What, asks this book, is “more terrifying: the notion that everything comes to an end, or the thought that it may not”? Such issues – impermanence, the fringes of things, the border between here and there – are catnip to the German writer Judith Schalansky. Her first book to appear in English, Atlas of Remote Islands, was a coffee table beauty that read as good as it looked, reporting on isolated places including the coral atoll of Takuu, slowly disappearing beneath the tide of climate breakdown, and Easter Island, whose “self-destruction” by its own inhabitants likened it to “a lemming marooned in the calm of the ocean”. Her next book, the novel The Giraffe’s Neck, was less successful but equally concerned with the inevitability of decay, the flip side of Darwinian evolution: how “everything eventually was finished”.
An Inventory of Losses seems at first no more optimistic than the earlier books: our desire for human creations to endure, as evidenced by the etched copper discs of cultural markers attached to the Voyager space probes, is “a kind of magical thinking … a means of self-reassurance for a species unable to accept its own utter meaninglessness”. But for Schalansky it’s the failure to last that gives our efforts not just pathos but also power, and her book is a philosophical embrace of loss.
It’s a fine example of everyone’s favourite genre: the genre-defying book, inspired by history, filtered through imagination and finished with a jeweller’s eye for detail. The neat structure – 12 sections, each exactly 16 pages in length – hides the experimentation within: Schalansky makes stories, memories and collages out of people, places, animals, art and knowledge lost to us. In the first piece, the “phantom island” of Tuanaki was lost when an earthquake sank it around 1843, though it persisted as a ghostly presence on maps for another 30 years. Shortly before it disappeared a missionary landed on the island, his captain having sent him ashore armed with a sword to guard against violent natives. The local chief was mystified by the missionary’s fear: “We don’t know how to fight,” he said. “We only know how to dance.”
Losses are not always accidental. A Swiss clerk, Armand Schulthess, who left his job in 1951 to live in the woods and decorated the trees there with a thousand metal plates on which he inscribed a chronicle of human knowledge, had this life’s work destroyed by his family after his death. Schalansky’s interpretation, a creepy narrative imagining his obsession with luring women to his forest hideout, seems exploitative until we read that the knowledge his family destroyed also included 70 handmade books “on the theme of sexuality”. They burned most of them, and throughout An Inventory of Losses we see that fire is the method of choice for a complete and cathartic destruction: the tacked-together but imposing Von Behr palace in Germany; the Glass Palace in Munich where 3,000 paintings were destroyed in 1931; and the Caspian tiger that was lost twice, first when hunted to extinction, and once more – Schalansky reports, not entirely dolefully – when one of the remaining stuffed cadavers was destroyed in a museum fire in the 1960s. (To paraphrase the Roman poet Lucan, even the ruins were ruined.)
Schalansky switches the style of each section to fit the material, and Jackie Smith’s translation follows the form with admirable fluidity. Writing about Sappho’s lost poetry – so fragmented that we have only a few stranded words from most verses, and only one complete poem has survived – it’s apt, if predictable, to describe it in short spaced paragraphs. More interesting is the use of the gaps in Sappho’s fragments as an analogue for the silence around and erasure of lesbian relationships through history. Furthermore, her poetry is the embodiment of how central absence is to human understanding: knowing things completes them; not knowing sustains us. Indeed, “intact, Sappho’s poems would be as alien to us as the once gaudily painted classical sculptures”. Every loss is also a gain.
When writing about FW Murnau’s 1919 film The Boy in Blue, of which only a handful of frames survive, Schalansky takes a sideways step and creates a story in the voice of cinema’s greatest self-inflicted loss, Greta Garbo, who turned away from the busy world and retired in 1941 at the age of 36. (“As early as I can remember, I have wanted to be alone.”) It’s an impressive piece of voice fiction that sees Garbo walking the streets of New York in 1952, simultaneously celebrating and fretting. “This goddamn face of hers! That was her true enemy. They were so hell-bent on finding out what was behind it. Nothing was behind it. Nothing!” For Caspar David Friedrich’s destroyed painting of Greifswald Harbour, Schalansky visits the location and produces a meticulous account of its flora and fauna: if a painting can represent the essence of its subject, she asks, can the subject in turn evoke the artwork? Are a thousand words worth a picture?
Some of the pieces that drift furthest from the facts and make the most of the unknown are the most satisfying. The book ends with a Gottfried Adolf Kinau’s drawings of the moon (lost to fire again), from which Schalansky creates a fantasy about a man whose obsession with the moon leads him ultimately to live there, abandoning his wife and children: “Each one of us must leave everything behind, as if he were crossing the final threshold.” It makes for a captivating conclusion, more serene in tone than elegiac: loss must be accepted. And this is not generally, it should be said, a sombre book. There’s a playful quality even in the paradoxical title, and also in the preface. We learn that in the 17th century “the British parliament seriously discussed burning the Tower of London archives to extinguish all memory of the past and start life over again.” That is, Schalansky writes, “at least according to Jorge Luis Borges, in a passage I have been unable to locate”.
• An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky (translated by Jackie Smith), is published by MacLehose Press (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.