In Pursuit of Treasure Island: Raul Ruiz is on the Trail of a Classic

By James Norton


Pirates are back in the headlines. If Robert Louis Stevenson had written Treasure Island today, perhaps Long John Silver would have been a Somali fisherman driven to piracy by political anarchy and trespassing foreign trawlers, hunting oil tankers rather than Spanish galleons for petrodollar ransoms instead of pieces of eight.

Inspirational filmmaker Raul Ruiz’ novel In Pursuit of Treasure Island, published by Dis Voir, does not traffic in this kind of update, but is instead a metaphysical re-imagining, frequently both absurd and nightmarish, of Stevenson’s novel. It is also a more delirious reworking of his own 1984 film Treasure Island, turning from video piracy to literary buccaneering. On the film’s release, Ruiz commented that, “behind each children’s book, behind each bestseller, a sacred text is hidden,” a phrase repeated in this book, although for the film he added, “let’s imagine that these are immediate calls to action.” In the film a group of adults in the present day, including Jean-Pierre Léaud, Anna Karina and Martin Landau, engage in deadly role-playing following these precepts. A boy, Jim Hawkins, refuses to be drawn into their games, in which the hunt for treasure becomes a kind of perversion, an outsider and a victim. Despite this murderous desperation, the film is also a frequently hilarious comedy.

The book is also redolent of the atmosphere of Ruiz’ masterpiece City of Pirates, which immediately preceded Treasure Island, a mirage of desire and Oedipal conflict, with a ruined fortress that reappears at the end of the book. More than most film makers, Ruiz has created his own distinct and often hermetic world, full of arcane signs, where the recycling of landmarks is inevitable. He is also exploiting the intertextual nature of the book form, and there are citations and eruptions into the text of Stevenson’s novel from Benito Cereno, Melville’s story of seafaring role-reversal and a key work for Ruiz, and passages from an imaginary book, Confessions of a Woman in Africa whose title has echoes of the lapidary surrealism of Raymond Roussel. Because of the uniformity of text, Ruiz is able to play on the confusion between a passage read by a character and the narrative itself. Successive layers in the closing pages suggests that the story may be a re-enactment, the unreliable memoir of a madman, a puzzle or a game. The narrator seems to be speaking not only for Ruiz himself but for his specific scenographic method, as he explains the process of listing a sequence of events, then his characters’ hidden motives and the consequences of any flaws: “the sum total of flaws in the game constitutes the final plot. Flaws actually determine the underlying force of events.”

Ruiz’ story is set on the island of Madeira and its events are seen or dimly overheard by a Portuguese boy as his home is overrun by piratical strangers and his father murdered, only to return as a ghost and his mother seduced. There are scenes reminiscent of the Mexican Day of the Dead, and brutal police actions which may be drawn from Ruiz’ own memories of Pinochet’s coup, from which Ruiz fled into exile. There is a character named Moretti, perhaps in homage to Nanni, in whose best film, Palombella Rossa, Ruiz plays a cameo, with Moretti in turn making a brief appearance in Ruiz’ Three lives and Only One Death.

The plot, as one would expect, is obscure, and there is a rich parade of bizarre imagery, and because this is a book written by a visionary film director, the reader visualises this as if watching a film by Ruiz with the same uncanny optical emphases. This is also the book’s weakness, because, unlike the films it does not cast a spell of visual splendour, its characters’ dialogue not given the necessary differentiation and its incoherence loses its charm. Literary texts by film makers are usually doomed to be over-determined by their authors’ visual universe. They may be welcomed by completists as imaginary films to add to a master’s oeuvre and repertoire of signs and scenes, but also suffer the suspicious consideration as to why they were not made as films. Either an unrealised scenario, or a means of reworking the themes of earlier films in a less costly manner, the book is not as successful as Ruiz’ previous foray into prose fiction, The Book of Disappearances & The Book of Tractations (both are published by Dis Voir along with two volumes of Ruiz’ idiosyncratic Poetics of Cinema) an epistolary text which experimented with the possibilities of the form and of the book as an object, full of typographical invention, hidden messages and even a built in mirror to read pages printed in mirror-writing.

What In Pursuit of Treasure Island does resemble is Ruiz’ latest film Nucingen Haus, a return not only to his native Chile but to his phantasmagorical strengths, as a newly-married couple venture back to a mansion on their country estate, a world of dreams populated by a staff of the living and the dead following esoteric rules, loosely adapted from a novella by Balzac, much as that other master of the ludic and philosophical, Jacques Rivette, did in Out One.

Ruiz’ books are available from

James Norton is a director, producer and researcher for television arts programmes.