Monday, November 05, 2007

J.M. Coetzee's novel Foe

I just read J. M. Coetzee's novel Foe where he creates a heroine Susan Barton who is a castaway cast ashore on an island where an Englishman Cruso and black slave Friday in this retelling of Daniel Dafoe's Robinson Crusoe. I liked the original novel, and, of course, it lacked females. I was intrigued by having a female castaway but didn't like what I thought the flat telling of Barton's story about her year on the island, meeting first Friday who can't talk because slavers ripped his tongue out, and then Cruso who give the heroine shelter. When the novel was written circa 1700, there were Englishwomen writers, poets mostly, in this era, but no women novelists like Daniel Dafoe.

After a year on the island, a ship comes by, rescue the three castaways, but Cruso dies abroad ship while Susan and Friday make it to England. In London, Susan meets author Foe (original name of Danie DeFoe) and convinces him to write up the story which she hopes will make herself well-to-do. Foe begins, but unfortunately he has debts, so he flees from the baliffs who come after him. Destitute Susan and Friday then take up residence in Foe's house, where Susan writes the missing Foe letters. I thought that amusing: the novel's leading character, a woman, takes over the writing, arguing with the author how the novel should go and also asking and begging and pleading the author to return.

The problem is Susan throughout the novel tries to get Friday to speak but never succeeds. Friday dons Foe's wig and black robes and dances for hours and plays on the flute one tune endlessly but he'll never communicate to Susan. At time Susan seems sympathetic to Friday, trying to get him to Bristol to put him on a ship to return to Africa, but at times she seems like she's acting like a slave master herself. At the end Susan and Friday rejoin Foe, who tells Susan to teach Friday how to write English, which she does but Friday still won't speak.

Rethinking the novel, it's about stories and who tells them. Some critics now think of Robinson Crusoe as an allegory for European colonialism, so Coetzee, a liberal white male author from South Africa, writes about one of the characters left-out of the original, the white woman. But Coetzee can't tell Friday's story: Friday always refuses the domination by the white author/colonialist. Maybe that's Coetzee's point. Friday will tell his story in his own novel, not one written by any whites.

1 comment:

Lyle Daggett said...

Hi, Julia. Interesting post. Haven't read Coetzee's book, though seems weird to me that the character Susan keeps trying to get Friday to talk if, as you said, his tongue had been ripped out by slavers. Maybe Coetzee intended this as some kind of metaphor, but anyway.

I came across somewhere once, but haven't read, a play by Caribbean writer Aime Cesaire, "A Tempest," apparently a retelling (more or less) of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" from the point of view of the slave/servant Caliban and other native islanders. Don't know anything more about it than that, but sounds like an interesting take on the subject. I've read some other things by Cesaire and have liked what I've read.