A Very Human Process

David Hebblethwaite reviews Judith Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses (trans. Jackie Smith)

Judith Schalansky,
An Inventory of Losses.
Translated by Jackie Smith.
Hachette, £20.00.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Judith Schalansky is probably best-known for Atlas of Remote Islands (2009; trans. Christine Lo, 2010), which combined short stories with maps hand-drawn by the author to create a new context for fifty islands that she had never visited. Schalansky’s new book, An Inventory of Losses, does something similar. Its twelve stories have all been inspired by something that has vanished from the world. The basic format of each piece is the same: an illustration that can barely be seen because the background is so dark, followed by a description of what has been lost and how, followed by the story itself, which may head off in any direction (it’s a mark of the talents of translator Jackie Smith that she captures the collection’s shifting styles).

Schalansky sets the tone of her Inventory with a two-page preamble. The first page contains a list of things that have been lost while Schalansky was working on the book: the Schiaparelli Mars lander crashing into the red planet; a type of rat native to the Great Barrier Reef, now wiped out; ancient religious buildings destroyed in Palmyra, Iraq, and Syria. The second page contains a list of things that were found during the same period: the site of the first Khmer capital; doves from a species that had been assumed extinct; strands of George Washington’s hair, discovered in an eighteenth century almanac. For every loss, a gain — perhaps. But the thing is that the two sides of the preamble don’t really feel as though they balance out: after all, what’s the value in the discovery of a planet that might have water 1,400 light years away, when we’re busy dismantling the ecosystem of this one? The losses linger despite the gains.

Following the preamble is a preface in which Schalansky explains her premises. What comes across particularly strongly is the idea that loss is a very human process: “Being alive means experiencing loss”, she says, because everything declines and disappears. But it’s human memory that gives loss its own meaning, and the impulses to preserve, interpret, and reconstruct what has been lost are all too human. Schalansky suggests also that there may be as many ways to lose as there are things to be lost: what interests her, on one level, isn’t just the occurrence of loss, but the variety of it.

One variety of loss is the kind driven by human behaviour, especially the exploitation of the environment. ‘Caspian Tiger’ may be the story where the price of human interference with the natural order is felt most keenly. It revolves around a fight between a lion and a tigress in ancient Rome. The key point is that the confrontation between these two animals is entirely artificial:

The fight is sacred. To force the spectacle, tormentor-slaves chain the animals to one another… so that animals that would never come across each other out in the wild face each other in the semicircle of the arena — forced into hostility, robbed of their habitat, driven to a state of terror and frenzy…

The suffering of the animals is a spectacle for a human audience, “a cross between an execution and a public performance”. But, in Schalansky’s vivid description of the conflict, the spectacle doesn’t stay on the page: it’s so dynamic and involving that we are mesmerised by it, and our enjoyment of the scene makes us feel complicit in the suffering. And Schalansky also points out that the ramifications of the fight extend, in other ways, far beyond the moment in which it occurs. Bringing these animals together might result in cross-bred offspring that wouldn’t exist otherwise in nature, and the idea of the spectacle lives on in modern-day circuses. What does it matter that the lion and tiger have become emblems of strength and determination? For many of those animals today, life involves a loss of those things — “a life in nature reserves and in the custody of humans”. Schalansky captures both the short-term spectacle of the fight and the long-term loss to which it leads.

Is her depiction of this event a form of recovery from loss? Schalansky spends time considering the question. Earlier, in her preface, she quotes the philosopher Theodor Lessing: “What do historical sources preserve? Not the fates of the violets trodden underfoot in the Battle of Liège…” Then, in her story ‘Tuanaki’, Schalansky explores the limits of what can be recovered from documentary evidence, and what can truly be told about history. Here she discusses searching the German National Library for information about the Pacific island of Tuanaki — an island that apparently sank in an earthquake, and whose inhabitants were said to have no concept of war.

According to Schalansky, Captain James Cook encountered a particular island in 1777, as islanders gathered on the beach. But hers is not a straightforward account of Cook’s sighting, because Schalansky interrogates what she is doing as she proceeds. She notes that such encounters fall into patterns in the primary sources: the islanders, “though they did not realise it themselves, had been discovered and were to be assigned the role — essential for the purpose of any report from far-off lands — of the Natives”, so that any account of them given by a European crew is grounded in preconceived ideas of “foreign versus familiar”. As a result, Schalansky wonders whether it’s possible or even desirable to recover and reconstruct this historical moment:

So people stood on the shore, teetered through the shallow water, and reportedly waded out to the reef, dancing and with shrill cries. But what was going through their minds? Who was I to decide that?

Adding to the impossible distance of time is the fact that Cook and his men had not arrived at Tuanaki, but at the neighbouring island of Mangaia. The island that gives Schalansky’s story its name was already lost under the waves by then, with only a single report extant from a voyage in 1776. Not only is Tuanaki lost to history, then, but the precise nature of what was lost has been lost as well.

This move into a speculative investigation of lost things is taken further when Schalansky writes about lost things that were never necessarily real. ‘Guericke’s Unicorn’ is named after the seventeenth century German scientist and politician Otto van Guericke, who wrote about the discovery of a unicorn’s skeleton (the bones were later thought to belong to several different ice-age mammals, and were eventually given away). The narrator of this story is a writer, possibly Schalansky herself, who goes to stay in an Alpine chalet with the intention of writing a book cataloguing the different monsters of human imagination. When she gets into the subject, however, she finds something unexpected:

The similarities were all too obvious: each new story soon turned out to be an amalgamation of old familiar set-pieces, and each figure an unsurprising hybrid of the imaginary and the true-to-life. In short, there was not exactly an abundance of species, indeed real life was considerably more eccentric than fiction.

Like Guericke’s unicorn, the underlying reality of the narrator’s subject turns out to be disappointingly prosaic: a set of predictable patterns rather than a kaleidoscopic free-for-all. Does this mean that a sense of wonder has been lost to the world? Perhaps not, Schalansky’s narrator suggests. Partly that’s down to the aforementioned eccentricities of nature, but there’s also a suggestion that the human instinct towards wonder persists despite the losses of things to wonder at: “You could think all you liked, but it didn’t alter how you felt.” This notion is reflected in the telling of ‘Guericke’s Unicorn’ itself, which sometimes takes on the tone of a fairytale. When, at one point, Schalansky’s narrator does encounter something truly strange, it’s hard not to wish for the story to affirm its reality. But Schalansky finally lets the mystery hang unresolved — true to the reality of our world, in the end.

Schalansky grew up in the former GDR, and the experience of living through the upheaval of German re-unification informs one of the key points of her preface: that the future is built on the ruins of the past, and that a revolutionary future points in part to history. In other words, loss can be cyclical rather than linear.

One of the stories which explores this theme is ‘Villa Sacchetti’, named after a mansion that was built in seventeenth century Rome but lay in ruins two hundred years later. The tale begins in Rome in the eighteenth century, with the then-contemporary inhabitants living among and alongside the ruins of the ancient city. There’s no nostalgia here: people sell off pieces of ruins as building materials. Schalansky writes of Giovanni Battista Piranesi and his etchings, which transfigure the physical city into something greater:

[Piranesi] sketches the ground plan of an imagined past and simultaneously the vision of an entirely new creation which, in his copperplate etchings, captivates more people than any building anchored to solid ground.

Several years later, the young French artist Hubert Robert arrives in Rome and is fascinated by the crumbling Villa Sacchetti. Back in Paris, new ruins are being created in the tumult of revolution, and Robert is determined to chronicle what he sees in its totality, with loyalty only to his art. His work is ambivalent about the destruction of old buildings:

In his picture, the desecration of the centuries-old tombs becomes an everyday exercise and it is impossible to tell whether something is being destroyed or preserved here.

This does not go down well with those who see themselves as forging a new world from the detritus of the old, and Robert is soon arrested. So, in this story, we have several examples of characters living through something like Schalansky herself after the fall of the Berlin Wall — of the past being used in some way to create the future, and the different meanings this can have for different people. It’s not necessarily the case that something is strictly lost here, but rather that it is turned into something different. Whether that’s to be mourned or celebrated, though, depends very much on where you stand to begin with.

For all the variety of what is lost, what can possibly be retained, and how? In her preface, Schalansky mentions the time capsules onboard the two Voyager spacecraft, gold-plated phonograph records containing sounds and images of Earth. The chances of these discs ever being played are infinitesimal, but there’s something very human about the attempt at self-assertion and self-preservation — “a means of self-reassurance for a species unwilling to accept its own utter meaninglessness”, as Schalansky puts it. The final story in An Inventory of Losses, ‘Kinau’s Selenographs’, plays on this idea of significance and insignificance, and the human urge to shore up the former against the latter. It’s inspired by the nineteenth century priest and astronomer Adolph Gottfried Kinau, known for his topographical drawings of the moon. A lunar crater was named ‘Kinau’ in 1932, though it was originally said to be in honour of one C.A. Kinau, a botanist of whom no historical record has ever been found. It’s this Kinau who narrates the story.

‘Kinau’s Selenographs’ is written in the style of a nineteenth century scientific romance, and it has grandiose imagination to match. Although Schalansky’s Kinau begins working with plants, his stargazing leads him to fall in love with the moon, so much so that he resolves to move there. Exactly how this is done is glossed over, but it’s a one-way journey. The moon in this story is not empty, but populated by others from human history who shared Kinau’s lunar infatuation. It’s also the place where all the lost things from Earth end up, and an infinitely expanding bureaucracy has emerged to try to deal with the accumulation:

It was much like on Earth: each generation reorganised the goods, every new regime, for its own edification, invented a whole new approach, and if practical activity declined under one ruler, theory, by contrast, blazed all the more brightly.

Of course there’s only so much space for all the earthly stuff, but Kinau thinks he knows what to do. His idea is that something should only be kept on the moon if it refers to the moon. But, when he comes across a set of selenographs bearing a familiar name (though in an unfamiliar hand), Kinau starts to realise what he has left behind.

‘Kinau’s Selenographs’ serves as a good coda to An Inventory of Losses as a whole, because it captures both the thrill of discovery and the pain of loss. These are two sides of the same coin here, as the very wonder of observing the moon is what Kinau finds he misses the most. So, in a succinct dramatisation of Schalansky’s speculations throughout the book, the circle goes around — every pursuit involves sacrifice, every gain a loss, the one emerging from the other in a cycle that never ends.