Friday, October 10, 2008

Coetzee on Robinson Crusoe's Foe Pas

J.M. Coetzee’s 1986 book Foe deals with a story most of most of us are familiar enough with to pick up the names and the subtle critique of Daniel Defoe’s eighteenth-century island tale Robinson Crusoe. However, to fully appreciate the novel, you are going to have to put some work in by hunkering down and reread/read the book that Coetzee retells from a contemporary point of view giving voice, as Coetzee does time and again, to those who lack the ability to speak. You can make due by reading a RC summary if you are tired of island life from watching way too much Lost, as I am, but in my own case I can just tell that my depth here lacks because I don’t really want to read RC for the third time in seven years. To be fair though, I did read it just last year so it wasn’t too far removed but I get that as a contemporary writer he wants us to return to the classics and see how they are biased and how our own times and places are still very much screwed up because the whole thing—i.e. the combination of racism, sexism, oppression, silence, etc—is a systemic flaw in Western controlled societies. But I got lazy and time is money to be spent wisely, at least where books are concerned, and I have pay my dues and seen that dog-and-pony-show before, so I don’t feel too bad about skipping out on revisiting RC on his little desert island somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.

So here is the basic outline of what I can remember that is important to understanding the currently discussed book: a young cleric goes against his father’s demands and leaves what would have been a practical future undertaking a career in law to take up life on the high seas; he deeply and heartlessly (which goes beyond simply buying and selling humans but I won’t get into) in the course of one of his journeys; he winds up getting shipwrecked and as the sole survivor of the mishap, must make due on an island by his lonesome, spending his time reading and meditating on the good book as he has now found Jesus and all that and he begins keeping a diary and learns how to survive on an island where nothing is provided for him and he must do everything with his own two hands. Years later, he finds footprints on the beach and thinks they were left by Satan, RC is starting to lose it, and by this time he has started calling himself “the king” of the island so as the crabs and barnacles growing on his dingy (he is alone there after all) knows who rules this patch of land; after he comes to what you might think of as some lucidity, he thinks about how insane the idea of Lucifer walking around his island would be armed with the power of Christ as he is and all, thus coming to the logical conclusion that if it is not evil personified, it must be cannibals; despite what reason tells us at this point, RC’s island is overrun with cannibals and one day he discovers the aftermath of a cannibal Thanksgiving day feast. Watching the cannibals from a distance, he sees them slaughter some unfortunate soul while another awaits his turn; instead of offering himself up on a platter, I know, I know, that bombs, he breaks free and the cannibals give chance since dinner is on the loose; since the delicious runner runs straight at RC, he steps out of the woodworks to save the guy from rotisserie heaven, for the cannibals that is, by killing one of them and incapacitating the other whom supper steps up to the plate and kills holding an understandable grudge against the guy for wanting to eat him and all. This then leads the nearly consumed young man such gratitude that he gives up his freedom for RC as a type of ronin and, of course, RC accepts thereby giving him a new diminutive name, “Friday,” to commemorate the day that he willing gave up his freedom. Eventually this duo picks up another companion, this one a conquistador, and somewhere in their busy days filled with indiscriminate cannibal genocide, they get rescued and RC lives a long and productive life as a merchant in London —you know, the typical island/adventure stuff we are all familiar with.

In a nutshell, what Coetzee does to the RC story, outlined above, is he takes what amounts to an episode of ABC’s Lost and turns it into Castaway, that is, he takes a action filled tale that is too good to be true and makes it believable thus boring. But that is not the point of the novel, what Coetzee does with this tale is give an alternate account of someone who herself has a story, protagonist Susan Barton, and also the story of the real Friday, as Foe imagines him, a black, tongueless man who may or may not also lack genitalia. The real story lies with them in Coetzee reinvention of the classic tale, RC is just some boring asshole when you come right down to it. He is thus secondary, never appearing outright, only lurking in the shadows as a ghost from Barton’s past. In fact, he doesn’t even exist in the confines of the novel, the only glimpses we get of his adventures is from the letters Barton writes to Foe in her attempt to get the writer to capture the tale of her disheveled island love.

Barton’s tale, as it turns out, isn’t all that interesting either, the novel’s main focus is on her life away from the island, which in the first section comes in the form of letters written to Foe about RC and then progressing into her time there. In the second portion, the reader sees her voice mature, now fully telling her own tale while experiences the hardships of returning to life away from the island and her attempts to reintegrate back into society with Friday following behind as though he was her shadow. With life proving difficult for both woman and shadow as well as Foe, Barton travels to the writer’s abandoned home—he is on the lamb hiding from the strong arm of the law—and squats there buying food with money they earn from selling Foe’s stuff. The notes I took from this section consist of things like “where does she get off” and “she must have a set of brass balls” and “SB lives off of whatever man is unfortunate enough to wind up in her path devouring everything” and “she is not a woman, she is a parasite.” All this is mixed in with spider imagery and allusions mostly made by SB regarding all of these mean she bleeds dry, but never once does she realize she is in fact a black widow, the most deadly and poisonous spider of them all.

Coetzee, whose work I generally love, does have a few things working against him in not only this short novel but pretty much all of his work. In this I won’t even go into the bizarre sexual stuff that takes place in all of books that I have read to date, but I will look at four other points that are drawn from Coetzee’s body of work. The first thing I will mention is the fact that of the four novels by the South African writer (other three being The Life and Times of Michael K, Waiting for the Barbarians, and Disgrace) not a one of them offers us any redemption and the protagonists are left in the same place they were in when the novel began, having either learned nothing or unable to deal with the lessons they have learned, only they are now worse off in that same lot they are never going to escape—like the characters in Achebe’s work as well. The second thing that you notice is his novels are unbelievably bleak/dark look into the world and society that one must resolve is fucked and not going to get any better. If anything, it is going to get worse and you aren’t going to be able to do anything about it. The die have been cast, the hand you get dealt is the only one you get, trying to change them out or worse yet trying to change the rules of the game is a futile endeavor. You are still all in, riding high, whatever, and if you don’t make the most of your crummy hand, you are going to lose it all. This seems to be somewhat of a staple with African fiction in general and isn’t exclusive to the genre but the thing about Coetzee’s existential little books is that his are darker and more depraved and cynical even than the accounts I have read by former child soldiers and victimized refugees in North African camps. The last thing I will mention here is something is actually something from another one of his novels but extends to pretty much all of his work one would have to think. In Michael K, Coetzee’s narrator in a small passage taken as a diary entry from the life of a doctor treating MK in a refugee camp writes about a fictional conversation he has with the starving MK who was bent on getting out of dodge in bad way and has made his way out of confinement choosing instead what appears to be inevitable starvation. At that time we learn that he said to his patient that “Your stay in the camp was merely an allegory, if you know that word. It was an allegory - speaking at the highest level - of how scandalously, how outrageously a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it.” Such an assessment was bad. It was wrong for reason I shall discuss momentarily but for now know that this was supposed to be ironic and in its irony show us that his work is not to taken allegorically no matter how badly we want to read it that way.

Coetzee work, as stated previously, is genius, but it is so because of and not despite the three things mentioned above he is often criticized for. The first article, that Coetzee seems against redeeming his protagonists or their plight, works because it is tragic in the same way that life is tragic. In the end, we all die and life rarely gets better toward the end. Plus, his novels aren’t supposed to be about redemption but about how the institutions we are a part of are full of inequalities and those aren’t ever going to change because there are checks and balances against them. To go against the grain in such systems would be suicide, depending on the severity of the protest/institution. Nothing will ever really change because our plight is always one of struggle, it's the way things have always been, the best we can do is minimize that struggle and our suffering by focusing on the little things. Coetzee’s solution than is to create order in the micro by doing what must do to survive and bring a few along with you. When things are as bad as they can get, we have no choice but to settle down and spend our time in the garden, as Friday does, or write our little letters and/or books, as Defoe, Barton, and Coetzee do. The second article then, that his work is too bleak, is thus a pointless assessment because it illuminates what we as individuals can do to increase our own wellbeing and the lessen the psychic burden of life. The third article mentioned above completely destroys any allegorical reading of Coetzee’s work. He doesn’t want us to make the same mistake as the doctor made in looking at his characters through our own set of lenses. To do so is to attribute our own Western ideals and misconceptions on the characters that are in and outside the text. This is a clear critique of the post-structuralist stance on text in that the reader’s perception when approaching a work are unprepared to make correct judgments regarding the text. Thus, his characters cannot or should not be separated from the text. That passage from LTMK was given as an example of the way we tend to look at peoples we try to help but in the end they don’t want it because it is yet another form of oppression. The organism cannot survive without learning on its own

Foe is yet another example of Coetzee’s virtuoso and exploration of his many themes, most notably the effects of Western imperialism on native culture. His analysis of authorship and authority are, as always, on point and forces the question on the ownership of history. Always giving voice to the marginalized, even Friday who has no voice, Foe’s conversation with Barton illustrates this most poignantly toward the end of the novel reading “‘his desires are dark to us, and continue to use him as we wish.’ No, Susan answers: ‘Friday's desires are not dark to me. He desires to be liberated, as I do too. Our desires are plain, his and mine. But how is Friday to recover his freedom, who has been a slave all his life? That is the true question. Should I liberate him into a world of wolves and expect to be commended for it? . . . Even in his native Africa . . . would he know freedom?”’ This tale, like most of Coetzee’s work, is well worth your time and will make you question everything from language, history, authority, and Western empiricism and how it is still very much alive and well.

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