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Treasure Islands, Sean Virgo
by Nancy Wigston

I spent three months in Makira, where Kareimanua, the shark?man, originated. Canoeing around coastal villages, collecting stories, gawping at Paradise like an eight year old SEAN VIRGO, a poet and short story writer, (White Lies and other Fictions, Through the Eyes of a Cat) published his first novel, Selakhi, in 1987. Five and a half years in preparation, it is a tour de force that has been called "dazzling," "a rediscovery in the liberating energy of words"; it was on the short list for the 1987 W. H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Nancy Wigston interviewed him in Toronto.

Books in Canada: You began as a poet and moved to fiction. Do you think you'll write poetry again?

Sean Virgo: I doubt it. I haven't for 10 years except for translations and the poems in my novel, which, of course, were not by me.

BiC: Why did you stop?

Virgo: I'd said all I could say in that form. Perhaps my poetry was just training anyway. My poems always implied a narrative context, were short stories in a way. 'Me move was natural and painless. BiC: Did your background encourage you to write?

Virgo: The house was full of books. Literature was held in esteem, though it didn't get past 1917. My father believed that T. S. Eliot would reveal in his will that it had all been a practical joke. I think theatre was more important. My father ran away from home to be an actor, and though he gave up in India and joined the British army he insisted that my sister Moya be allowed to go to drama school instead of university. She was a professional for ten years. In her teens she was always acting, reciting, parodying, and co?opting little me into the act. That and Irishness taught me from the first that words are speech.

BiC: When did you start writing?

Virgo: At 14. Puberty and courtly love have much to answer for. Awful poems of love andsolitude. Not that awful, actually ? totally inauthentic but verbally unusual. And I set words, or new words, to my favourite music. Since my idols at the time were Beethoven, Little Richard, Charley Parker, and the uillean piper, Dan O'Dowd, I guess I was quite versatile.

BiC: Selakhi takes place in the Solomon Islands; did you go there to research?

Virgo: Yes. I'd seen a statuette in a London museum that was human to the waist and shark from there up. My childhood was spent in South Africa where the folklore of sharks is as obsessive as that of grizzlies and wolverines. here. And who can resist metamorphosis? Two days after I'd seen that figure, I realised the poem I'd started in my head was going to turn into something much larger. I spent three months in Makira, where Kareimanua, the shark?man, originated. Canoeing round coastal villages, collecting stories, gawping at Paradise like an eight?year?old. And catching malaria ? I'd written most of the fever sections before I went ? one of those self?fulfilling prophecies that writers know about.

BiC: Did you learn the pidgin English that appears in the text there?

Virgo: Yes, the pidgin is authentic, I love it as a spoken tongue. I slightly modified it though, so it's like a Dick and Jane reader (or, for that matter, like Russell. Hoban's Riddley Walker) ? the vocabulary builds throughout the book. Some, people don't like my use of it, but I definitely write for people who hear what they read. Some people don't like the language of Riddley Walker. I think they're bone?lazy and tin?eared, and they're missing a wonderful, in effect collaborative experience.

BiC: The book centres on the adventures of Darien Hughes, a preternaturally bright English schoolboy, visiting his father, who is posted to the pre?independence Solomons. Excerpts at the front of the book suggest the poetic and frequently intoxicated Darien ? his brother?in?law calls him a "vicious little bastard" ? is modelled on Rimbaud. Is this correct?

Virgo: Rimbaud is important structurally to the book, and I see Darien as a 20th century, Anglo?Saxon Rimbaud, but it's hard for me to talk analytically about a character I deeply love. Sure, he's a little asshole, but I think the over?intelligent adolescent is one of the most fascinating personalities in our culture, deeply creative and deeply destructive. They're totally misunderstood (not least by themselves) and they breed the best and the worst that a culture can leave behind. I The Elizabethans were adolescents, their whole culture was. It's no accident to me that the real Rimbaud burned out when he did, at 19, and became a very inefficient gun?runner and slave?trader, an inept merchant. So yes, Darien is a fearful little turd, but he's lovable too, and very brave. To be that obnoxious is a. kind of courage, if you're not stupid. The most appreciative letters I've had about the novel have come from psychologists.

BiC: The book is laden with literary references, which produces a resonance, rather like Eliot in "The Wasteland"

Virgo: Yes, but can I say something about that? Those references are not me showing,off; they're not me being allusive. The only place I play a game like that is in the sequence where Darien ?gets drunk and is swept out to sea in a canoe. That chapter happens to be a dramatic translation of Rimbaud's Le Bateauivre, but the reader needn't know that. Every single literary reference in the book comes out of the wholly eccentric and often faulty reading of this young man, including books they made him read at school. The range of erudition is very slight ? he's such a little phoney. At one point he starts taking the piss out of "Ode to a Nightingale" and starts on a febrile rant about Keats blowing it by having this line about "beaded bubbles blinking at the brim" ?but he gets it wrong. Keats exactly did not make the mistake that Darien in his arrogant little memory thinks he did. He's wrong about so many things, he likes and hates a lot of things for the wrong reasons ? as teenagers do.

BiC: The erudition in the book, though, seems clearly English rather than Canadian or American, the product of the British public?school system.

Virgo: It has to be English. The book deals in part with. English colonialism. And inevitably I have to draw on my own background when dealing. with adolescence, and I was sent to an English boarding school. They chucked me out ? I was a pretty bad kid,? though I was never a vicious one ? I hate that part of my life.

BiC: Is there an element of personal revenge here?

Virgo: No. I wouldn't?waste time trying to get revenge on those people. You get out of a little world like that and realize that you've been subjugated by mediocrities, just because you were too young to know ? that's one of the things I'm trying to deal with. Darienthinks he's wrong most of the time ?he's whistling in the dark. I look back at myself at 17 and I really? thank that little guy for doing some of the things he did. I'm grateful to him, and envious.

BiC: Is Darien in any way your alter ego?

Virgo: I don't want to pretend that he isn't in some ways derived from me he is. But I insist, however contradictory it may sound, that the separation between us is total. Good writing is transmutation, not transcription. Darien has his own way of seeing the world, and it's not mine, and if at any point it became mine I would feel very uneasy ? it would mean I was getting in the way of my character's authentic life.

BiC: Some of his actions seem incongruous. For example, having run of from his father's house, why does he leave his improvised shelter to follow the Englishman, Puck , just when he seems to be rebuilding his sense of self, ridding himself of his cursed education, making contact with the islanders?

Virgo: It's incongruous, yes, but ask any parent about teen?age behaviour. However obnoxious he can be around his family, he's just a little kid, hes young for his age in some ways. And the natives he's begun to feel at home with just vanish when a white man turns up. He feels betrayed by them, and feels that everyone's watching him from the bushes deadly for an adolescent. He doesn't want to stumble when he's learning to jive. It's baffling behaviour but it makes sense. Creative readers, like actors, have to make baffling things work. They are often the real clues to a character. You see, the way this book is put together, the way information about his past is brought in piecemeal, is how someone really remembers, not through artificial flashbacks. For me, if there's something there, there's a reason for it. I don't think all the information is there about Darien till the last page of the book.

BiC: So much of the book is deliberately "difficult"?

Virgo: Some readers have found it difficult ? but this is the aesthetic I was interested in. Part of personality is memory, and I find the texture of memory fascinating, though very few literary conventions have touched what memory is. When I was 18 and saw Hiroshima mon amour (that first 12?frame flashback one?third of a second of the girl kneeling over the body of her German soldier in a French village) I suddenly realized how real flashbacks work ? we remember in an image that means everything about that time, place, and contact. Spelling the past out to the reader or viewer is a totally anti?dramatic convention. The only time I did that was when Darien is trapped by the rains in his shelter, and he does remember coherently. Elsewhere in the book the past is presented in emotionally loaded images. The character and his past develop as we spend more time with him. To try, to get to know someone is as complex and as serious in a book as it is in life.

BiC: By the time we get to the letters he writes during the rains ? by far the most straightforward information in the book ?we've earned it, in a way.

Virgo: I think after the first two?thirds of the book, when we do know Darien more or less, everything accelerates into the fast?moving adventure story that Selakhi really is. It's Treasure Island, but you can't write Treasure Island in 1983 the way Stevenson did in 1883.

BiC: The book seems to centre on Darien's purging himself of his over?civilization, his memories of school and so on, so he can get into ? in his words ? the "pagan flow," and become self?absorbed like the islanders. Do you agree with that? Virgo: He does run off at the mouth, even in his head! But yes, it is astonishing, it was to me, it was to Gauguin, it is to Darien, that Melanesians and Polynesians, like the Dream People of Malaya, can just sit on a log or a beach for hours at a time. To say they were bored would be obtuse. Is it mindlessness or mystical oneness with the flow of the universe? I don't know. In a sunbather on a Florida beach it seems witless; in a native of Makira it seems utterly enviable.

BiC: Don't you mean "stillness," as in "the still point of the turning world"?

Virgo: Yes, but he can't deal with it. Darien's got a European mind, and even in the tropics that mind is dancing and grinding and cavorting and playing We've got it, and we can't pretend we haven't.

BiC: Is that why he leaves his island shelter?

Virgo: Having got blackwater fever, that's out of his control. But in a more general sense he leaves because he's corrupted. I don't want to give away the end of the book, but Darien is about to destroy Selakhi. He's doing what any white person would do. 'Mere he is, plotting with Alf Willings, the New Zealand trader: in we go, get the gold out, make them an offer they can't refuse, beat out the Chinese competition ? you're going to be rich forever. He's lost it, as Rimbaud did when he went off to Ethiopia. The whole treasure dream of searching for gold on earth is simply greed, romantic greed, the alchemist's diseased twin. The treasure island becomes a literal treasure island and is destroyed. So, yes, Darien is adjusted, yes, he's beginning to be tolerant of his father, and the family's thinking he's a good kid after all, but he's lost it for me. He has lost his obnoxiousness but he's about to lose his magic too. And the sharks won't permit that to happen.

BiC: What about the idea of the noble pagan in the book? Isn't that rather a l9th?century notion?

Virgo: Eighteenth, actually, but I think it goes back a hell of a lot further than that. I doubt that there has ever been a "great civilization" which has not had a tendency to romanticize the noble savage it's just finished raping. The Greeks and Romans did, the Chinese and Japanese, the Portuguese did; in America the flea?bitten horse thieves were transformed at a stroke into laconic oracles. Apartheid is riddled with notions of noble savagery, though no one seems to have pointed it out. The kilt and tartan were allowed back into Scotland and then worn romantically by people whose fathers were wiping out the Highlanders because they wore the kilt and the tartan. Suddenly the bagpipe's cute, instead of the war cry of the Gaels. But that's not my stance ? for one thing "my" pagans are not noble, they're, blessed, they belong in their environment. What's more, they're a culture that hasn't been raped. Yet.

BiC: To get back to the question of style ? there seems a definite break here between your approach in your earlier stories, even though some themes are similar ? such as the experience of the British soldier with aboriginal Malays in "Ipon" in White lies.

Virgo: Selakhi took the aesthetic I'd been working in or towards through my stories for seven or eight years to what I think was its necessary conclusion. Now I'm exploring another voice and strategy altogether.

BiC: Is Selakhi then a hybrid of prose and poetry?

Virgo: No. But then I'm very uncomfortable about the distinction. I take as much care with a paragraph as many people take with a poem.

BiC: What are you writing now?

Virgo: Selakhi exhausted me. Its reception confused me. I spent a year trying to write and despising the results. Then a new novel began developing. It's about one?third written. It's set in Swedenborg Township in southwestern Ontario, and superstition forbids further disclosure! And I'm just finishing a collection of short stories. It's called Wormwood, which, if you know the biblical apocalypse, is a pretty accurate title.

BiC? Do you feel you belong to a community, as a writer?

Virgo: No ? the only useful community is the beloved dead who shaped you. An awareness of them, the attempt to claim kin with them, is both comfort and chastisement. You milk your contemporaries, you read them as a fellow craftsman, not as a reader. Of course I see myself as one of the "tribe" ? we exchange masonic winks when we meet; but a community of oneiric subversives is a contradiction in terms.


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