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Judith Schalansky begins An Inventory of Losses with a vignette from a northern European coastline, where she discovers a fishing town dominated not by a market square but instead by a graveyard. Hearing of a mother who could look out on the resting place of her deceased son from her kitchen, she reflects on this strange street plan as emblematic of a “remarkable utopia . . . a life where death was always in view”.

Schalansky’s point is not simply that we tend to avert our eyes from the transience of things; our efforts to keep hold of the past are doomed as well. Libraries and archives are incomplete and vulnerable to destruction, history itself selective and constantly refashioned. “It is naturally only a matter of time before everything has disappeared, disintegrated and decayed, before everything is annihilated and destroyed,” she writes.

It is a bracing premise for the 12 stories and essays that follow, each inspired by something vanished. But Schalansky is a subtle enough writer to avoid the obvious pitfalls, and what we get is less a mournful plod around absent buildings, monuments and artworks than a series of unexpected diversions.

“Palace of the Republic”, for example, could easily play out within the walls of the East German government building of its title, whose 2008 demolition capped the historical upheaval that marked Schalansky’s own childhood. In fact, the palace is merely the site of a rendezvous that takes place before the narrative begins and prefigures the unravelling of an affair.

Elsewhere, the collection often reads like a disguised and rather ingenious form of memoir, in which vanished landmarks act as foils for the author’s own excavations of lost time.

Particularly effective is “The Von Behr Palace”, which delicately reconstructs early childhood memories — a fall, a hedgehog, a new sibling — formed in the vaguely sinister shadow of a country estate burnt down in suspicious circumstances at the end of the second world war.

Where Schalansky’s focus stays more on the historical losses, the question arises of how we should judge her history. The author’s own position on this is set out forcefully in the most celebrated of her books, Atlas of Remote Islands (2010): “Questioning the truth of what I’ve written misses the point. There is and can be no clear answer to these questions. I have invented nothing. But I have discovered everything; I have found these stories and made them mine, just as the explorer makes the land he discovers his.”

It’s an uncompromisingly Romantic vision: the solitary artist-intellectual, away from the hubbub of academic disputation, forging the prosaic into something profound. And at her best that is exactly what Schalansky does. “Caspian Tiger”, an account of a fight to the death between two big cats in an amphitheatre during the rule of Claudius, captures the strangeness of ancient Rome, its sheer distance from us, with a crackling vigour that is well served by Jackie Smith’s supple translation.

At other times, I wondered. “Tuanaki”, the first story in the collection, adopts the conventions of the 18th-century nautical memoir to juxtapose a gentle, now sunken Pacific island culture with the warlike horrors of nearby Mangaia, where power would be “seized in battle or snatched in a night-time spree that, more often than not, degenerated into a massacre in which the betrayed, anaesthetised with ground kava root, were dumped in a pit, covered in hot stones and left to stew in their own juices until they were fit to eat”.

Does it matter that this is a collage of travellers’ tales and missionaries’ accounts, chosen for their power and poetry rather than to be qualified, weighed and appraised? I think so. Mangaia, like the darkened, barely legible grey-on-black images that open each chapter, is obscured rather than truly obscure, mystified as well as mysterious.

For writers working at the interstices of fiction and non-fiction, such questions of how to balance form and content, art and accuracy, will be resolved in different ways — each must occasionally give ground. Schalansky is at her strongest, it seems to me, when she has least need to compromise. But there is no doubt that at these times, her work is very strong indeed.

An Inventory of Losses, by Judith Schalansky, translated by Jackie Smith, MacLehose Press, RRP£20, 256 pages

Lorien Kite is the deputy editor of Life & Arts

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