Stevenson under the Palm Trees by Alberto Manguel

10/01/04, The Times

Writing back has always been one of the great galvanising features, and one of the most pleasurable, of literary discourse. Ovid slyly answers back to the Virgilian epic in his Metamorphoses, Jean Rhys creates a pre-history for Jane Eyre in Wide Sargasso Sea, Peter Carey reconfigures Great Expectations as Jack Maggs; this intertextual communion has existed as long as writing itself. Who better to explore this echo-corridor of reading and rewriting than Alberto Manguel, the author of that extraordinary love-letter to books, A History of Reading?

The choice of Robert Loius Stevenson as the protagonist of his beautiful novella, Stevenson Under the Palm Trees, aligns the work more closely to Coetzee’s Foe, or even the sections on Virginia Woolf in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, in that the structure of fiction crystallises around a figure of historical reality. More importantly, the horizon of expectations this type of choice sets up is very different from straightforward historical fiction: here readers are expected to look out for both the congruences and the disjunctions in the deliberately awry mapping of the present on the past, hear out for reverberations, echoes, footfalls and allusions to the parent texts, attune themselves to the subtle phase lags between past and present texts.

Illustrated by Stevenson’s own woodcuts, made while convalescing in Switzerland in 1881, the novella is located in Samoa, the lush tropical paradise where the writer and his family settled in 1889, partly to find a climate kind to his fragile health and the respiratory illness he had suffered since the early 1870s. An encounter with a nebulous fire-and-brimstone Scottish missionary, Mr Baker, unleashes memories of Stevenson’s own harsh Presbyterian past from which he had so stubbornly dissented and which had taken such a heavy toll on his relationship with his unbendingly religious father.

Meanwhile, a string of mysterious brutal crimes – rape, murder, arson – against the native Samoans heightens the atmosphere of menace and draws suspicion on the island’s very own celebrity writer. Struggling with his disease, attempting to finish a work-in-progress and baffled by the terrifying and opaque figure of Mr Baker, Stevenson reaches his end in a finale breathtaking in its inevitability yet resisting neat answers and pat explanations. Designed as a thriller, the novella ends throwing in the air more questions than it answers, using its stylish thematic indeterminacies to hook the reader and leave it singing its taut, haunting music in her head long after the book has been put away.

Manguel casts a deliciously shrewd, sidelong glance at Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Who is Mr Baker? Does he really exist? Is he Stevenson’s doppelganger, the ego to his id, the repressed unconscious desires of the writer made incarnate? It is a measure of Manguel’s genius that not only does he make his slim novella resonate with the covert psychosexual underpinnings of Jekyll and Hyde, but also compacts within it a meditation on colonisation, the Christian missionary venture and religious zealotry. Almost perfectly executed, it’s an exquisite amuse bouche whose taste lingers on.