Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 7, 2021

Foe, by J M. Coetzee

When I set aside J M Coetzee’s Foe for Novellas in November, I had completely forgotten that I’d read it before.  Indeed, I had even posted at Goodreads an embarrassed ‘review’ from my 2002 reading journal that seemed like the thoughts of a stranger, not of my own mind.

I feel that my rating is wrong… the fact that I didn’t understand it at that long ago time in my reading journey means that it’s not the book that should be rated, it’s me. The reader who read it 15 years ago is not the same reader as the reader now, and I bet if I read it again now after many years of reading and enjoying postmodern novels, I’d rate it very differently.

Twenty years later, here we are, and I certainly have changed my rating.  I rarely rate books with five stars, but Foe is brilliant.

By the time I got to Part III of this cunning little book, increasingly I was finding myself amused.  Mr Foe, seeking to reassure (or maybe to dupe) Susan Barton who is beginning to doubt her own existence, says to her:

‘But if you cannot rid yourself of your doubts, I have something to say that may be of comfort.  Let us confront our worst fear, which is that we have all of us been called into the world from a different order (which we have now forgotten) by a conjuror unknown to us, as you say I have conjured up your daughter and her companion (I have not).  Then I ask nevertheless: Have we thereby lost our freedom? Are you, for one, any less mistress of your life?  Do we of necessity become puppets in a story whose end is invisible to us, and towards which we are marched like condemned felons? You and I know, in our different way, how rambling an occupation writing is; and conjuring is surely much the same. (p.135)

Ha!

Part I begins with Susan Barton’s narrative about her experience as a castaway, which we learn later has been written in an attempt to make some much needed money.  Washed up on an island where she finds Cruso and Friday, whose names of course are those we know from our childhood reading of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.  She was on her way home to Britain after a fruitless search in the New World for her unnamed daughter who was abducted by a trader.  En route to Lisbon the crew mutinied, ‘insulted’ her and then cast her adrift with the dead Captain.

(Her use of the term ‘New World’ and the euphemistic ‘insulted’ gives the reader an indication of the era in which this tale is taking place. And Coetzee’s dialogue is flawless.)

Playing with the reader, Coetzee begins her description of the desert island with a nod to Daniel Defoe:

‘For readers reared on travellers’ tales, the words desert isle may conjure up a place of soft sands and shady trees where brooks run to quench the castaway’s thirst and ripe fruit falls into his hand, where no more is asked of him than to drowse the days away till a ship calls to fetch him home. (p.7)

Debunking the idea of a lush paradise, her desert island lacks the ingenious contrivances fashioned by Robinson Crusoe because her Cruso has salvaged only a knife and after many years on the island has used it only to make a rudimentary shelter.  Their diet is monotonous because there are no plants that can be cultivated for food, there are no fauna suited to animal husbandry, and there are no fruits falling from the trees or otherwise. They live on a kind of weed, and fish, caught by Friday.

Worse than that is that Cruso has no initiative.  He resists all Susan’s efforts to encourage improvements in their tedious life, and continues building useless terraces for plants that can’t be cultivated in them.  He has lapsed into inertia and a morose listlessness, unable and unwilling to talk, to share his personal history, or to offer any consolation.

The slave Friday is mute, because his tongue has been cut out.  He follows orders, but there isn’t much for him to do.  He has a kind of dignity that the others lack…

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Well, time passes and they are rescued.  Cruso dies en voyage and is buried at sea.  Penniless and responsible for Friday whose prospects in Britain are bleak, Susan makes contact with a writer called Foe (Defoe, sans ‘de’) so that he can render her narrative publishable.   They both agree that it is a bit dull, and needs to be livened up a bit. But how?

Robinson Crusoe 1719 1st edition (Wikipedia)

Part II is epistolary, consisting of increasingly frantic letters to Defoe, who neglects to reply and then disappears because of the bailiffs arriving at his home. This one-sided correspondence reveals that the public appetite for castaway literature craves more drama, exoticism, heroic characters with ingenuity and stoicism than the truth of her experience can provide. Foe wants to turn it into a salacious bestseller with cannibals, mysterious footprints in the sand and evidence of English ingenuity in the form of fine craftmanship and inventiveness in the castaway’s adaptations to life on the island.  Foe’s castaway, recognisable to anyone who read Robinson Crusoe, would never cease to be ‘civilised’ and of course would always want to return to civilisation.

Resistant to the warped story emerging from her experience, Susan Barton is further discombobulated by the arrival of a young women purporting to be her daughter.  Also called Susan Barton, this young woman knows things about the island that only Foe could have told her.

Source: English Heritage

In Part III, Coetzee becomes more playful.  Sarah, who is ‘real’ (if anyone in this story is ‘real’) is being written out of her own story and Defoe’s Crusoe will emerge into literary history without her.  Part IV consists of drafts of Sarah’s narrative, found by a visitor to Daniel Defoe’s house, now identified by a plaque bolted to the wall.  Daniel Defoe, Author, are the words, white on blue.  The identity of this visitor mystified me, but I have been enlightened by no less than the author himself.  According to Wikipedia’s page for Foe, Coetzee in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, identified this visitor as an elderly Crusoe quietly living in Bristol [who] becomes the ambivalent muse of Defoe. (Coetzee also said that he identified with Sarah as the ‘unsuccessful writer.’)

There are all sorts of metaphors in Foe: the obliteration of women in history, of Black History, and of land appropriation (Cruso assumes ownership of the island, and his terraces are monuments to himself.)  The novella speaks to the pervasiveness of Othering, and for salacious reporting in the media at the expense of truth.  Perhaps more contentious is the role and characterisation of Friday in the story.  For me, he represents the irreparable damage done by slavery and colonisation.  Though Friday is said to desire freedom, how can he have it? Well-intentioned attempts to communicate with him, through music, art, or teaching him to write, have failed, but he is never treated as an equal, sleeping on the floor and fed last when there are not enough plates to go round. He no longer belongs anywhere, he can’t articulate where his home might be, and he has no means of making an independent living.  In Britain, he is always at risk of being accepted as a passenger to the New World but offloaded by unscrupulous traders at a slave port instead. He is a symbol of colonialism, which exploits all that is valuable, leaving insurmountable challenges when freedom is finally achieved.

Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.  His citation states that Coetzee “in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider.”

Thanks to Cathy at 746 Books for hosting Novellas in November.

Image credits:

Every month is AusReadingMonth at ANZLitLovers, but this post is a contribution to #ausreadingmonth2021 at Brona’s This Reading Life.


Author: J.M. Coetzee
Title: Foe
Cover art by Paul Buckley, Cover painting by John Collier
Publisher: Penguin Books, 1987, first published 1986
ISBN: 9780140096231, pbk., 157 pages
Source: personal library


Responses

  1. IMO rereading is valuable. Books don’t change but we do.

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    • Yes, that’s true! It certainly was in this case.

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  2. You might like Michel Tournier’s “Friday, or the Other Island.” (Sorry to sound like an amazon logarithm,) It’s another interesting take on the Crusoe story.

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    • That sounds fascinating… I’ve read The Ogre (a.k.a. the Erl-King) but this one is hard to get, and horribly expensive at least at the usual sources.
      So, I’m probably being a bit ambitious, but I’ve ordered it in French.
      By the time it gets here from Europe, my grasp of the subjunctive will hopefully have improved a bit…

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  3. Have you read The Childhood of Jesus? It’s my one and only Coetzee (atm) which I read back in 2013. It was confusing and discombobulating but also utterly fascinating. The kind of book you know that you’re missing half the intended story/meaning simply you (the reader) are not quite up to it right now.

    When I reread my review I rediscovered that I also found much of it quite amusing. How clever to amuse and bemuse at the same time :-)

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    • I’d read quite a bit of Coetzee until I got to Elizabeth Costello and then he lost me. (I’ve just re-read what I wrote in my journal, oh dear!) But I’ve got Childhood, Summertime and Diary of a Bad Year on the TBR, and now that I’ve re-read Foe and liked it, I don’t have the same ‘I’ll probably never read it” feelings about those three!

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      • Childhood was not easy but I feel very strongly that I will, that I want to, that I need to reread it one day.

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        • With a good gap in between, so that you come to it afresh.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. The only novel of his I’ve read is Disgrace, which was excellent. This sounds very different but interesting. I remember reading that DD was originally plain Foe, and added the De to sound more impressive.

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    • I think Beethoven added a Von, in the same way…

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  5. I’ve never read him, but this sound awfully clever. And yes – re-reading is essential, because we do change so much as readers.

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    • As long as it doesn’t spoil a well-loved book.
      I could not, for example, re-read Gone With the Wind. I didn’t need #BlackLiveMatter or #ReadBlack to know that it was racist…we were on a long haul flight to somewhere and had reached the stage of being brain-dead, so I watched GWTW out of nostalgia, because as a very young and painfully ignorant teenager, I had loved the film and I had loved the book when I read it afterwards.
      But watching it as an adult, I was horrified. The whole thing is an elegy for the grand old days of the South, a South that was built on slavery and that heroically sent Ashley to defend it. And Mammy, in ecstasy because a white man has given her her heart’s desire, which is a petticoat, not a day’s wages, and and not her freedom. I’m not playing in the Cancel Culture sandpit, because I think GWTW should be read critically as an example of the damage that literature can do, but I would never want to read it again.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I skimmed your review a little as I’m quite keen to read this one and may line it up for next year!

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  7. […] Foe by JM Coetzee (Lisa at ANZ Lit Lovers) […]

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  8. […] Foe by J.M. Coetzee (reviewed by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers) […]

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  9. […] J. M. Coetzee | Foe (reviewed by Lisa @ANZ LitLovers) […]

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  10. Hahaha, “embarrassed reviews”. If we never had such things, we’d not have grown, would we.

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    • True, but oh dear, they are cringeworthy!

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