Boyd Tonkin: Pirate treasure on the page

The week in books
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The Independent Culture

Reading the latest stages of the dismal "debate" about the future of the printed book in a digital age would be painful were it not so unwittingly comic. Virtually no one in a senior position in the publishing world seems to have the foggiest idea about how to convey the value, and the pleasure, of the artefacts they make and hope to sell. Imagine chocolate defined by an industrial chemist; Mozart by an acoustical physicist; sex via a learned paper by a physiotherapist and a neurologist from Alpha Centauri. That's about as near to the joy, and mystery, of books as the princes of print ever seem to come.

Now to the real thing. A small, scarlet hardback, slim enough to fit into a pocket, it is nattily designed but published at a paperback price. It recounts a story woven within, and around, two others that millions of readers will already know: one the plot of a much-loved novel published 127 years ago, the other the course of its author's life, combed through at length by so many biographers that it has itself picked up the patina of myth.

Confiding, easy-going, intimate, the writer spins a new – a mind-bendingly new – account from this well-worn cloth. Fluent, charming, but mischievous, the story slips past like a tantalising vision but leaves a strange flavour behind. What kind of yarn has the author spun here: a serious biographical essay, a novella with historical characters, a speculative travelogue – or a wind-up, a hoax and a stunt? You can no more nail down this solid little volume, and the experience of reading it, than you could bottle bliss.

All of which takes us back to this book's subject, and its mission. In 1883 the bohemian Edinburgh wastrel Robert Louis Stevenson published Treasure Island and rapidly became in the hearts of readers – and writers – everywhere not only a supreme story-teller but an author with an uncannily sure grasp of the secrets of narrative itself. The ideologists of modernism, who detested illusionistic narration as a bankrupt ruse from the bad old world, shunned Stevenson. But he lived on while the professors died.

At some point, readers' curiosity about the key to Stevenson's powers slipped into a sillier, but clearer quest. People came to believe that the buried plunder of Treasure Island actually existed, and that a pirate hoard still lay in wait under tropic sands for an adventurer smart enough to read the clues. Enter Alex Capus, French-Swiss novelist (who writes in German), keen sailor, and – as readers of his African-set A Matter of Time will know – a master at discovering the magic of fiction secreted between the cracks of history.

His Sailing by Starlight: in search of Treasure Island (Haus, £9.99) is beautifully translated by John Brownjohn. Capus calls the book "a conjecture". It tells of Stevenson's own life, ill-assorted family and still-mystifying travels, and of Capus's own South Sea voyages to Samoa – where Louis lived from 1890 to his death in 1894. It shows why so many treasure-hunters past identified the lost riches of his novel with the jungly, drenched, mist-shrouded Cocos Island, 310 miles south-west of Costa Rica in the Pacific – and of the deluded craziness of their expeditionary digs.

Then this "conjecture" goes on to propose another solution to the location of the real pirate trove, with a wealth of plausible detail. If you cared to credit it, you might drop everything and take the next plane and boat to... ah, read the book.

Perhaps Capus is having us on, with a bewitching biographical fiction inscribed in the blind spots and fuzzy margins of Stevenson's life, and legend. Or maybe, as I suspect, the solid gold here lies in the glint and flash of the story itself, and the rewards that it yields to readers who give themselves up to the chase. However you interpret Sailing by Starlight, it joyfully embodies the idea of reading itself as a sort of treasure-hunt. Sip it with a cocktail at sundown, as you gaze at, or dream of, whispering palms and murmuring seas.

Right in the thick of a journey

Armando Iannucci and the The Thick of It team must have been putting in the overtime. A masterful parody of political pomposity went live this week: It purports to be a website devoted to the memoir by the ex-PM (right, recording the audiobook): cheesy mission statements, cringe-inducing video, and some baffling Zen from the man who doesn't do history. "Though a memoir is by its very nature retrospective, the book is also an attempt to inform and shape current and future thinking". And among the FAQs: "Did Tony Blair write A Journey himself? Yes, the whole book was written by Tony Blair." Maybe that's where the trouble starts.

A subversive queen of crime

A chorus of hosannas rightly greeted the 90th birthday of PD James this week. Faber & Faber, her publisher since Cover Her Face in 1962, has done her proud with a re-jacketed series of paperbacks: a treat to savour for some lucky newcomer. As usual, though, the tide of plaudits washes over the spiky satire that makes her mysteries such an incisive guide to the foibles of our institutions: publishing included. Original Sin (1994) is the Adam Dalgliesh case that wickedly lifts the lid on book-trade secrets, with its august but ailing "Peverell Press" torn between ruinous quality and profitable pulp. Much of its finest dialogue will – almost verbatim – have been heard in publishers' offices over recent days. "I'd be a great deal more sympathetic to your so-called Booker books," fumes the thrusting, hard-nosed MD, "if they occasionally made the Booker shortlist". Faber, of course, has never seen a James title reach that list, whereas the house somehow won the prize with DBC Pierre. Go figure, as Dalgliesh would never say.