Translated from German by John Brownjohn
Inevitably my island-hopping expedition brings me to the most famous fictional island of them all. Or is it? Fictional, I mean.
It’s 12 July 2004 and the Swiss author, Alex Capus, has taken his family for a holiday in Samoa, the island in the South Pacific where Robert Louis Stevenson spent the last five years of his life. Capus’s mission is to prove that Treasure Island actually exists, albeit not in the place that the treasure-hunters have been seeking it for generations. The resultant book Sailing by Starlight – In Search of Treasure Island is a slim one, packed with facts and theories supporting Capus’s argument that Stevenson’s island is not located in the Caribbean where those of the Pirates of the Caribbean generation (myself included) would automatically locate it. Nor is Treasure Island, the exotically named Cocos Island, to the east of Costa Rica, where in 1821 Captain Thompson, an honest man whose head was turned by the wealth that was entrusted to him for safe keeping, allegedly buried priceless ecclesiastical treasures from Lima Cathedral. Through the history of the Cocos Island and the experiences of August Gissler, a German who spent 19 years of his life systematically digging up the island inch by inch, Capus shows that the treasure, which was real enough, could not have been buried there. The question is where is it?
The clue Capus argues lies with Robert Louis Stevenson’s seemingly snap decision to locate to Samoa and to stay there despite the fact that the climate was detrimental to his tubercular health. The attraction, according to Capus, its close vicinity to a second island, formerly known as Cocos. All that effort off the coast of Costa Rica was misdirected due to a simple case of mistaken identity!
Now I can’t say whether Capus is right, and nor can he, because by the time he had pieced together his thesis, Royal Tonga Airlines had gone bankrupt and he couldn’t reach his ultimate destination. The argument or conjecture (as Capus calls it) stitched together with pieces of Stevenson’s life, general pirateering and treasure-hunting history (some stranger than the strangest fiction), and clues from the plot of Treasure Island itself spins a mighty fine yarn. One of which Stevenson himself would approve.
I like biography far better than fiction myself; fiction is too free. In biography you have your little handful of facts, like bits of a puzzle, and you sit down and fit ’em together this way and that, and get up and throw ’em down, and say damn, and go out for a walk. And it’s real soothing’ and when done, gives an idea of finish to the writer that is very peaceful. Of course, it’s not really so finished as quite a rotten novel; it always has and always must have the incurable illogicalities of life about it, the fathoms of slack and the miles of circuitous tedium. Still, that’s where the fun comes in” (Robert Louis Stevenson to Sir Edmund Goss, 18 June 1893)