Foe – 4/5 Stars
Foe is J.M. Coetzee’s 1986 retelling of Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe. In this version, we get the story through Mary Barton, another shipwreck survivor who finds herself in the presence of Friday and Crusoe on their island. She lives there for years in a kind of chaste triple marriage up until Crusoe’s death. She and Friday are later rescued and she brings him to England to live. She takes him to London and there meets Daniel Foe who she recounts their story to and used Friday to back up her claims.
Foe, who will become Dafoe, remixes the story to center Crusoe. The novel then spends most of its time working through the issues of authorship, truth, storytelling, and credible sources.
It’s of a specific genre, the kinds of parodic stories that refrain well-known novels, poems, and stories through a different lens. This kind of novel includes Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and even Friday by Michel Tournier. These novels tend to a mixed bag, and I can sometimes finds them oddly parasitic at times. I like Wide Sargasso sea (though I like her earlier novels better) and I like this one too, in part because I don’t particularly like Robinson Crusoe as a novel so much as an historical text. This novel raises interesting questions about historical records, authorship, invention, race, gender, and colonialism — all the questions you’d assume it would and more. It’s also a novel that know how to get out before it gets too ahead of itself.
Expedition to Baobab Tree – 4/5 Stars
This is a beautifully written novel from 1981 by the poet Wilma Stockenstrom. Stockenstrom wrote this in Afrikaans and it was translated by J.M. Coetzee.
I had never heard of Wilma Stockenstrom or this novel until recently, and I am quite certain this is the first novel I have read in Afrikaans, despite having read several novels by authors from this region of the continent — Mia Cuoto, J.M Coetzee, and Doris Lessing.
This novel is the impressionistic reminiscences of a recently escaped slave who finds refuge from the sun within the hollowed out trunk of a baobab tree. And she narrates her experience and begins to heal, she has to confront her recent escape and newly found freedom. This is structured in two main ways, understanding what it means to possess and own her body for the first time in her life and how to create a life from the shattered remnants of the structured captivity from before.
There’s a whole host of slave narratives that process these experiences that come before this novel, but the question that kept coming up to me as I read was how to structure out of nothinginess. What I mean by this is that I absolutely know that I am a product of a capitalist teleological world view. And what comes with this is an absolute dependence on the institutions and structures of those societies. It terrifies me to considers being outside this realm — even if I were to believe how much better and different it could be. So this book held a kind of frightening curiosity for me and the kinds of temporary autonomous nature (and yes I am borrowing from the theorist Hakim Bey) is a freeing and terrifying thing.
The Lady of the Nile