Monday, November 15, 2010

Book 34, British Virgin Islands: “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Yes, I’m a hypocrite. I made fun of Shelbi for doing Dracula for her Romanian book, and now I, too, am interpreting a country through the Victorian fantasy thereof. What to do? I scoured the library and Kindle catalogues and couldn’t find a single writer who was a British Virgin Islander him/herself.

Stevenson never actually visited the Caribbean, but he based the story off his mariner uncle's tales of Norman Island and Charles Kingsley's memoir, At Last: Christmas in the West Indies. So it kinda counts. And anyway, I’ve never read me this classic. The only film version I’ve seen is Disney’s Treasure Planet (haven’t even seen the Muppet Treasure Island!). And this is ur-text for pirate lore itself: the fount of peglegs, parrots yelling pieces of eight and yohoho and a bottle of rum.

It’s a marvelous distraction, surprisingly better toilet reading than New Malaysian Essays 2 (although maybe it’s the Kindle that makes it so convenient to dip into), and man do I love all that archaic language and elevated, unself-conscious prose - after all, it's narrated by the virtuous yet bad-assedly heroic teenage boy Jim Hawkins, with occasional interjections by the Doctor Livesey, both of whom believe ardently in the virtuous of good Christian faith and the damnededness of rum.

Of course, having watched Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, you do have to give some leeway for the fact that in this book swashbuckling hadn't yet been pushed to its psychedelic, octopus-bearded limits. I mean, all the pirates get spooked out about on Skeleton Island is a single skeleton and the voice of the half-idiotic Ben Gunn (ah, the wild man archetype!). On the other hand, the book presses home the fact that it is by no means easy for Long John Silver to get about as a middle-aged man on a wooden leg - he stumbles on uneven ground and roars at the Captain when he refuses to give him a hand up when they're both sitting on the sand - a touch of realism which isn't quite grit, but which makes bloody sense.

Another thing about Long John Silver. He's perhaps the only really Caribbean character of the lot, given that it's mentioned that his wife is "a woman of colour". (I'd thought this was perhaps an idiom of the time for a scolding wife, a woman of choler, as it were, but later on Jim says "I dare say he met his old Negress, and perhaps still lives in comfort with her and [his parrot] Captain Flint. It is to be hoped so, for his chances of comfort in another world are very small."

There really is very little mention of Caribbean culture in the book, other than the name of the ship (HISPANIOLA) and a stopover in Spanish America, where young Jim is "immediately surrounded by shore boats full of Negroes and Mexican Indians and half-bloods selling fruits and vegetables and offering to dive for bits of money. The sight of so many good-humoured faces (especially the blacks), the taste of the tropical fruits, and above all the lights that began to shine in the town made a most charming contrast to our dark and bloody sojourn on the island." They take on a few hands there, but the ones we meet on the journey are all Englishmen, picked up on the docks themselves.

On the other hand, there is that old ruse of the dangers of the tropics - the pirates' great misstep is camping out in a malarial bog, after all. Bah, not completely inclined to do an entire post-colonial reading of the book. Though it does bear mentioning that this is the same guy who wrote, in A Child's Garden of Verses:

Little Indian, Sioux or Crow,
Little frosty Eskimo,
Little Turk or Japanee,
O! Don’t you wish that you were me?

The poem's deliberately ironic. Let's the embrace hipster culture and love it for being so.

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Representative quote: "The score!" he burst out. "Three goes o'rum! Why, shiver me timbers, if I hadn't forgotten my score!"

And falling on a bench, he laughed until the tears ran down his cheeks. I could not help joining, and we laughed together, peal after peal, until the tavern rang again.

"Why, what a precious old sea-calf I am!" he said at last, wiping his cheeks. "You and me should get on well, Hawkins, for I'll take my davy I should be rated ship's boy. But come now, stand by to go about. This won't do. Dooty is dooty, messmates."

Next book: Jean Heyn's The Governor-General's Lady, from the US Virgin Islands.

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