J.M. Coetzee – Foe

I read Foe initially for one of my classes, but I was still intrigued by this novel as I often had heard about its important place in postmodern literature and especially the historal (or historographic metafiction) novel.  As I am personally very interested in the historcal novel and the way it is constructed, I felt that I had to read this book and in hindsight; I’m glad I did.

Usually when reading historical fiction I will be confused for the first 50 odd pages and then settle into the setting of the novel. Yet with Foe  it was not that difficult to enter the narration in the begin as Susan is a very lucid and strong narrative voice. I must say I was pleasantly surprised by the strong stance she takes in her society, especially as a women in the late 17th and early 18th century, but then again it is a novel about questioning structures of language and power and the position of racial or sexual otherness within those structures.

This questioning and challenging of the structures of 18th century England is what makes this novel so interesting to me, especially when you realise that Coetzee is writing in 1980s South-Africa. The novel tells the story about Susan who is shipwrecked and stranded on an island where only Cruso and his servant Friday live. During her time there she tries to uncover the story of Friday and Cruso, but Cruso does not see the point of relating a story to her when they all are likely to die there anyway. Neither is he interested in writing down the story as he believes that his legacy will be the terraces he made in the area. Friday, most remarkably, cannot talk and as such in never able to tell his story. This relying on other people to tell his story can be seen in the light of structures of power in the late eighteenth century where the “white man” takes control over the story of the “coloured man” who in return is silenced and unable to talk about his own history and traditions, forced to adopt the tradition of the west.

The same can be said for Susan’s narrative. After she, Friday, and Cruso escape from the island and Cruso dies during the journey, Susan is convinced to publish their story as truthfully as possible, but she is unable to do so a the public does not believe that it is a true story. To be able to fulfill her wish she seeks the help of the well-known author Foe (or as we know him Daniel DeFoe) who is willing to take her story and work with it. Yet unbeknownst to Susan, Foe takes the story and refashioned it into what we nowadays know a Robinson Crusoe. This exclusion of Susan from her own tale is again an example of the structures of power taking precedence, because as a woman Susan is unable to publish and fashion this story, yet as a male Foe is more than willing to take this story away from her and returns to Susan her long-lost daughter, or at least that is what Foe wants her to believe.

Although  the ending of the novel still confuses me and probably will continue to do so for some while, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and highly recommend it.

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