23 Down, 29 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Foe is J.M. Coetzee’s postmodern retelling of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe through the eyes of Susan Barton (who was never in the original story), she travels to Brazil in search of her missing daughter, eventually gives up to return to England, but ends up a woman castaway when there’s a mutiny on her ship. She arrives on the island to find Cruso, a once proud man reduced to a stoic husk, content to reign over his empty island with a mutilated Friday as servant, neither interested in escape nor improving their way of life.

However, the island only serves as setting for a while, as the 3 castaways are quickly rescued and shipped to England, only to have Cruso die just before reaching port. Destitute, Susan searches for a writer to whom she can tell the story of Cruso, Friday and the island, in the hopes that she will be paid for her tale. She finds Daniel Foe, who hears part of her story, gives her some money and promptly disappears.

With Friday in tow, Susan searches for Foe to finish her story, on the way encountering a young girl claiming to be her long-lost daughter. When Susan does eventually track Daniel Foe down, he is more interested in her own personal story as opposed to the account of Cruso, Friday and the island. Much of the book is spent with Susan’s urgent need to tell Cruso’s story but she’s confounded with her inability. Friday is the only one in possession of the full story – and himself a great source of fascination to Susan – but he cannot reveal anything having had his tongue severed and his personality reduced by years of servitude and muteness to a state of near-catatonia.

At odds entirely with the archetypal adventure novel, Foe is devoid of romanticism and told entirely from a woman’s point of view. All the men in the novel are either emotionless, victimised, mute or totally absent. Almost all the endeavours that are begun are futile from the start. Cruso’s barren terraces, Susan’s doomed search, and Foe’s ultimately embellished novel. The concluding chapter takes a surreal turn into a dreamscape of Cruso and Friday’s shipwreck, arguably the start of all events and the source of the real truth, but still nothing is revealed.

Admittedly, this book pretty much went over my head. Written in a time of apartheid, I believe the portrayal of Friday must represent black Africa in some way, while Susan Barton is an answer to the lack of female identity in Defoe’s original story. Daniel Foe appears to exist as a template for writers and their need for embellishing the truth. I’m sure the relationships between the characters somehow hang together as allegory for a great manner of things but it’ll probably help to read Robinson Crusoe again before I can get my mind around it all.

Densely fraught with themes of race, gender, language and narrative, Foe strikes me as a difficult piece of metafiction which works on multiple levels. It will take some research, a second reading and a fair bit of effort to try to pick it apart properly. I can’t say I really enjoyed the book this time around but I’ll try to revisit it again after reading the source text.

(ISBN No: 014029953X) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

My next book is Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust.

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