BOOK REVIEW: Atlas of Improbable Places by Travis Elborough & Alan Horsfield
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
The Atlas of Improbable Places is a voyage to the world’s most unlikely and curious locations.
Maps, the great Italian writer Italo Calvino once maintained, presuppose the idea of a narrative because they are conceived on the basis of a journey, an odyssey. The earliest need to fix places on stone, skin or primitive paper was fundamentally linked to travel and the earliest cartographers looked to the sky rather than the earth for their starting points of reference. Today heavenly bodies, arguably, still guide us, as we take directions from GPS systems beaming information from satellites orbiting our planet.
Within these pages you will find information, maps, and black-and-white photos in the categories of Dream Creations:
Slab City – The Squatter Metropolis
Occupying 640 acres of concrete and debris-littered government land at Camp Dunlop (an abandoned marine training base that is still fringed by a fully operational army firing range), its citizens live rent-free in makeshift homes ingeniously fashioned from scrap, old cars and vans and trailers (some equipped with solar panels), or just tents augmented with planks of wood, pieces of cardboard and blankets. The accent is post-apocalyptic, or as Time magazine once put it, very ‘Mad Mad’. There is, however, a church, a library, community swap meetings for goods and services, and plenty of public art – including a sculpture park boasting a giant mammoth made out of used tyres, and an outdoor music venue, The Range, where concerts are staged each Saturday and a prom night held annually.
Oradour-sur-Glane – Village left abandoned since the Second World War
The scale of this massacre – men, women, small children and small babies numbered among the dead – subsequently convinced General de Gaulle to order the village to be left exactly as it was upon its destruction in 1944. A new village would arise next door, but the old one continues to keep it company, the bleakest shadow imaginable for a cheery enough place of 2,000 residents now.
The African Renaissance Monument – Controversial Symbol of Independence
Critics in Senegal, however, lined up to denounce it as ‘the product of a power-drunk president’ and ‘a colossal financial, political and aesthetic scandal’. The near-nudity of the female figure in a predominantly Muslim nation caused enormous offence in particular, with one imam even issuing a fatwa against it for idolatry.
Wrangel Island – A place frozen in time
What these particular mammoths were not to know was that Wrangel was to act as a life raft for their species: a sort of Noah’s Ark for one type of animal, say, rather than two of every single breed. Over the next 6,000 years or so, while the Wrangel mammoths went about their business on their new island home, their kin elsewhere rapidly began to die out.
Aokigahara – The Demon Forest
Between fifty and one hundred bodies are reclaimed every year from its exceedingly dense thickets of evergreen trees and amid its woody vines and rocky enclaves. Some of them may well have lain undiscovered for years. This forest is a creepy and deeply unforgiving place. Known alternatively as ‘The Sea of Trees’, ‘Demon Forest’ and, indeed, ‘Suicide Forest’, Aokigahara is treacherous enough already for those with only self-preservation on their mind.
The Island of Dolls – A terrifying attraction
On this tiny chinampa in the canals hardly a tree is without a doll hanging from it. And most have several strung from their branches on ropes. On the side of a wooden shack, naked Barbie dolls nailed up by their hair compete for wall space with plastic trolls and the raggedest Raggedy Ann cloth dolls ever sewn.
and Subterranean Worlds:
Moose Jaw – Illicit Tunnels
Not so long ago in the 1970s, a decade in which social historians first seriously turned their attention to the lot of common and disenfranchised people in times past, officials in the Canadian city of Moose Jaw continued to deny rumours of a network of underground tunnels beneath their sleepy Saskatchewan metropolis. But when a section of the city’s Main Street collapsed, plunging a passing car and its stunned driver several feet below ground and exposing a section of one subterranean passage to the scrutiny of all, such denials could no longer be sustained.
This book gives a brief snapshot into many oddities of the past, and is absolutely a fascinating read. The one issue this review takes with the book is the fact that it is so very brief. Each entry is shorter than 5 pages, with some as short as a mere half a page of text.
It is understandable that there would be more to talk about with some of these entries than others, and of course, once your interest has been piqued, you can hunt down further information for yourself.
As such, this should be treated as a kind of smorgasbord with a fair bit of variety but limited quantities, which could serve as a good diving-in point, but not an extensive source of information.
Some other stuff you might dig
About the Author: