The arm­chair Cru­soe

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY AN­DREA SACHS sachsa@wash­post.com

Ju­dith Scha­lan­sky, the author of “At­las of Re­mote Is­lands,” needed to get away more than most of us: A child of com­mu­nist East Ger­many, she could only travel in the coach sec­tion of her imag­i­na­tion. She read at­lases, stud­ied maps and spun globes, sat­ing her wanderlust with the names of coun­tries, the shapes of land­masses and the squig­gly lines drawn by car­tog­ra­phers.

Then the wall came down. She was free to go. Butin the case of the is­lands she de­scribes in her book, she didn’t, as we know from the sub­ti­tle: “Fifty Is­lands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will.”

Based on her non-travel book, I sense that she doesn’t want us to get our feet wet, ei­ther. “Any­one who opens an at­las wants ev­ery­thing at once, with­out lim­its— the whole world,” she writes in the in­tro­duc­tion. “ This long­ing will al­ways be great, far greater than any sat­is­fac­tion to be had by at­tain­ing what is de­sired.” Trans­la­tion: Skip the plane ticket; buy the book in­stead.

En­cased in a hard aquatic-blue cover with a black bind­ing, “At­las” con­sists of a col­lec­tion of is­lando gra­phies in five oceans. The isles are or­ga­nized by body of wa­ter (the Arc­tic has the least; the Pa­cific the most), with each one re­ceiv­ing a two-page spread, plus a por­trait of its best sides.

The lay­out is very or­derly and struc­tured, ap­peal­ing in its sparse­ness. The left side of the page fea­tures the name of the is­land, some­times in a melt­ing pot of lan­guages; the size; pop­u­la­tion or lack thereof; dis­tances from ran­dom geo­graphic points; a time­line of sem­i­nal events; and a short es­say on an il­lu­mi­nat­ing or fan­ci­ful or dis­turb­ing episode that helped shape the is­land’s char­ac­ter and/or legacy. On the op­po­site page, a sim­ple sketch il­lus­trates the funky ge­om­e­try of the land par­cel. Names of towns, har­bors and other land­marks re­veal the print of a hu­man foot, even if it has since faded. With­out ed­i­to­rial con­text, the maps could eas­ily be mis­taken for lab slides of amoe­bas.

Most at­lases are dry re­sources used mainly for plan­ning or prov­ing your friend wrong about his knowl­edge of the world. By com­par­i­son, Scha­lan­sky’s slen­der book is more like Gil­li­gan’s jour­nal as ghost­writ­ten by the Pro­fes­sor. The author’s prose (trans­lated from the Ger­man) is po­etic and clever, de­scrip­tive and dra­matic with­out fall­ing prey to trav­el­ogue cliches. En­gross­ing as a novella, each en­try comes com­plete with char­ac­ters (from a self-anointed baroness and her two lovers to las­civ­i­ous bull seals), a plot, con­flict, tragedy and the specter of res­o­lu­tion, such as find­ing the washed-up re­mains of a fish­er­man lost at sea (Taongi Atoll in the Pa­cific) or the vic­tory of the yel­low ants over the red crabs on Christ­mas Is­land, in the In­dian Ocean.

Scha­lan­sky’s anec­dotes are so crisply de­tailed and evoca­tive, one as­sumes that she con­ducted her re­search in per­son, even time trav­el­ing to wit­ness cer­tain his­tor­i­cal events. For ex­am­ple, she writes of Clip­per­ton Atoll in the Pa­cific: “A dozen scraggy pigs sprawl un­der the palm trees, descen­dents of a stranded herd. They eat orange land crabs, of which there are mil­lions on the is­land. It is not pos­si­ble to take a step here with­out tread­ing on a shell. There is a crunch­ing sound when the gover­nor, Cap­i­tan Ra­mon de Ar­naud, walks over the is­land. As al­ways, he is at­tired in Aus­trian pa­rade ground uni­form, and his wife in an el­e­gant evening gown, with di­a­monds on her fin­gers and round her neck.” (Spoiler alert: He turns into an im­moral mon­ster and the wom­en­folk smash his face with a ham­mer be­fore flag­ging down a ship and es­cap­ing.)

To be hon­est, she didn’t re­ally need to have vis­ited the is­lands. By book’s end (Peter I Is­land, Antarc­tica), I felt that I had trav­eled to all 50, my mind’s wings tired from all that flap­ping.

JEN­NIFER BEE­SON GRE­GORY/ THE WASHINGTON POST

AT­LAS OF RE­MOTE IS­LANDS Fifty Is­lands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will by Ju­dith Scha­lan­sky Pen­guin Group. 143 pp. $28.

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