Monday, July 25, 2011

Foe, by Coetzee

I read this great article on my new favorite website, Flavorwire, called "11 Great Literary Spinoffs" - you know, like Wide Sargasso Sea (a "spinoff" of Jane Eyre). Anyway, it mentioned Foe, which I had never heard of, by J.M. Coetzee - inspired by 1719's Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe - which I have no intention of reading. It was an intriguing enough post that I picked it up from the library right away.

Reading Foe might have been a slightly richer experience if I had read Robinson Crusoe, but, for me the wikipedia article seemed to suffice. What Coetzee does is write the book from the perspective of the female castaway in the story, Susan, as well as Crusoe's black companion, Friday. Told from this perspective, Coetzee reframes the story (generally acknowledged as a [white] man's triumphal conquering of strange lands and people's unknown) and exposes the colonialism of the story. When the castaways are rescued, Susan takes responsibility for the mute Friday and further questions the relationship between Friday and Crusoe.

To raise money, Susan tries to sell her story and confronts the inherent challenges of telling any history:

I am not a story, Mr. Foe. I may impress you as a story because I began my account of myself without preamble, slipping overboard into the water and striking out for the shore. But my life did not begin in the waves. There was a life before the water which stretched back to my desolate searchings in Brazil, then to the years when my daughter was still with me, and so on back to the day I was born. All of which makes up a story I do not choose to tell. I choose not to tell it because to no one, not even to you, do I owe proof that I am a substantial being with a substantial history in the world. ...I am a free woman who asserts her freedom by telling her story according to her own desire.

Coetzee's writing style reminded me a lot of Jeanette Winterson, who, in my small experience with her work tells a great story but also slips in a hefty dose of theory. I thought it was a really cleverly told story and I appreciated the thoughtful questioning about what it really means to attempt to tell or re-tell a story.


mel u said...

By the coincidence I just posted a review of Foe today-I am glad I read it but thought maybe a bit heavy handed at times-I enjoyed your post a lot

KHM said...

A must read, it seems.

VanityofVanities said...

"But my life did not begin in the waves. There was a life before the water..."

I definitely love this statement. Perfect introduction for a perfect story, eh. Hope I could have this book.

Thanks for sharing,
Cathy@custom digitizing