Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson

There are books that come and sink without a trace and there are books that figure in literary discussions even centuries after they were written. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson is one of them.

I had read a book on the day-to-day account of Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the Indies and had developed interest in stories about people from the Western world travelling to obscure lands in search of treasure. Treasure Island for me is part of the family of such adventure books written in 18th and 19th centuries.

However, Treasure Island is conventionally considered as a book for children, like Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe. As a kid I had read Robinson Crusoe as part of my school syllabus and remembered the story vaguely and used to confuse it with Treasure Island. Reading Treasure Island helped me separate the two.

Treasure Island is written in first person and the hero, Jim Hawking, narrates the story. Jim comes to know of a treasure trove tucked away in an unknown island. He together with others goes to the island in search of it. They meet with lot of challenges on their voyage, wading through rebellions, fights, switching of loyalties etc., they finally get to the treasure.

The characters have no grown-up complexities. Their simplicity, however, is their strength – it endears and immortalizes them to the reader. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes is one such character. A reviewer had written that had Arthur Conan Doyle been a better writer and sketched Sherlock Homes more skillfully, the detective would be forgotten by now.

The fact that Sherlock Homes is nothing but the sum up of some styles (how he lights up his pipe, how he delivers his repartees, how he dresses etc – not personality traits but style statements) has made him easily interpretable to successive generations and adaptable to movies. Similarly, if you read Treasure Island, characters like Long John the ship cook and Captain Flint will remain with you. They become lovable whether they are good or bad.

The book I read is a Penguin Classic and it contains an author’s note at the end where Stevenson shares his experience of writing Treasure Island. He admits he hadn’t bothered about fine writing and characterization as it was going to be a children’s book. Treasure Island was Stevenson’s first published book but certainly not his first attempt at writing a novel. He had tried writing novels before but had not been able to take anything to a satisfactory end.

The idea of Treasure Island had come to him from a map of an island he had made sitting in painter friend’s room. He started writing the chapters and the book started taking shape. Stevenson also confesses to having been inspired by several books that had been written before. From them he generously borrowed ideas, characters, changing their names and details to masquerade them. My Penguin edition produces a chapter from a book to which the character Captain Flint owes its origin.

Ever since I finished Treasure Island, I have been looking to read the book I had read as a kid and have almost forgotten - Robinson Crusoe.

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