Dan Sandman

21: Foe by J.M. Coetzee

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 22/05/2015 at 12:00 pm

Foe by J.M. CoetzeeFoe (1986) retells the story of Robinson Crusoe from the point of view of a woman called Mary Barton. Having sailed to Brazil in search of her missing daughter, Mary Barton takes passage on a mutinous ship. Offstage, the ship has been wrecked near Crusoe’s island, where the Englishman lives with the tongueless African slave Friday. Life on the island becomes tedious and maddening, as Crusoe suffers a series of fevers and Friday sings monotonously. Eventually, the three castaways are rescued, but only Mary Barton and Friday survive the trip to London. The rest of the story is about how the narrator seeks to have her tale written by writer Daniel (De) Foe, and how she ends up writing a completely different story about herself and Friday.

The full title of Defoe’s novel is The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe Written by himself, a name which points to the (fictional) autobiographic form of the work. There is a picture hanging in the Greenwich Maritime Museum — of which I have had the pleasure of visiting — that portrays the man (can’t remember his name, you can google it) who Defoe used as his source for Crusoe — the writer himself never having stayed on a deserted island. Just as Defoe used this man’s story to construct a believable fiction, Coetzee used an eighteenth century text to create something new. There is something rather complex going on here, Coetzee is not just mimicking Defoe’s style in order to create a new Crusoe adventure; the South African-born novelist is forming an entirely new character in order to disrupt the entire history of the modern English novel. His attempt is made convincing by his uncanny ability to write like a woman living in the seventeenth century (when Robinson Crusoe was set).

When I reviewed Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys a few weeks ago, I wasn’t particularly impressed because it was too depressing for my taste; but I hugely enjoyed this classic novel spin-off because it was written with a strong plot in mind, one that added some much needed emotional depth to the work it was based upon. It felt contemporary because of its ambiguity (particularly at the end), but never did the writer loose site of the story-line (unless on purpose) or loose control of the appropriate diction.

A small book to put in your pocket / take to a deserted island.

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