Friday, 1 August 2008

Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson

Oh, what a glorious book, to be sure. A simply told tale of pirates and treasure. Indeed, perhaps the tale. It set the standard and has given us so much that is iconic.

To start with, there is a map. It is always too small (someone should do an edition with a fold out parchment version), but it is a map. There is a young, semi-orphaned hero whose world is thrown upside down. There is atmosphere aplenty. There are phrases: ‘Pieces of eight’, ‘Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum’, and ‘Jim, lad’. They're really there.

Then there are the pirates, the gentlemen of fortune. Billy Bones and Blind Pew – you can smell the tar and salt air – striking fear in many a heart and both dead by the end of the first part of the book. Only a writer confident that he has something better to follow would do that. And he does. The one-legged man. What a creation, the most wonderful pirate of all – Barbecue, Long John Silver with his one leg, wooden crutch and the parrot on his shoulder. Parodied ever since, this is the original.

Silver is an intelligent villain who always knows which way the wind is blowing. It accounts for his longevity and for the fact that the other buccaneers fear him. Even Captain Flint (who happily created a corpse to stretch out for a marker to his buried treasure), a man whose foul shadow has fallen so darkly across everyone’s lives, feared Silver. Yet there is more to this man than evil cunning. His is a true intelligence, and somewhere beneath the habitual and casual violence, beneath the greed, there is a glimpse of some long stifled decency.

If you have not read this book, you really must. It is an exemplar of intelligent story telling just as it is an exemplar of good writing. Plot, themes, characters, all meld into a cracking good yarn. No false sentimentality, superbly drawn characters. There are many vivid moments that stick in the mind. Gunn’s desire for a bit of toasted cheese, the death of Israel Hands (yet another truly evocative name).

Adventure story it may be (and it has little pretensions to being anything else), but it also contains a great deal of depth that you are left to explore at your own discretion rather than having it thrust on you. And if you want a real treat, try to find the edition illustrated by Mervyn Peake. If ever a book and artist belonged together it was these two.