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Richard Eder

FOE by J.M. Coetzee (Viking: $15.95; 153 pp.)

February 22, 1987|Richard Eder

This graceful and troubling variation on Robinson Crusoe is partly a riddle and partly a set of meditations on art and reality. Going beyond its puzzles and reflections, though, it is the story of a haunting character trying to wake up from the fictional dream she is caught in.

J. M. Coetzee is from South Africa, where alienation is not a choice but a necessity; and as such, instills a transcendent vitality in its highly crafted distortions. This was evident in two previous works, "Waiting for the Barbarians" and "Life and Times of Michael K." Though there may be something odd and mannered about these parables, our reaction is not "These are strange stories," but rather "Life is a strange place." By the extreme angle of the sailor's deck-stance, you learn that the ship is capsizing.

Coetzee introduces a new personage in the Crusoe-Friday story. The book's first part is a narrative by Susan Barton, an Englishwoman who is cast ashore on Crusoe's island after a mutiny on the ship upon which she was returning to Europe from Brazil, where she had gone to try to find her abducted daughter.

Barton meets a spare and foreshortened pair on the island. Friday is mute; possibly his tongue has been cut out, possibly by slavers. This, at least, is one of several different and laconic accounts given to her by Crusoe, or Cruso, as Coetzee names him. The castaway, who is vague about his own arrival, leads a far more primitive existence than the one later given to him by Defoe.

Without the tools and stores rescued by the Defoe hero from a sunken ship, Cruso and Friday live by fishing and root-gathering. Their daily labor is not an effort to make their existence better, but the laborious construction of rock terraces. It is crushing work and totally abstract; there is no seed on the island to plant on the terraces.

Barton argues for the improvement of this stony life. She urges the reluctant Cruso to explore the sunken wreck for tools; and to teach Friday more than the two or three words he understands. Above all, she urges him to keep a journal to preserve the details of his existence. "Seen from too remote a vantage, life begins to lose its particularity," she argues. "All shipwrecks become the same shipwreck, all castaways the same castaway." Life is in the details: How did Cruso make the eye in his needle; what did he use for thread to sew his hat?

"Touches like these will one day persuade your countrymen that it is all true, every word, there was indeed once an island in the middle of the ocean where the wind blew and the gulls cried from the cliffs, and a man named Cruso paced about in his ape-skin clothes, scanning the horizon for a sail."

Cruso refuses to listen, and when a ship picks them up, he dies on the way back to England, leaving Susan and Friday as the island's only survivors. His refusal is central to the shifting balances that the book now takes on. Cruso holds to what is: The island, just as it is, is his life. His vague and contradictory stories of how he got there, his lack of interest in Susan's previous life and in her efforts for change, simply make more apparent his tenacious purism about reality.

In this light, Susan's civilizing efforts represent the de-naturing as well as the humanizing aspects of progress. A stove is more efficient than an open hearth; at the same time, it is less magical. But there is something more. The final two-thirds of the book turn into a parable on the contradictions between life itself and literature's attempts to give it meaning.

On the island, Susan wants Cruso to shape his life by seizing and writing down its details. In England, she seeks out an aging writer named Foe--the name Daniel Defoe used until he was 35 or so. Her narrative is too bald and plain; she wants him to use his gifts of imagination to make it richer and more meaningful.

And here--first, in the form of letters from Susan to Foe, and later in direct contact--begins a new cycle of the conflict. As an artist, Foe can't use the account Susan gives him. He wants a richness that the island itself did not provide; he also wants details of her previous life and of her mysterious vanished daughter.

It is Susan's turn, as it had been Cruso's, to resist the claims of the writer to appropriate her life. On the one hand, she knows that the reality of the island is not enough. "There was too little desire in Cruso and Friday," she reflects, "too little desire to escape, too little desire for a new life. Without desire, how is it possible to make a story?"

On the other hand, to become Foe's subject is to yield up her life, in a way; to lose her authority over it. She doubts her own reality, in fact.

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