populations, rape and murder abound. This is the legacy of exploration. As her introduction declares: “Paradise is an island. So is hell.”