Can you believe we’re still talking about that weekend of novellas? Plenty of material yet! (And I’m already tentatively planning the next one…) Up today is Stevenson Under the Palm Trees by Alberto Manguel. If the name rings a bell, it might be because he earned his spurs in the blogosphere with the book A Reader on Reading – which is on my list of books to think about buying when Project 24 is over.
But before I heard about that, I’d bought Stevenson Under the Palm Trees in Oxford’s £2 shop. It appealed because (a) it was short, and (b) I love novels about writers and playing with their creations, etc. Plus I fancied throwing something a little postmodern and quirky into the mix. This is despite me never having read anything by Robert Louis Stevenson. Not even Treasure Island. Tut tut, Simon. [Edit: I have! I have! I’ve just remembered I’ve read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde]
Manguel’s novella is about Stevenson’s time in Samoa, amongst intense humidity, bright colours, and a place which captivated him without quite accepting him. He is still the white outsider amongst the close-knit Samoans, and hankers after his native Edinburgh. And then… well, here’s the opening:
Robert Louis Stevenson left the house and walked the long trek down to the beach just as the day was setting. From the verandah the sea was hidden by the trees, six hundred feet below, filling the end of two vales of forest. To enjoy the last plunge of the sun before the clear darkness set in, the best observation-post was among the mangrove roots, in spite (he said bravely to himself) of the mosquitoes and the sand-flies. He did not immediately notice the figure because it appeared to be merely one more crouching shadow among the shadows, but then it turned and seemed for a moment to be watching him. The man was wearing a broad-rimmed hat not unlike Stevenson’s own, and, even though he could see that the skin was white, he could not make out the man’s features.
The man is Mr. Baker, a missionary from Scotland, and he remains a shadowy figure throughout. When a young Samoan woman is raped and murdered, things get all the more mysterious. Don’t worry – it isn’t done in a gory or gratuitous way, more as an interesting catalyst for the rest of the novel – as the reader cannot decide upon Stevenson’s culpability or innocence.
Neither, it seems, can Stevenson – for nothing is quite certain or able to be grasped by the reader. Who is Mr. Baker? Is he a creation of Stevenson’s; is he somehow Stevenson’s double; is he simply the missionary he claims? Identities are complex, dreams and consciousness meld and the Samoan landscape is host to all manner of strange narratives and counter-narratives. Lest this seems completely baffling, I should add that Manguel sensibly keeps the curious and nebulous aspects of the novella to the plot and characters – never spilling over into unnecessarily elaborate style or language. Which is somehow even more disorientating – because, at first glimpse, Stevenson Under the Palm Trees reads as a traditional novella – only gradually does everything get complicated.
As I said, I haven’t read any Stevenson – so I wasn’t able to appreciate the (apparently) ‘playful nod to Stevenson’s life and work’, including the real life Mr. Baker, but that didn’t stop me appreciating Manguel’s novella. As an interesting extra level, the book incorporates – at intervals – woodcuts which Stevenson made in Switzerland in 1881. They are very simple, and obviously not the work of a professional woodcut artist, but still heighten the atmosphere and have their own evocative mystery.
For anybody fancying a quick dabble into the world of quirky, quietly postmodern novels, this could be a really interesting place to start – I hope my thoughts haven’t made this sound inaccessible or difficult, because it isn’t; I’m simply finding it tricky to find the right way to describe this unusual novella. Certainly something different from the rest of my weekend of novellas, and – as much as I enjoyed those – this was a playful, intriguing breath of fresh air.