As I write, I have a vague memory of seeing a photo of Robert Louis Stevenson in front of his home at Apia, Samoa in a school reader and this added to my memories of his adventure works which I read along with those of R.M Ballantyne’s ‘The Coral Island’ (so very homoerotic!), H Rider Haggard and the Baroness Orczy. His writing and retreat to Samoa with his American wife to gain respite from his tubercular condition always had a degree of exoticism and romanticism that attracted the young.
Michael Fitzgerald has spent a lot of time investigating aspects of Stevenson’s life on his island retreat and focuses on two aspects. One is the visit to Samoa by the relatively unknown painter Girolamo Nerli to paint the famous author (and the consequent contemporary investigative visit by Australian art historian Lewis Wakefield). The other is aspects of his life on the island with a focus on his acceptance by the Polynesian culture manifested in his support to local independence long with his interactions with local culture including his servant boy Sosimo and the local fa’afafine (best described in contemporary terms as transgender women). The fa’afafine phenomenon is not exclusive to Samoa or Polynesia and similar examples can be found in other cultures. It would seem, however, that the degree of their acceptance is relatively high in that case, though still sometimes fraught with difficulties as depicted.
I confess I took up this book with the above-mentioned memories very much in my mind but was also attracted by the theme of investigating sexual and gender variations. I cannot say I was totally disappointed, but the book was no detailed factual investigation. Rather it is an almost lyrical presentation with lots of evocative language swirling around Stevenson’s life and experiences, Nerli’s visit and Wakefield’s later experiences investigating this history and his own involvement with Teuila, a fa’afafine. If there was a major weakness for me, it lay in this language aspect as I often found this a little repetitive though interesting as the local environment is presented as having the power to suck these individuals into some kind of vortex of tropical exoticism.
Dubbed Tusitala (the teller of tales) by the locals Stevenson struggles with his disease but finds succour with the local people, Nerli passes through and is largely forgotten while Wakefield has psychological and medication problems that partly contribute to the shifting moods and portrayals. This work is very much a matter of taste and I am sure many will enjoy the mixture of facts, fiction and exotic location and language.