Alberto Manguel’s novella takes its title from Goethe’s aphorism ‘No-one wanders under palm trees unpunished’. Set on the hazy interface between reality and fiction, it is a dreamlike meditation on consciousness and identity; the stories we tell others and those we tell ourselves.
Manguel’s central character is Robert Louis Stevenson, mortally ill in Samoa and, between bouts of sickness, trying to complete his final fictional work. Stevenson, known on the island as Tusitala, the Teller of Tales, is an honoured presence among the Samoans and feels he has found a safe haven among these uninhibited people who revere the gift of storytelling. Everything changes with the arrival of a reactionary Scots missionary preaching hellfire and damnation. Several shocking acts of violence shatter the peace of the island, including the rape and murder of a teenage girl. Gradually, and against all evidence, Stevenson finds himself implicated in the bloodshed. Rumours about his involvement spring up and are spread around the island by whisper and elaboration.
Stevenson Under the Palm Trees interweaves factual events from Stevenson’s final days with reflections on the themes of duality and the manifestations of desire – the very ideas Stevenson was exploring in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
In this tiny, glittering jewel of a book, little more than an extended short story, Alberto Manguel has produced a mesmeric tale in which dreams take physical shape and character and author merge. In the spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson, Manguel has evoked, with a delightfully feather-light touch, the drives which corrode our humanity and those which underpin it.