February 15, 2008
I read a lot of books on San Francisco and California history. And though these posts are labeled “book reviews”, the only books you’ll ever see here are those that I’ve really enjoyed. In short, if you see it here, it’s a great book — I’ve no urge to write about the stinkers! And if you feel moved to seek out a copy for yourself, a click on the image of the book below will lead you to an independent book seller. Read on…
This odd little tale was brought to my attention by a listener who could not believe that I hadn’t mentioned it in my podcast about Robert Louis Stevenson.
Of course I hadn’t mentioned it because I’d never heard of it. In fact, I’d never read a single line of Stevenson’s short fiction, but with my listener’s promise that it was “spectacularly weird and wonderful”, I trundled off to the library to dig it up.
Boy did that trip ever pay off. The story actually was spectacularly weird — and impossible to put down. I read the entire (very short) book on my feet, unwilling to interrupt the flow by searching for a chair.
My reader — okay, he does have a name — “Scott” had been surprised at the absence of this tale from my podcast. Though most of the action takes place in the Kingdom of Hawaii, the bizarre little fable actually begins among the mansions of San Francisco’s Nob Hill. I hesitate to delve too deeply into the plot — I’d hate to spoil it for you — but a brief synopsis is probably in order:
Keawe, a young kanaka (as native Hawaiians were known in those days), shows up in San Francisco and buys a strange little bottle from a wealthy, sad-eyed gentleman. A hideous imp trapped inside the bottle has the power to grant every wish and desire of whoever owns it. True to the tale’s fairytale form, though, there’s a devilishly clever catch — why else would the gentleman wish to sell the article responsible for his vast fortune? The bottle must always be sold for less than the price it was purchased for. It may not be thrown or given away – a proposition which Keawe carefully tests — and if the owner dies without having sold it, “he must burn in hell for ever.”
The bottle was said to have been brought to Earth by the Devil and first purchased by Prester John for millions of dollars; as it passed from hand to hand, the price always decreasing, the imp brought fame, fortune and power to men like Napoleon and Captain James Cook. At the beginning of Stevenson’s tale the price has diminished to a mere eighty dollars, and by the end, well — this provides the crux of the Keawe’s dilemma.
It’s a great story, but San Francisco makes only a brief appearance. As Keawe wanders up from the port in the first pages, he looks around him and observes,
“This is a fine town, with a fine harbour, and rich people uncountable; and in particular, there is one hill which is covered with palaces. What fine houses these are! And how happy must those people be who dwell in them, and take no care for the morrow!”
Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson is best known for adventure novels like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, but he was a master of horror and the supernatural as well … in his own words, “engaged darkly with an ink bottle.” As an example The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde springs quickly to mind, but short stories such as Markheim and The Body Snatcher also illustrate his ongoing fascination with the subject.
The Nob Hill setting of the first chapter comes from Stevenson’s own San Francisco experience. He lived at a boardinghouse on Bush Street from 1879-80, but — as detailed in “Chinatown Treasure” — he had a propensity for avoiding the Nabobs on the hill. Instead, he spent his time with outsiders — the immigrants of Chinatown. The choosing of a working class non-white for the role of protagonist in the “The Bottle Imp” was no coincidence.
The South Seas
But you’re probably asking yourself “why Hawaii?” Stevenson suffered from tuberculosis, and in the late 1880s set off for the South Seas in search of a salutary change of climate. Polynesia agreed with him and his health flourished, albeit too briefly. In 1890 he decided to stay for good, and with his wife bought 400 acres on the Samoan Island of Upolu. He became deeply involved in the lives of the local population, acting vigorously in their defense against the incompetence and reflexive racism of the European colonial government.
“The Bottle Imp” was just one of a series of novels and short stories inspired by his years in these temperate climes, including the reminiscence In the South Seas.
Though the whole “white guy beloved by the natives” thing always seems a little suspect, it seems in Stevenson’s case to have been quite true. The Samoans called him Tusitala — “Story Writer”. Our story, in fact, was originally published in Samoan, before it appeared in English — a fact which may go some way towards explaining the poetic cadence of the prose.
When he finally succumbed to his illness in 1894 — just 44 years old — his islander friends surrounded his body with a watch-guard during the night, and carried him on their shoulders to nearby Mount Vaea. He was buried in a beautiful spot overlooking the sea.