Alberto Manguel is probably best known for his essays on a reading life: A History of Reading, A Reader’s Diary and most recently A Reader on Reading have in their time received many appreciative blog inches. The man reportedly has a personal library of some 30,000 volumes, so there’s plenty of material for a few more titles of that sort. But he writes fiction too. I’m looking forward to his forthcoming novel, bravely entitled All Men Are Liars, and all the more so after reading his 2004 novella, Stevenson under the Palms Trees.
It’s quickly read. 104 pages of well-spaced, simply written text, charting the final days of Robert Louis Stevenson dying of consumption on the island of Samoa. Days which are complicated by the appearance of Mr Baker, a mysterious missionary, evidently from Scotland who bears more than a passing similarity to Stevenson himself. His appearance a catalyst for all kinds of contradictory thought: memories of Stevenson’s strict Calvinist upbringing in eighteenth century Edinburgh clashing with his observations (and perhaps resentment ?) of the carefree laissez-faire of the Samoans. The dark versus the light – but which is which?
Indeed is Mr Baker the Jekyll to Stevenson’s Mr Hyde? Because when he appears on the island, so too does serious crime, specifically, rape, arson and murder. The finger is clearly pointed in Stevenson’s direction, alibis notwithstanding. The question to ask is whether Baker is real, whether he is an evil alter-ego, or whether he is simply a figment of a Stevenson’s imagination, unafraid to say and do the things in the dying man’s subconscious.
I said the story was written simply. I didn’t say that it was a simple story.
I’ve read a number of fictional biographies this year and must admit that I am beginning to wonder if the “genre” is not for me. Perversely it is the seamlessness between fact and fiction that I find annoying. I say perversely because it would have been this very seamlessness that the authors would have worked so hard on. Yet I don’t like not knowing what to believe and what not. It’s obvious here that Manguel has added a fictional stream to the known facts, one that plays cleverly with Stevenson’s literary legacy. It makes for a very entertaining diversion.