Stevenson Under the Palm Trees, Alberto Manguel. Nthposition. Early 2005.

The original link is currently broken . I re-read this book this morning. My reading speed may have increased – I read it between Kilkenny and Athy on the train. To tell the truth, I haven’t been that haunted by the book in the decade since, but it is a fairly effective novella. In my original review I didn’t mention the epigraph from Goethe: “No one wanders under palm trees unpunished.”  Anyhow, it seems like a good idea to revisit this a decade on.

Stevenson under the palm trees

Oscar Wilde once wrote to Robert Ross that “romantic surroundings are the worst surroundings possible for a romantic writer. In Gower Street Stevenson could have written a new Trois Mousquetaires. In Samoa he wrote letters to The Times about Germans.” Looking at the lives, there is some justice in the remark. Jules Verne, creator of so many spectacular imaginative voyages, would have the vapours at the mere thought of leaving Paris.

Alberto Manguel, who evidently shares the enthusiasm for Robert Louis Stevenson of his friend Borges, has written this short tale of the RLS of the Samoa days. This is the very end, with Stevenson barely fit for firing off missives to the Times about Germans or any other nationality. Known as Tusitala, “the teller of tales”, Stevenson is a benign presence on the island. He defended the native people against the interests of colonialists and the more aggressive missionaries, as well as defending the reputation of Father Damien, “the leper priest of Molokai” from rivals from other denominations (although his defence would offend the pious Damien enthusiast as much as the attacks)
This novella – short story really – is a beguiling fiction weaved around those last days. Robert Louis Stevenson, wracked by the final stages of tuberculosis, filled with “nostalgia for places he had never been.” Mr Baker, a missionary, whose increasingly psychotic preachings resemble less and less the gospels and more and more a dark, genocidal vision of destruction, makes his appearance on the island. Repelled by his rhetoric, Stevenson is nevertheless beguiled by Baker’s accent, taking him back to the Edinburgh of his youth. Baker, however, has nothing but scorn for Tusitala, to the writer that: “you would be better employed reading to them from the Scriptures. That is the only truth.”

The theme of the double, from James Hogg’s Confessions of a justified sinner to Stevenson’s own work – most obviously in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as well as The Master of Ballantrae – is a recurrent one in Scottish fiction, and Manguel evidently intends to remind us of this. At a feast, the fictional Stevenson catches sight of a beguilingly beautiful native girl, who flits in and out of his vision throughout the night: “Many years before, in France, he had seen a girl of much the same age bathing behind a tattered screen in the courtyard of a farm, and he had felt this now-remembered surge of desire. Saint Augustine, he thought it was, had thanked God for not making him responsible for his dreams. He took a long drink of kava and uttered the same prayer of thanks.”

Immediately, Stevenson suffers an attack of coughing, as the white death of tuberculosis continues to lay waste to his life. The next day, feeling considerably refreshed, he returns to writing with renewed energy. We are thus introduced to one of the other themes of Manguel’s tale; the writer’s life, the gap between imagining deeds and doing them. We get glimpses into Stevenson’s tradecraft: “He had once remarked to Henry James that what he wished to do was to starve the visual sense in his books. He heard people talking, he felt them acting, and that was for him the definition of fiction. He made a note of his two literary aims: 1st. War on the adjective. 2nd. Death to the optic nerve.

Manguel’s own prose, naturally, mirrors these dictums. Borges often remarked that a lack of local colour was a sure sign of authenticity; surely he was influenced by Stevenson’s own stated aim of a laconic, description-averse style. Manguel has avoided whatever temptation there might be to write endless febrile descriptions of local flora and fauna and tells his brief tale simply.

A meeting with Baker, fulminating against the “poisonous brightness” of the sun – “the burning brightness of hell” – and raging against “the claptrap of fiction” destroys Stevenson’s buoyant, productive mood. He returns to the story he is working on (presumably Weir of Harmiston) but now “darker and more violent the story came, and seemed to unearth vile, unspeakable things in its wake.” As always, he shows his pages to his devoted wife Fanny, whose horror-struck reaction leads Stevenson to burn the manuscript.

The sinister presence of Baker is becoming Stevenson’s shadow. The girl he so much admired at the feast is found raped and murdered; a hat identical to one of Stevenson’s is found at the scene. More violent death follows, and a European man is seen around just prior. Baker, inveighing against the native’s way of life, increasingly taunts Stevenson with his repressed desires and longings. The sick Stevenson can no longer partake of the sensual pleasure the islanders languorously enjoy; Baker claims that Stevenson therefore longs to destroy them, to cleanse them of the corruption and filth of their fleshy life.

Stevenson, of course, denies this. It is one of the pleasures of the book that Manguel does not impose any solution, or any pat suggestion that Baker is, as he claims, acting out Stevenson’s suppressed desires. Baker and Stevenson are linked, of course, yet Stevenson resists the apocalyptic vision of Baker.
Stevenson Under the Palm Trees is a very short novella – a reasonably quick reader will have it finished in less than an hour. Yet this tale of doubles and ghosts, of fiction and murder, haunts for a lot longer than the time it takes to read it.


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