FROM ATLAS OF REMOTE ISLANDS: FIFTY ISLANDS I HAVE NEVER SET FOOT ON AND NEVER WILL

by Judith Schalansky

Atlasov Island

This island does not take its name from the Titan who carried the heavens but from a Cossack. It is nothing but a single lonely mountain that is higher than all the other pearls in this chain of islands whose black sands rise above the waters. The mountain, which the people of the Kuril call Alaid, is more beautiful than Mount Fuji. In winter, its peak of grey basalt is covered with sugar-white snow. The volcano is the northernmost of the scattered islands that appeared in a ring of fire 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. Its beauty lies in its symmetrical form. It is said that it once stood in the middle of Lake Kurile in Kamchatka, towering so high in the sky that it blocked the light from the neighboring mountains, who were furious and spoiling for a fight. In reality, they were simply jealous of its perfect beauty. This disturbed the mountain greatly, and it felt forced to give up its place in their midst, so it started out on a long journey, finally setting itself down in a peaceful spot far away in the sea. But in memory of its time in Lake Kurile, and as a sign of mourning, it left behind its heart, which is called Outchitchi in the Kuril language, or ‘heart of the mountain’ in Russian, a cone-shaped rock in the middle of the lake. The river Ozernaya flows in the tracks of the mountain’s reluctant journey. When the mountain lifted itself from its place, the water of the lake rushed after it. It is a thin blue umbilical cord that will always bind the exiled mountain to its homeland.

Taongi Atoll

Scott Moorman grows up in the San Fernando Valley. He watches the TV series Adventures in Paradise as a child and dreams of living in Hawaii. In I975, he leaves the mainland and finds a new home in Nahiku, on the east coast of Maui, which lives by Hawaiian time: when the weather is fine, no work is done. So it is on Sunday morning, 11 February I979. The ocean is as smooth as glass and there is barely a cloud in the sky. Scott and four friends decide to go fishing. They buy new spark plugs for the motorboat, beer and soft drinks for the fridge and ice for the fish that they hope to catch. At about ten o’clock they pass the rocky island at the mouth of the bay, and steer the five-metre-long Sarah Joe southwards. They have long hair and bushy moustaches, and are wearing sunglasses. One of them is rolling the first joint of the day. Just before noon, the wind rises, turning into a storm by the afternoon and a hurricane over the island by the evening, whipping the sea up and laying waste to the coastline. The waves are several metres high and the rain is relentless. At five o’clock in the afternoon, the Sarah Joe is reported missing. The coastguard sends a helicopter and a plane out in the storm, but visibility is too poor. They extend the search area every day. The coastguard searches for five days, and the men’s family and friends continue searching for another week. They find nothing. Nothing at all. Not a trace of the men, not one piece of the boat. Nine and a half years later, one of the searchers, the marine biologist John Naughton, finds a wrecked boat on the beach of Taongi, the northernmost and driest atoll of the Marshall Islands, 3,750 kilometres west of Hawaii. A Hawaiian registration number is prominently displayed on the fibreglass hull. It is the Sarah Joe. There is a simple grave nearby: a cross of driftwood on a pile of stones. A few bones protrude from the sand. These are discovered to be the remains of Scott Moorman. Who buried him here and where the other men are remains a mystery.

Pakapuka

Robert Dean Frisbie sits on the veranda of the Pukapuka trading station. Behind him is half the village, in front of him a small collection of scattered huts on the beach. Children are playing in the shallow water and old women are weaving huts out of pandan leaves in the gentle evening breeze. Suddenly a neighbor runs up to him, completely naked, wet from bathing, her hair plastered to her golden skin. She is out of breath, and her breasts rise and fall as she hurriedly asks for a bottle of something. Frisbie quickly passes her what she wants, and as she disappears into the dusk he stares after her for a long time, strangely moved. Although he has lived here for years now, he has still not got used to the nudity. In this respect, he is still the boy from Cleveland who could never have imagined the freedom here. A word for “virgin” does not even exist in their language. A woman who has a child out of wedlock earns respect and increases her chances of marriage because she has proved her fertility. The young people of the three villages meet at the far edge of the beach once darkness falls. There they fight, dance, sing and sleep with each other. It is common for more than two people to get together. Sex is a game, and jealousy has no place. Singing has its role both in foreplay and post-coitus, but the generations see it differently. The older women think it belongs both before and after sex, while the younger ones think that it should come only after. They agree that no singing should take place during coitus. After sex, the men and women bathe in the sea together. In these matters, Pukapuka certainly has the edge over Cleveland, Robert Dean Frisbie thinks, as he puts out his veranda light.

Easter Island

It’s no wonder that Darwin never stopped here. Flora and fauna are scarce, and the abundance of the Galapagos Islands he was aiming for is weeks away by canoe. No one knows now how high the giant palms that once covered the island grew. The sap that flowed from their trunks was fermented into wine sweet as honey; the wood was made into rafts and ropes to transport the statues. Monsters dot the coastline. Hollow-eyed beings with elongated ears, weather-beaten skin and pouting lips like sullen children. These stone sentinels of hardened volcanic ash stand with their moss-covered backs to the sea, gazing into the palm forests with eyes of white coral on feast days. The twelve tribes of Easter Island compete against each other: they make bigger and bigger monoliths, and secretly topple their rivals’ statues in the night. They exploit and over-cultivate their pieces of earth, chop down the last tree, sawing off even the branch they are sitting on. It is the beginning of the end. They either die of smallpox, or become slaves on their own land, serfs working for the tenant farmers who turn their island into an enormous sheep farm. Out of 10,000, only 111 native islanders remain. Not a single palm tree is left, and not a single stone watchman remains standing. Archaeologists later raise the monstrous figures and look for a trail. They search through piles of detritus, dig for seeds, collect bones and charred wood, try to decipher the sinuous etchings of Rongorongo glyphs, and wonder if anything in the stone countenances will tell them what has happened here. Today, there is not a single tree on the barren land created from seventy volcanoes. But the airport’s landing strip is so enormous that a space shuttle could touch down on it in an emergency. The end of the world is an accepted fact, and Easter Island is a case in point with its chain of unfortunate events that led to self-destruction; a lemming marooned in the calm of the ocean.

Pitcairn Island

There is no better hiding place than this island, far off the trading routes and marked in the wrong position on admiralty charts. The sailors have mutinied and the afterlife has to be the judge of their actions. But there can be no homecoming—not for these men and the wives they have carried off from Tahiti. In England, they would be locked up; here in Pitcairn they are locked out. Hiding here is just another way to die, Fletcher Christian says, as they sit by the campfire. Two sailors later use its embers to set light to the Bounty by night in order to prevent any return to certain death on the gallows. Christian falls victim to a second mutiny, and more will follow. I want to find out what happened to the sailors after the mutiny. Why did they go to Pitcairn Island and within two years kill each other off? What is it in human nature that makes men violent even in an island paradise? That’s what would interest me! says Marlon Brando, who has artistic control written into every contract. It is Christian’s death scene: there he lies, just a head, blanket pulled up to his chin to hide his terrible burns. His face is damp with sweat and streaked with soot, and his eyes stretch wide, shining white in the darkness. The eye-brows lift and droop and Brando’s quivering lips ask if he, Fletcher Christian, is dying. The man has only recently been a tinny-voiced posturing fop, all pomades and perfumes, a dandy of the South Seas slinking all over the 70-millimetre film in a silk dressing gown or lace jabot with a pink flower behind one ear, constantly dropping the clipped British accent he has practiced. What a useless way to die, he says. His face freezes and the gaze is broken. The camera swings round and the burning Bounty sinks into the dark sea. The glittering curtains swish together and the most expensive film of all time comes to an end. But the island’s story is far from its end.