Sunday, June 19, 2016

He and his Man

When The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, was published in 1719, it was received by many as a factual account. And there was good reason to do so; many sailors who had been castaways had written narratives, and in an era when not all the globe had yet been charted, there was still plenty of room for unknown "desert isles" (the phrase means deserted isles -- no sand is present or implied!).

But it turned out that the book was the work of Daniel Defoe, whose other great claim to fame was a similar portmanteau of fact and fiction, A Journal of the Plague Year. In both texts, Defoe used actual journals, reminiscences, and newspaper articles as his sources, mimicking the language, tone, and apparatus of his sources, tossing in numbers and dates and longitudes and latitudes to set the seal of truth upon his sly fictions. The story of Alexander Selkirk, who really had been stranded on a remote island for four years, provided the thread in this case. And, as Defoe's latter-day follower Edgar Allan Poe once wrote in a review, "how wonderful has been the result!"

We must now fast forward to some point in the 1940's, when the young John Maxwell Coetzee got his hands upon a copy of the book; it became a treasured favorite, and when, some time later, he found an encyclopedia article saying that Daniel Defoe was the author of Robinson Crusoe, he experienced, by his own account, an existential crisis: how could Robinson Crusoe, the man, have an author? Thus the preamble, and the title, to the lecture he delivered on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. Crusoe, of course, already had a "man" (in English usage of the day, "man" was short for "manservant"), whom he'd dubbed "Friday." But now, stranger still, he had another man, or another man had him -- the author.

Coetzee had explored this years earlier in his own novel, Foe - but the Nobel lecture gives us a shorter, sweeter apothegm of the curious postcolonial echoes of Defoe's original story.

1 comment:

  1. J.M Coetzee is one of the most dominant writers of the post-colonial turn. Colonialism, by definition, is the settling into another land. His nobel peace prize speech uses an alternate figure, “the man” to speak about how colonialism changes a person, their traditions, and overall lifestyle. The man is existing in the world, pointing out what he sees. He is using various types of birds to represent different cultures. He explains that certain birds migrate to different places because they are told it will be a safe place, but once they get there, they find that everything they felt close to or safe with was taken away from them by the people who already live there. This is a message of how people treated immigrants as they came into their countries, causing a huge divide between colonists versus people who traveled to new places in hopes of a better life. J.M Coetzee’s choice is interesting—he is using the voice of “the man” to speak about his direct experiences, while accepting an award for a Nobel Prize in Literature. It is iconic and amazing that he is able to create something so impactful and really define what his writing is all about just by reading this speech. He as an author is treated as a person of importance and stature, yet he as a person was not treated this way when he moved out of his homeland into a new country. This message is more and more profound as you read his speech. He wants his message to be heard, he wants his speech to be heard/read a couple times before truly understanding the meaning, and he wants his works to be remembered-which is probably why he won the award in the first place. His tactics and writing style for this speech made him an iconic and memorable writer of this era, and further shows how much he deserved this award.