My “Foe”- a review of Foe, by J.M. Coetzee

With a sigh, making barely a splash, I slipped overboard.” Henceforth I descended into the water which- unlike the Caribbean oceans- was dark and murky. There among the ruins of the slave ship I found ‘Foe’. It was strange that the book was still very much new- it was as if someone had put it there recently for my own viewing.

I carefully opened the book as one hesitates to open a treasure chest found after a long search. Words floated out of the pages and fluttered about in the water around me like white petals.

Searching among the drawers of the captain’s cabin I found several papers on the author of ‘Foe’- J.M. Coetzee. He had written several other books before ‘Foe’ and was the Booker prize-winning author of  two books in 1983. He was a South African writer- and had the power of storytelling at the tip of his fingers. Literature is inter-textual, and Coetzee used this to combine two novels into another one entirely different.

‘Foe’ is based on two novels of Daniel Defoe- ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and ‘Roxanne’. Of course, not knowing any of this would not mar the
excitement of the book. However, knowing the source of the text would make the story more interesting. The book is like a vine- two vines twisting with the other- and confusing the reader because it seems as if there is only one vine. Coetzee skillfully intertwined both characters and story-line, bounding them together most intriguingly.

The novel begins in 1720- a woman named Susan Barton approaches a well known author named Foe to have her story published. She has been lately cast away on an island with a man named Cruso, and she wants Foe to publish her story. But Cruso is dead, and his slave, Friday, cannot speak for he has lost his tongue. Therefore Susan must relate the story of the island to Foe in her own way. In the process of trying to find the ‘truth’ of the island, Susan finds that she is merely a fictional character- being written about by Foe, and the reader later discovers that Foe himself is another invention of Coetzee’s.

The concept of fiction haunted me throughout the story. I felt like I was playing with the idea of fiction, and was amazed at what the author could do with a story. Was it in the author’s power to change things to make the truth? Or was there no such thing as truth? Surely, it was difficult jumping in between reality and fiction!

Swimming among both reality and fiction was one of the most difficult things I had to do. As I told you, the water was so dark and full of mud- that I could not see anything clearly. There were no firm boundaries- perhaps it meant that fiction and reality should not be thought of as two different concepts. This is what Coetzee intended, I think. He purposely left us to wonder about the narrator, who was real, and who was not. Coetzee, through the lips of his inventions, comments on the art of story telling itself.

In the process of story telling the author is free to do as he wishes- he has all control over his characters and their lives. What makes this novel so interesting is that the characters appear before the author who was their ‘father’. Going farther into the book, a scary thought forms in the mind- perhaps stories are not as simple as they seem to be. Maybe you and I are just a story- and we didn’t know about it at all. In that sense, everything is just a story in one way or another, a story that is being told by someone far greater.

There is a hole in the center of the story- a hole that can never been filled. This hole is Friday. Friday is the key to almost everything, but alas, he cannot tell anything at all. Whether his silence is that of ignorance or deliberance, I do not know but I am sure that he is the one who links together all the other characters- and leaves enough room for fiction to exist. Till the very end he remains the mysterious blank substance in the middle that refuses to speak. Because of his silence- I had no more need to stay here. I had learned everything.

I came out of the captain’s cabin and searched in the galley and the servant quarters- everywhere… But there were no bodies. No substantial bodies. There was a brief mentioning of ghosts in the story, and at last I understood. Everything was just going on in the mind of the author. There were no real people. But then again the word ‘real’ has no meaning. As long as the people live in our
minds- are they not real enough? There was no more I could find out from that slave ship. She had told her story- and there was no more that I could retrieve from her, and even if there were- five pages is not long enough for me to go into details. I placed the book back on the shelf for the next person- and I felt the words returning to it as I turned away. There was a still silence in the water- of stories yet to be told- but I was running out of air.

I left the ship at the bottom of the ocean- left her to sink slowly into the mud. As I surfaced, I could smell the air of something new- new words. I had left the jumble of a whole story behind. Perhaps it was time to explore some other seas.

*I wrote this review/essay in 1999 for Julie Choi’s excellent class on English literature. It won some essay contest- I can’t remember at all what it was.

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