Monday, August 17, 2015

The Island of Lost Empires

1001 Books to Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 54
J.M. Coetzee, Foe

In Daniel Defoe's classic novel Robinson Crusoe, the island is a boys' playhouse with no girls allowed.  Solitude is a relentless adventure. And the servant Friday is a slaveholder's pipe dream, a black man with no past who becomes European thanks to the civilizing influence of the white title character. J.M. Coetzee dares to ask: what if all these facts are wrong?

A white South African by birth and Nobel Prize-winner by effort, Coetzee (KOHT-ze-yeh) straddles both sides of imperialism’s bloody history. He receives the privilege of being white in Commonwealth societies where whiteness bestows unquestionable advantages; but he also knows, from firsthand witness, the damage this advantage inflicts upon outsiders. Coetzee addresses these issues through his heroine, Susan Barton: woman, white, British, a verifiable English Rose trapped on an island of half-wild men.

This book is divided into four parts. First, Susan is cast adrift and finds herself on the island of Robinson Cruso [sic] and Friday. The beginning is very abrupt, as it must be for the character, and it demands that you as the reader put effort into understanding what has happened and what land mines live under the unfolding events. Susan lives with Cruso for a year, always being treated as an unwanted guest, until the chance comes for her to get them back to England. Cruso dies within sight of England, in despair of his enforced return to society.

Part two is an epistolatory narrative of how Susan tries to set Friday free while also trying to persuade writer Daniel Foe to write her story. (This was Daniel Defoe's birth name, before he decided the prefix on his last name sounded more dignified and businesslike.) In part three, she finally tracks the elusive Foe down and sets about explaining to him why her story is important enough to tell as is—unsuccessfully, it seems, since he wrote her out of his final draft.

J.M. Coetzee
Part four leaves all the narrative behind to allow an unnamed first-person narrator into the ruins of the story. Who is he (she?) and what is the purpose for this intrusion? The most explicitly postmodern portion of the book, this chapter forces us to close the book with more questions than answers when we reach the final page. And this, perhaps, is Coetzee's intent with this substantially inscrutable novel.

This novel is not difficult; I read it in one evening. But then I had to go back and read it again the next evening, because of the number of questions which plagued me. This is the sort of book that leaves you unsettled just to be in the room. That's why many readers may not like it, and that's where its real magic lives.

Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, considered among the first novels written in prose, has had far-reaching influence. Its narrative of survival and perseverance has provided a model for “castaway” narratives for centuries, across languages and genre divisions. Social theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in envisioning his ideal education model for children, wanted to flatly forbid all fiction, except Robinson Crusoe, which he believed taught invaluable lessons in self-reliance.

However, Defoe’s tale also looks frequently appalling to post-imperial readers. Crusoe survives by wit and ingenuity, yes; he also savages his environment, revels in self-superiority, and dominates the “savage” natives. His man Friday is a colonialist’s totem, an African without a past who works cheap, loves his master, and embraces the inarguable goodness of Anglo-European civilization. All the excuses perpetrators of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade used to justify themselves, Robinson Crusoe enacts in melodrama form.

Taking on themes of imperialism, the fallacy of civilization, race and sex, and metanarrative, Coetzee’s Foe takes one of the world's most complex stories, puts it in a new and thought-provoking package, and throws it back in your face. It refuses to let you read passively; to gain from this book, you must talk to it, ask it questions, and mull over the questions it gives you. Perhaps this is why it's popular in reading groups and university courses.

This is not a simple book, not a book to read in bed, not beach reading. It is very vexing and intricate. And the very qualities that make it so much worth reading may alienate readers who like to be comforted and put to rest by art. But for readers willing to take a chance and make themselves vulnerable to a book, this is a rewarding reading experience from one of the most highly regarded writers in post-colonial English today.

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