Monday, April 17, 2017

Stevenson Under The Palm Trees - Alberto Manguel

Reading novellas in a dedicated way was really rewarding, and once I've battled through the book I'm currently engaged with (not a bad book, but I'm out of sympathy with it to the point I'm avoiding it a little bit) I might look out another pile of them. If it hadn't been for the determination to hoover up some of the shorter books littering my flat 'Stevenson Under the Palm Trees' would have carried on gathering dust indefinitely.

I'm interested in the Stevenson family generally (if that's the same tuning as loving light houses) and have enjoyed anything by Robert Louis Stevenson that I've read so far. I can't remember exactly where I bought this particular book, but I think it might have been in one of those bargain outlet places where you find yourself overwhelmed by enthusiasm for and buying piles of things you should read, rather than books you ever read.

That's a roundabout way of saying I found myself a little out of sympathy with 'Stevenson Under The Palm Trees' too, although it's a better book than the one I'm currently reading. The great thing about it being short was that it was easy to carry on to the end without beginning to resent the time it took. The lack of sympathy was caused by a Goethe quote that opens the book; "No one wanders under palm trees unpunished." It just made me wonder why not, which I don't think was a helpful attitude.

The book begins towards the end of Stevensons life on Samoa. He's working hard despite his illness, has his place in the community, and is generally at peace when he meets a Scottish missionary, Mr Baker. After Mr Baker's appearance strange things start happening; rape, murders, and Stevenson's Doppelgänger all disturb the peace.

There are touches of Jekyll and Hyde about this, although it's always possible that none of it actually happens, and everything is the product of either conscious fantasy or the unconscious effect of feverish illness. It's the ambiguity that makes the book so compelling, but there's a further unsettling element. It's illustrated by woodcuts that Stevenson had made in 1881 when he was convelescing in Switzerland. Intended at the time for his 12 year old stepson, they were meant to illustrate a series of short ditties entitled Moral Emblems. Their presence here, in a different context, becomes positively sinister.

It's a clever book which elegantly prods at the nature of good and evil, repression, desire, fantasy, and reality. It pays homage to Stevenson in multiple ways, and it's well worth reading.


  1. I just checked back on my own review of this - I read it 2009. I found it an interesting oddity! Worth reading, but too short. Did your copy have the illustrations - mine had some of Stevenson's own woodcuts, which was nice.

  2. I thought it was long enough to make its point, definitely an oddity though. And yes, it had the woodcuts which were a nice touch.