Stevenson Under the Palm Trees

by Alberto Manguel
ISBN: 0887621384

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A Review of: Stevenson Under the Palm Trees
by Jerry White

Jorge Luis Borges is alive and well, and living in, well, in Argentina. Sort of. That doesn't sound right at all, does it? Well, that's because I'm having a hard time articulating the way in which a Borgesian world-view is still part of contemporary literature, even though it may seem that much of world culture has assimilated and rendered indistinct his insights about the slipperiness of perception, the meaning of odds and ends, and the possibilities of finding the infinite in the imaginary.
That Borgesian tradition survives most clearly in two writers from Argentina, both of whom now make their home in France: Edgardo Cozarinsky and Albert Manguel. And beyond their common link with Argentina and France, Cozarinksy and Manguel are connected to each other, and also to Borges, in several important ways. They are both fascinated by the bits and pieces of everyday life, and they're both comfortable with the ways that history and imagination intertwine and become inseparable. While Borges's restlessness was intense but mostly confined to the winding corridors of his mind, both Manguel and Cozarinsky are more literal nomads, wandering freely all over the earth as a matter of course, because that's just the way that engaged people live. That's the way the characters in their new works live, anyway, and Manguel's novella Stevenson Under the Palm Trees and Cozarinksy's short-story collection La Fiance d'Odessa are both very good introductions indeed to the works of these two children of JLB.
Manguel's Stevenson Under the Palm Trees centres on Robert Louis Stevenson as he withers away on Samoa; he is gripped with a longing that's not quite homesickness, but the effects are similar. At one point, Manguel has him muse that "[t]he word nostalgia' (he remembered having read somewhere) had been invented in the seventeenth century by an Alsatian student in a medical thesis, to describe the malady that affected Swiss soldiers when far from their native mountains. For him it was the contrary: nostalgia was the pain of missing places that he had never seen before" (p38). Stevenson has lived his life through wandering, but the constant peregrinations had taken their toll. Indeed, earlier on in the work, Manguel writes that:

"During the long nights of his childhood, when, grasping for break and shaken by a hollow cough, he had sat up in his bed, with his nurse by his side, waiting for what they called the Night Hag to finish her ghastly business and go, he had told himself that if he ever had enough strength, he would use it to lead his body to the edge of any possible adventure; he would take to the road or the sea, he would set off like a new Ulysses in the bone of strange encounters but, above all, he would travel for the sake of the journey itself. He imagined his sick bed as a boat into which his nurse would help him every night, and then, when the lights went out, he would cast off into the blue darkness, breathing lightly. In this hope he had waited for morning." (p34)

This linkage of the sick bed and the boat is as important as Cozarinsky's connection of glass magic lantern plates and stories of Zion in the Argentine. These are images of gentle irony and sadness, images in which idealism is tender, as delicate as a butterfly's wings, and already on the way to being impaired.
And like Cozarinsky's focus on the family furniture businesses and the cathedral domes, Manguel concentrates his gaze on both global wandering-detachment from the particular-and tiny, local details. Indeed, this passage sounds a lot like Cozarinsky: "They crossed the market and entered a maze of wet streets, which reeked of cabbage and fish. Down a small cul-de-sac they reached a wooden gate, a pathway of raised floodstones and then a creaking door that set up a mob of invisible dogs barking. They climbed up two flights of rickety stairs and then stepped into a large unfurnished room, the entrance to which was protected by nothing more than a curtain of beads. Inside, a large woman was sitting on the floor, apparently feeding a group of children of various ages" (p57). The meaning here comes through the attention to small details, details rendered with a plainness that makes them seem ordinary but in a narrative context that is always making their deep foreign-ness seem vivid and often unsettling. This play between the ordinary and the unsettling, the sick-bed and Ulysses's ship, endless fields and glass plates in prayer meetings, is what, for both Manguel and Cozarinsky, coalesces into the idea of cosmopolitanism.
What's any of this got to do with Borges? Well, perhaps the relationship is more spiritual than literal, more about what Roland Barthes might call the grain of the voice than any shared subject matter. God knows this grain is tough to get at when one is working through the lens of translation, and these problems are compounded here: I approach Cozarinsky through a French translation of Spanish texts, Borges is known to most of Books in Canada's readers through English translations of his Spanish texts, and while Manguel is writing in English, Stevenson Under the Palm Trees first appeared as Stevenson sous les palmiers, published again by Paris' Actes Sud ["traduit de l'anglais (Canada) par Christian Le Boeuf"]. And yet, in the opening line of Borges's ficcion "Tln, Uqbar Orbis" we read: "I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia" ("Debo a la conjuncin de un espejo y de una enciclopedia el descubrimiento de Uqbar"). That conjunction, phrased in terms of discovery, echoes throughout both Cozarinsky and Manguel. But in a way, these wondrously adventurous and internationalist writers constitute a redemption of Borges's-charming, don't get me wrong-dustiness. The 1967 edition of Borges's Book of Imaginary Beings (co-written with Margarita Guerro), an obvious influence on Manguel's 1987 Dictionary of Imaginary Places (co-written with Gianni Guadalupi) opens with the following: "As we all know, there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition." I can see the kind of intellectual languor that Borges is evoking there, and it has its value. But Manguel and Cozarinsky have brought this sort of out-of-the-way erudition well out of the realm of the lazy. For them, this sort of pleasure it the most basic stuff of life.

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