Magazine article The Spectator

Hide and Seek

Magazine article The Spectator

Hide and Seek

Article excerpt

Hide and seek STEVENSON UNDER THE PALM TREES by Alberto Manguel Canongate, £7.99, pp. 105, ISBN 1841954497

The constant command in the works of Alberto Manguel is 'look closer'. From his terrifying novel, News from a Foreign Country Came to his A History of Reading and Reading Pictures, A History of Love and Hate and Into the Looking Glass Wood and his book of notes that analyse the film The Bride of Frankenstein he surprises, shocks and awakens us. He is both the wizard releasing coloured doves from a black top hat and the dedicated scholar soberly at desk.

He is fascinated by duality (duality is the whole message of his early novel) and it is everybody's duality that is the subject of this new story. The book itself has its own duality too, for it can be read either as a seductive little novella about Robert Louis Stevenson's last brave months on the island of Apia in Samoa, where he had gone to seek a cure for his tuberculosis, or as a sinister tale of evil infesting and infecting the soul.

There is nothing new of course about Stevenson's belief that we are two people. He lived before psychoanalysis, in the days, as Joyce said, a 'long time before we were jung and afreud of the dark', but in 1885 - he died in 1894 he had written Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And, as Nicholas Rankin says in his splendid book about Stevenson, Dead Man's Chest, 'Perhaps it is no accident that the letter between H for Hyde and J for Jekyll is I.'

Manguel, then, makes Stevenson at last meet his alter ego, his doppelgänger, face to face. Although he is dying, he is calm. It is a moment when he has reached the peak of popularity, the worldwide bestselling author (Kipling was still getting up steam, and in Stevenson's view writing far too fast and too much). People were seeking him out from all over the world to do homage. The native Samoans loved him and called him 'Tusitala, teller of tales' and he was wonderfully cared for by three generations of his loving family. He had the attractive quality of the Scotsman who can enjoy a far-flung country while homesick for his native land. He was still writing about both. He was writing the day he died.

But one day at sunset Manguel has him walk down to the shore and come upon a shadowy white man with an Edinburgh accent and a wide-brimmed hat similar to Stevenson's own. …

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