Adonis Diaries

Archive for December 13th, 2016

Why Robert Louis Stevenson’s South Sea Tales go against the tides

Stevenson was famous for adventures such as Treasure Island, but his South Sea Tales reveal a savage political and moral engagement

Friday 9 December 2016

Adapting a book is a sure-fire way of discovering its strengths and weaknesses. Its plot must prove truly dramatic; dialogue must not only ring true but reveal character and advance the action.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s South Sea Tales, broadcast this weekend starring David Tennant, are my 10th foray into adapting for Radio 4’s Classic Serial slot – after novels by Edith Wharton, Dodie Smith and John Wyndham – and I have never felt more privileged to be let loose on another writer’s work.

Both The Beach at Falesá and The Ebb Tide (novellas, in fact, at 70 pages and 131 pages respectively) were written while Stevenson lived in Samoa, from 1890-94, in the final years of his short life.

He brought to them all the literary skills he had developed over his career as a bestselling writer, but beyond technique and confidence, these tales have a savage political and moral engagement, a real-world vision, and a black humour that is more distilled here than in anything else he wrote.

Stevenson and his wife, Fanny, set off for the South Seas in 1888, when he knew he was under sentence of death. He’d been suffering lung haemorrhages for years and doctors advised a warmer climate.

Exploring the islands gave him a new energy and engaged his passionate curiosity about the islanders, both colonisers and colonised. From the start, his attitudes to the indigenous people, who included cannibals, differed widely from those of most other Europeans.

In his journalism about his travels, he reveals that he found many resemblances between them and Scottish highlanders and islanders of the 18th century:

In both cases an alien authority enforced, the clans disarmed, the chiefs deposed, new customs introduced, and chiefly that of regarding money as the means and object of existence … Hospitality, tact, natural fine manners and a touchy punctilio are common to both races: common to both tongues the trick of dropping medial consonants …

Stevenson, Fanny and numerous relatives, visitors and Polynesians settled in an estate he named Vailima in 1890. He learned to read and speak the language (a single language in all of Polynesia?).

His increasing knowledge of, and involvement in, island politics, and his back-breaking work clearing paths through the jungle on the estate, fed into the fiction he wrote there. It was fiction so different from Kidnapped or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde that his fans were dismayed, and Oscar Wilde wrote: “I see that romantic surroundings are the worst surroundings possible for a romantic writer.”

The Beach at Falesá tells the story of trader, Wiltshire, who is welcomed by another white trader on the island, Case, and offered a native wife, Uma. Case organises a grotesque parody of a wedding between Wiltshire and Uma, and feigns ignorance when Wiltshire finds himself instantly tabooed.

No one on the island will trade with him. Gradually the truth emerges. Case has driven other traders from the island and even helped to kill a couple of them; the natives are in thrall to him, convinced he has devilish powers. Blunt, racist, atheist Wiltshire is an unlikely hero, but he is revealed to be both decent and courageous, and he falls in love with Uma, who is herself extraordinarily brave.

Stevenson’s depiction of a strong, intelligent native woman is based on observation; in his journalism he reports that power in Samoa resided in rank, not gender.

Real-world vision … Stevenson, seated centre, with the Vailima household.
Real-world vision … Stevenson, seated centre, with the Vailima household. Photograph: Rischgitz/Getty Images

It is Wiltshire who relates the story, opening with: “I saw that island first when it was neither night nor morning. The moon was to the west, setting, but still broad and bright. To the east, and right amidships of the dawn, which was all pink, the daystar sparkled like a diamond …”, beautifully setting up the conflicts to come: night and day, dark and light, death and love.

In a letter to his close friend Colvin, Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Seas story; I mean with real South Sea character and details of life”.

It is fascinating to trace that realism back to actual events described in his and Fanny’s journals.

In the Gilbert islands a native woman proudly displayed her marriage certificate to them. It stated that she was “married for one night” (Zawaaj al mot3at) and that her white “husband was at liberty to send her to hell the next morning”. Uma’s marriage certificate, which she guards jealously, contains the same wording, and as Wiltshire falls in love with her it gnaws at his conscience sufficiently for him to request a proper marriage by a missionary.

Similarly, Case’s “Devil-Church” in the bush terrifies natives with a glowing devil’s face, just as Fanny frightened thieves away nightly from her piglets by painting a hideous mask in luminous paint on a cask lid.

Stevenson’s letters record that The Ebb Tide, published two years later, was painfully difficult to write, and although it still contains glints of comedy, the story is dark indeed.

Three down-and-outs are malingering on the beach at Papeete, scrounging food from Polynesian sailors. Davis is a disgraced US sea captain, Huish a thieving cockney, Herrick an Oxford-educated failure. Their fortunes are reversed when Davis is given captaincy of a schooner that no one else will touch because the captain and mate have died of smallpox.

Our three desperadoes set sail with a Polynesian crew, and are soon tucking into the cargo of champagne and squabbling horribly. Their plans to steal the ship are thwarted by a shortage of stores, and they put in at a private island where they find a “huge, dangerous-looking fellow. His manners and movements, like fire in flint, betrayed his European ancestry”.

He is Attwater, the most villainous villain you are likely to meet this side of Kurtz (I am not alone in thinking Joseph Conrad may owe the older and, at that time, more successful Stevenson something of a debt for Heart of Darkness). Attwater has combined missionary zeal with ruthless efficiency in running a pearl fishery, and 29 of his 32 slaves have recently died of smallpox.

The dinner to which he invites his three guests is a masterpiece of suspense, over which he presides with veiled menace. “A cat of huge growth sat on his shoulder purring, and occasionally, with a deft paw, capturing a morsel in the air.” (A prototype for Blofeld?) Here’s a morsel of dialogue from that dinner. The conversation has turned to Attwater’s method of slave-driving.

“Wait a bit,” said the captain. “I’m out of my depth. How was this? Do you mean to say you did it single‑handed?”
“One did it single-handed,” said Attwater, “because there was nobody to help one.”
“’Ope you made ’em jump,” said Huish.
“When it was necessary, Mr Whish, I made them jump.”

Herrick, the Hamlet of the piece, paralysed by indecision, listens in silence. Note the captain’s drowning figure of speech, Attwater’s upper-crust “one”, and his insulting mispronunciation of Huish’s name. As for Huish, his accent is written in.

Snobbery, the greed and cruelty of white people, religious hypocrisy and the casual destruction of native cultures and lives are all grist to Stevenson’s mill.

Yet he succeeds in exploring these dark themes in tales of high drama and suspense, with wicked humour and an infectious open-heartedness towards all his characters. They are exposed, but rarely judged.

The Beach at Falesá is on Radio 4 at 9pm on 10 December and The Ebb Tide at 3pm on 11 December. Jane Rogers’s latest novel is Conrad and Eleanor.



C’était un dimanche .. Il y a dix ans de cela .
J’étais de garde ce matin là . Il faisait beau et je prenais mon café en y trempant tous mes projets des prochaines vacances que je me servais en tartines anticipées !

Le téléphone sonna .
Ce maudit téléphone qui vous arrache à votre cocon privé pour vous balancer dans la sphère publique qui peut disposer de vous à chaque instant .
Une voix masculine rappelant celle de « Bob » dans NIKITA , lorsqu’il rappelait à une mission Anne Parillaud
« Allo Joséphine ? »

…Le téléphone retentit donc et cette voix m’annonça que je suis demandé d’urgence .
Une dame qui exigeait de voir un médecin car « n’allait pas bien »
Après tout c’est mon boulot , que j’aime ( et que parfois je déteste)
Me voici au chevet de cette dame , assise dans son lit paraissant en bonne forme mais aux yeux brillants de malice

Un dialogue s’engagea
– Bonjour Madame , on m’a appelé pour vous examiner .. Il paraît que vous n’allez pas bien .
– Bonjour Docteur . Justement pas trop bien non . . J’ai beau le dire à l’infirmière elle me martèle « mais vous avez une bonne tension ». Je lui parle d’un moral à zéro elle me parle d’une tension à 14 !!

Tout en l’examinant et en l’interrogeant , j’ai compris qu’elle avait juste envie de parler .
Je me suis résolu à l’écouter .( Je vous ai dit que j’aimais mon métier . )
Elle avait pris ma main dans les siennes , et me raconta d’une voix paisible , heureuse d’avoir un « co-assis ou un co-locuteur » comme on dit en arabe ( jaleess aw nadeem )
Elle me raconta ses escapades de jeunesse .

– Je connais toute l’Europe presque , j’ai été en Amérique , j’ai même été une fois en Australie avec feu JEAN mon mari. Ah c’était une belle époque .

A chaque nouveau pays elle serrait plus fort ma main !
– Et nous avions passé 2 mois entiers en Egypte , puis deux semaines en Jordanie . Elle me dévisagea soudain d’un peu trop près et me demanda
– Vous êtes bien brun vous docteur , mais je ne sais d’où vient votre accent .
( Si je lui disais mon origine libanaise je prenais pour une heure de plus )
– Je verrouillais son imaginaire : Je suis de St .Médard Madame ( localité à côté de Bordeaux . )

– Ca ne fait rien me dit-elle !! vous savez nous avons passé notre lune de miel avec Jean à Guernesey . Vous savez où c’est ?
– Je peux vous demander de lâcher ma main Madame svp.

– Pourquoi donc ? … ( comme si ma main était son dû )
– Pour rien … Juste que nous sommes dimanche matin ; il fait beau , et je suis là avec vous qui n’avez pas un véritable besoin médical de moi . Je vous ai écoutée très attentivement mais moi , madame , vous pensez un peu à moi ?

– Comment ça penser à vous ?! Voilà autre chose. C’est aux malades de penser aux médecins maintenant ?

Je repris fermement :

Je dirai quoi moi quand j’aurai 86 ans et que j’appellerai le médecin parce que je me sentirai vraiment mal .
Je lui répondrai quoi quand il me dira « vous avez largement profité de votre jeunesse , pensez-y au lieu de déprimer ».

Je lui dirai justement pas trop non ; car je passais mes dimanches, main dans la main, avec les mamies qui elles me racontaient comment elles ont bien profité de la leur …

( je vous ai dit que parfois aussi, je détestais mon métier )

( Jamil BERRY )

List of winning bidders for collecting trash: Overpriced and incompetent?

Ziad Abi Chaker replied to a comment on this.
Neemat Frem's photo.

المقارنة الحقيقية لعرض INDEVCO


Marty Kaplan on the Weapons of Mass Distraction

Why US society unable to emulate Brazil uprising?

Across the world — Greece, Spain, Brazil, Egypt — citizens are turning angrily to their governments to demand economic fair play and equality.

But here in America, with few exceptions, the streets and airwaves remain relatively silent. In a country as rich and powerful as America, why is there so little outcry about the ever-increasing, deliberate divide between the very wealthy and everyone else?

Media scholar Marty Kaplan points to a number of forces keeping these issues and affected citizens in the dark — especially our well-fed appetite for media distraction.

“We have unemployment and hunger and crumbling infrastructure and a tax system out of whack and a corrupt political system — why are we not taking to the streets?” Kaplan asks Bill.

“I suspect among your viewers, there are people who are outraged and want to be at the barricades. The problem is that we have been taught to be helpless and jaded rather than to feel that we are empowered and can make a difference.”

An award-winning columnist and head of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, Kaplan also talks about the appropriate role of journalists as advocates for truth.

Interview Producer: Gina Kim. Editor: Rob Kuhns.
Intro Producer: Robert Booth. Intro Editor: Paul Henry Desjarlais.




December 2016

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