Under the Palm Trees
In the last months of his life, author Robert Louis Stevenson began documenting by photograph his neighbors, friends and social acquaintances among Samoa’s ruling classes. These were not our idea of typical nineteenth-century rulers—they held spears, wore coral necklaces and had skin the color of burnt sienna. For Stevenson, these nobles not only represented how far he had come geographically in his lifetime, but how far he had moved away from the cultural confines of Edinburgh, that peripheral center of home. In one of the last photos taken in his life, Stevenson stands in front of his house with local Samoan gentry at one side, his own family at the other. They are arranged precariously along the steep staircase—the house being built on stilts to resist the floodwaters which ravaged the island in rainy season—large leafy palm trees towering above the wooden house where Stevenson was to die shortly.
It is these last few months of Stevenson’s life which form the core around Alberto Manguel’s novel Stevenson Under the Palm Trees. While walking along the beach in his adopted country, Stevenson, who is the protagonist of Manguel’s novel, encounters another native Scotsman, Baker, a missionary that Stevenson is surprised to learn living amongst islanders, preaching The One True Way—a vague undefined dogma that has its roots in nineteenth-century denials of the passionate nature of humankind. Since Stevenson misses the cold steely air of Edinburgh from his wooden house in this vibrant and passionate land, he feels strangely drawn to Baker, though his approach to converting the natives is one that Stevenson is ambivalent about. Indeed, Stevenson’s encounters with Baker are juxtaposed against wild, almost orgiastic native rituals which he attends with his family. It is during such a ritual that Stevenson casts his eye on a young pubescent dancer who represents all the passion and sexuality that men like Stevenson and Baker are both attracted to and repulsed by.
This event has a strange and electrifying effect on Stevenson’s work. He feverishly works on a new story, only to be deeply embarrassed when Fanny, his wife, is appalled by its sensationalistic and passionate nature. He destroys the story and when he next sees Baker, they discuss stories and their power upon people. “I think you can learn through stories almost better than through sermons,” Stevenson tells Baker, but the missionary is not impressed:
“The natives like stories. They are their history,” Stevenson tells the missionary. But, they are at a crossroads: to Baker, the only “truth” is the Scriptures. It’s an awkward moment for Stevenson. His life’s work, according to Baker, is superstition and deceit. Later, Stevenson will learn that the girl he was so infatuated with has been murdered on a lonely island hilltop and it is clear from the outset that the natives suspect him of slaying her.
The dual natures of Stevenson and Baker, Edinburgh and Apia, deceit and truth, passion and control, echo a real Robert Louis Stevenson story from 1892, “The Beach of Falesa,” which itself presents a duality between the white traders and native islanders. In this tale, the stories told by Wiltshire’s main rival, Case, come to wreak havoc on relations between Wiltshire and the natives which affect his economic livelihood. Wiltshire, like Stevenson in the Manguel novel, also becomes infatuated with a local girl, Uma, though Wiltshire, with Case’s help, marries Uma (illegally, it turns out). But it is in the striking power of one’s stories, in the webs of deception that each individual constructs for his life where the real force of Stevenson’s tale begins.
Manguel takes these deceptive stories and synthesizes them with the motif of the duality of human nature. The fictionalized Stevenson is both drawn to and repulsed by the island’s fertile warmth and beauty. It represents all that is uncivilized, unclean, impure and overly passionate. Yet Edinburgh too, distant land that it is, is ever-present in Stevenson’s mind: it is cold, stone, rigid, and Stevenson misses its order tremendously.
To the missionary Baker, who is either helping or harming Stevenson and his relationship with the natives (another echo from the 1892 Stevenson tale), his only quest is to save the souls of the islanders. Yet his righteousness is hypocritical. When Stevenson asks if he is a “teetotaler”:
When Stevenson asks about himself and his own drinking habits, the conversation leads to the subject of passion and the nature of civilization. “Our civilization is a hollow fraud,” Stevenson tells Baker, “But there are so many moments of utter joy, glimpses of paradise, and for those I live” . The dilemma that Stevenson faces is where we find this passion and how we control it. Should we stifle it? For Baker, there is no question: passion is dangerous.
The lies and gossip of the island start working their way around the fictional Stevenson of Manguel’s novel. The islanders cease their relations with him, he is banished from their shops, forbidden to mingle with them. He is an outcast, just as Wiltshire becomes an outcast in “The Beach from Falesa.” Stevenson’s illness (he is dying of tuberculosis) slowly destroys him as Baker’s venom and insidious fanaticism reach a frenzied state. When Baker removes a book from Stevenson’s shelf as he lays incapacitated, he turns to a marked page which sums up the motif of duality in the book:
Stevenson’s double, Baker, lays the book quietly down on the nightstand. “Now that you’ve understood this, I need not come again. Farewell, my brother.” Stevenson does not see him again and in a few days is dead. In the end, with dueling dualities, passion and control, cold and warm, light and dark, it must end badly.
The most important thing to take from Stevenson Under the Palm Trees is the luminous and beautiful writing that Manguel brings to it. His lyrical approach to questions of passion, beauty, and the complicated duality of human life, is accessible and enjoyable. This short and intensely readable book is illustrated with several woodcuts done by Stevenson’s own hand in 1881 as he was recuperating in a sanatorium in Switzerland. These illustrations were originally consigned to accompany a (as Manguel calls it) “book of short ditties” called Moral Emblems. They add a intriguing dimension to Manguel’s novel.
of Argentine ancestry but raised in Israel and a Canadian citizen
since 1984, has written several other books, including News
from a Foreign Country Came, Dictionary of Imaginary Places,
and the hugely successful A History of Reading.