“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 mosquito 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……”
This is the start of Stevenson under the palm trees and is a fictionalised account of the last days of the author of books such as, Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Jekyll and Hyde to name just a few. It is set in Samoa and the man he sees and meets is a Scottish missionary, named Baker whose appearance not only stirs long buried memories of Stevenson’s past, but also appears to be the catalyst for a whole spate of crime, ranging from arson to rape and murder with the finger of suspicion turning like some compass needle in the direction of the writer, when his hat is found beside the corpse of a young Samoan girl. What at first seems a glorious idyll amongst the natives whose exuberance with life enchants him and his family, slowly crumbles as he faces the hostile stares of the Samoans.
This is one of those books, that when you’re reading it, you stop, turn it over in your hand as though looking for the trick, like some magic act, you saw it happen, you were real close, but ……? This book is including notes and woodcuts (Stevenson’s own) only 105 pages long and yet Alberto Manguel manage to pack in so much as it focuses on Robert Louis Stevenson’s last days dying of consumption on a tropical island. It plays with the idea of moral duality as in Stevenson's own Novella (Jekyll and Hyde), is Baker real or some Edward Hyde persona of Stevenson's allowed free reign whilst he slept. Also the writers attitude to the indigenous population as childlike innocents whose amoral existence was counterpoint to his 18th century Scottish Calvinist upbringing. That Alberto Manguel has managed to conjure up through Stevenson’s own Tales (The Beach of Falesa), letters and biography a beautiful little book that plays with many ideas and questions concerning sensuality and repression, waking and dreaming, plus the whole craft of writing itself. Like his mentor Jorge Luis Borges, Manguel seems to place his own reading centre stage in his writing, by which I mean his dominant subject matter are books themselves, not as some influence on his writing but as the subject of it. If I played the game of who I would invite to some fictitious dinner party, Alberto Manguel’ s name would be high on that list, as he appears to be the epitome of a representative of the Reading Life.
Alberto Manguel(Discussing Borges)