December 2, 2014

The Art of the Novella challenge 5: The Beach of Falesá


the beach at falesaTitle: The Beach of Falesá

Author: Robert Louis Stevenson

First published: 1892

Page count: 116

First line: I saw that island first when it was neither night nor morning.

This one I picked at random, and quite a ride it took me on.  As a colonial anecdote of the end of the C19th, set in Polynesia, I read much of it through a wincing squint of liberal squeamishness. The racism in it runs from the deliberate and vicious to the ‘enlightened’, unconscious and the deeply structural. For the first third of the book, maybe, I took little or no pleasure in it.

But then, at a certain point, the narrative began to move faster, relegating the content, the context—the colour—to a secondary position (which is itself a political gambit) and the plot slipped into a groove that managed to marry the story to some kind of enjoyment. It dawned on me that I was reading something familiar, than ran along pre-established pleasure pathways—pre-established for me, at any rate.

I was reading, I realised, a James Bond book—hero, setting, villain, girl, explosive climax and all. Robert Lewis Stevenson had produced a source text for Ian Fleming’s oeuvre, specifically an ur-Dr No.

No one needs telling that Bond, especially in his novelistic origins, is as racist as he is sexist, and elitist, and in fact the new Vintage edition of Dr No (the sixth novel, though the first film) does treat this issue in its introduction. There, Jonathan Freedland suggests that Fleming might simply be “acting as a reporter, accurately passing on the prejudices of the age”- the old contextual argument; different times, different ways. The same can be said of Stevenson, of course, and moreso, though he does push his character into a moral awakening, no matter that this only operates within a higher structural framework that maintains and reinforces the wider social conditions of the novel.

The book starts with a British trader, John Wiltshere, arriving on a Polynesian island to take over a store designed to sell fabric, baubles and booze to the natives, in exchange for copra, the kernel of the coconut from which the valuable oil was extracted. He is welcomed by the few other whites on the island, and at first it looks like a fine spot to have landed up:

It was good to foot the grass, to look aloft at the green mountains, to see the men with their green wreaths and the women with their bright dresses, red and blue. On we went, in the strong sun and the cool shadow, liking both; and all the children in the town came trotting after with their shaven heads and their brown bodies, and raising a thin kind of cheer in our wake, like crowing poultry.

“By-the-bye,’ says Case, ‘we must get you a wife.”

The roll call of primary colours, the binary opposition of light and shade, are all symptomatic of the book. The world is a simple, prettified place; the objects in it have definite outlines, and are there to be coloured in by whoever happens to own the box of crayons.

That wife, of course, is a native girl, Uma, who is introduced in a scene that is no less erotically charged than Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in the 1962 film of Dr No.

I saw one coming on the other side alone. She had been fishing; all she wore was a chemise, and it was wetted through. She was young and very slender for an island maid, with a long face, a high forehead, and a shy, strange, blindish look, between a cat’s and a baby’s.

Wet t-shirted Uma is tricked into performing a meaningless ceremony so that Wiltshere can shack up with her for the duration of his stay. And, despite his misgivings, Wiltshere might have gone along with this, had things turned out alright for him on the island. But he finds out that he is jinxed: the islanders won’t buy from him; his expensive produce sits on his shelves; his copra store is empty.

It turns out it’s not him, but Uma that is the cause of the blacklisting, for some local reason that is linked to evil abroad on the island, though as her ‘husband’ Wiltshere is equally taboo. Uma is distraught—she thought that he knew she was bad news, and Wiltshere realises he has been conned into the disastrous ‘marriage’ by Case, the other white trader on the island, who had put on an initial front of welcome and honesty. It is at this point that Stevenson starts to lift the moral stakes of his tale. Rather than kicking Uma out, Wiltshere declares he loves her, marries her properly, and sets out to tackle, and take down Case.

The tale reveals itself for what it is. The island fades into the background. Uma, twice won, is the badge of Wiltshere’s honour—live or die, help or hinder, she can play no real part in the rest of the story. The story turns from her, and from the credulous islanders, towards Case, the white man who seemingly keeps the islanders under his thumb with talk of devils.

Case is a classic Bond villain. He even has a lair, a sort of temple in the jungle with tricks to fool the credulous—Aoelian harps in the trees, monstrous faces done up in luminous paint. It was the existence of the lair that gave it away. Here is the moment the penny dropped, for me, as for Wiltshere:

I was looking in front of me across the bay, and I saw the hanging front of the woods pushed suddenly open, and Case, with a gun in his hand, step forth into the sunshine on the black beach. He was got up in light pyjamas, near white, his gun sparkled, he looked mighty conspicuous; and the land-crabs scuttled from all around him to their holes.

Is Wiltshere then Bond? Well, in some respects no – in ‘home’ terms he is a scruff and a lout, some miles outside Commander Bond’s social circle. Yet in bravery, ingenuity, and brutishness, in quickness to love and to violence, he is every inch the same man. There is even something of the ‘agent’ about his job as ‘trader’. He travels the world, making a tidy profit for himself, and while doing so maintaining the infrastructure that allows him, others like him, and the mother country itself to carry on making those profits tomorrow, and the day after.

Certainly what follows – the last third of the narrative – is archetypal Bond. Wiltshere reconnoitres the lair, discovering Case’s tricks and over-coming his natural human fears at the same time. (The tricks to scare the natives have their exact analogue in Dr No, in the fire-breathing ‘Dragon’ and associated superstitions.) He has a forced, knowing and over-polite face-off with Case on the beach, in which either of them could kill the other, but doesn’t, thus setting up the final confrontation. He then heads back, at night, with enough explosives to blow the lair sky high. Which he does.

He blows it up. Just as happens at the end of every Bond film ever.

With the girl right there to be rescued. As in every Bond, ever.

And the villain to be killed, in a final desperate encounter.

Bond, Bond, Bond.

There is certainly more to Stevenson’s book than the overt racism of its characters and milieu. Wiltshere ‘does right by’ Uma, and ends the book settled down with her, and worrying about how his mixed-race children will fare in a racist world. But still the narrative, in its colonial framework, devolves all issues to questions of white, British legitimacy. The battle is between two white men. The island is at once a colourful backdrop, and a prize. That Bond frees the islanders from their semi-servitude to Case is incidental. Case does not belong to, or represent the island, any more than Dr No represents or belongs to the Jamaica of Fleming’s novel. Wiltshire fights Case for control of the island as part of a wider battle that does not concern those who live there, and it is only his newly awakened morality that stops him stepping directly into Case’s shoes and carrying on his bad work.

Which leads to two final thoughts about the novella form and film, and colonialism.

The Beach of Falesá is eminently filmable. And indeed it strikes me that the novella’s very filmability points towards a condition of the form: with less meat on the bones of the plot than a novel, there is less to cut, whereas short stories—defined along the ‘glance’ principle—can lack the thought-through narrative to hang a feature film on.

And what is it that is cut from the novella (and the 90-minute feature film), that the novel retains? Why, sub-plot, rounded secondary characters, excursions and discursions, the stuff of complexity and ambiguity. All the stuff that colonialism cannot countenance. ‘Falesá’ works as it does because it doesn’t care about the secondary characters, beyond Case. And certainly not the islanders. Even the missionary that marries Wiltshere and Uma is given more prosodic attention than them.

Colonialism sent educated/intelligent/privileged men around the world to bring back money, and stories. But those stories must not be too complex. (They must not be novels.) They must not be too suggestive. (They must not be short stories.) They must merely be adequate, and sufficient, to close off the wider world to our interest, while keeping it open as a source of exploitation. They must be anecdotes. They must be novellas.

Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.