This year sees the publication in France of both a new translation of Robinson Crusoe (by Françoise du Sorbier) and a critical rewriting by Patrick Chamoiseau. Why does Defoe’s novel cry out to be reinvented, and not just as a politically correct work?

It is almost three centuries since the first publication, in 1719, of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account of how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pirates. Titles were longer in those days. Through an astonishing number of editions, versions, and translations through the years, Robinson Crusoe, as it came to be known,has proved its mettle as a founding fable in Western culture. Arguably the first novel in the English language, it has been read by literary scholars and economists alike as a fable about proto-capitalist production (industry, calculated conversion of nature into consumable goods, generation of interest/surplus…) and the emergence of a new kind of human – homo economicus. Indeed, Daniel Defoe’s bestseller heralded a new age – of a globalised mercantile economy – of which we are today the tired inheritors.

Read and reread by generations, hailed in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile as the child’s best education manual, assigned on school syllabi across the world, awarded as prize, the book spawned a genre, the Robinsonade, in which was reenacted, over and over again, the drama of that solitary human struggle to build a rational existence against the odds of nature and the depths of despair. Part frontier adventure, part moral tale, it was both a modern retelling of a myth of origins (in which man must name and master nature), and a parable about the value of hard work and individual enterprise in the face of adversity. Such was the power of what Samuel Taylor Coleridge memorably called “a vision of a happy nightmare”. The fascination exerted by Robinson Crusoe lay no doubt in part in the dark seductions of its first-person narration. In the castaway’s wretched plight turned into profitable survival on his island was an allegory of humanity itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t humanity itself. Has there ever really been a humanity itself? In Defoe’s novel the human was divided into two, and this was as structuring a fact of the story as the Caribbean island, or the supplies (gunpowder, tools, seeds) salvaged from the shipwreck that would form the basis for Crusoe’s island estate (from which he would finally, on his return to England, derive much prestige and profit). The other half was Friday, the noble savage, a Carib native, who first appears as a footprint in the sand, whom Crusoe would save from cannibal pursuers on a Friday, to then so name and “benignly” enslave, and whose supporting-role curiosities and gradual acquisition of a pidgin English he would intermittently record in the diary of his time on the island. James Joyce saw clearly, in a 1912 Trieste lecture, that Defoe’s book revealed not only “the wary and heroic instinct of the rational animal” but also “the prophecy of empire”. Of Crusoe Joyce went on to note: “He is the true prototype of the British colonist, as Friday (the trusty savage who arrives on an unlucky day) is the symbol of the subject races. The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe: the manly independence; the unconscious cruelty; the persistence; the slow yet efficient intelligence; the sexual apathy; the practical, well-balanced religiousness; the calculating taciturnity.”

Counter-narratives

In the last half-century, as the various ideological subtexts – capitalist, masculinist, imperialist, racialist, Christian salvationist – undergirding the castaway’s story have come more sharply into view, a number of writers far outside the borders of England have burrowed their way into the interstices of Robinson Crusoe to prise out counter-narratives wielding all the creative force of an empire-writing-back. (And I am not thinking here of the Hollywood/Fedex production Cast Away (2000), of which the less said the better; Tom Hanks’ choice of sweater on that fated first day of a 143-minute saga proves especially brutal). French writer Michel Tournier’s Crusoe, in Vendredi ou les limbes du pacifique (1967), surrendering his first-person immunity, is deeply transformed by his experience on the island and his acquaintance with a Friday more complex than Defoe had allowed. This Crusoe would finally choose to stay on the island rather than return to mercantile Europe. Santa Lucian author Derek Walcott in his play Pantomime (1978) renamed Friday Thursday and overturned the relationship between master and slave to riotous effect. South African Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee in turn cast suspicion on Crusoe’s/Defoe’s self-serving authorship over the story, to redirect attention toward the silenced “castaways of history”: in Foe (1986), Friday is literally without a tongue, a woman castaway is subversively inserted into the picture, and the severely restricted distribution of space, things and roles on the island provides the coordinates for a guilty economy of self-conscious, unstoppable verbiage. The Crusoe-Friday pair would reappear in the writer’s 2003 Nobel Lecture “He and His Man” to stage again, in characteristically sibylline prose, the fraught politics of what counts as a story and who gets to tell it.

This is certainly the question of the post-colonial age, and it is perhaps not so “strange and surprizing” that Robinson Crusoe should continue to provide the inexhaustible ground for its adventures. “Whoever rereads this simple, moving book in the light of subsequent history,” Joyce went on to say in his lecture, “cannot help but fall under its prophetic spell.” It so happens that this year sees the publication in France of both a new translation of Robinson Crusoe (by Françoise du Sorbier) and, in a fortuitous rejoinder, a critical rewriting of Defoe’s novel by Patrick Chamoiseau, acclaimed French writer from Martinique (an island that forms part of the Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean Sea, since 1946 along with Guadeloupe an overseas department of France). Known as a spokesperson for Creole history and plural identity and for his anti-colonialist and humanist commitments, Chamoiseau is the author of a number of works of a richness both historical and poetic, including Texaco (1992, translated under the same title), L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse (1997, translated as The Old Man and The Mastiff)and Éloge de la créolité (1993, with Raphaël Confiant and Jean Bernabé, translated as In praise of Creoleness). He holds the distinction (shared notably with Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre) of declining France’s highest decoration, the Légion d’Honneur – marking thereby his objection to the characterisation of Martinicans as a population rather than a people, and his wish that France’s constitution recognise the complexity of French national identity.

Abstract work

L’Empreinte à Crusoë or Crusoe’s Footprint (published by Gallimard press) is a remarkable wager of a book. In Chamoiseau’s retelling the narrator, who assumes his name to be Robinson Crusoe because of an inscription on an object he is carrying, has lost all memory of life before washing up on the island. The amnesia proves decisive, as in this abyss everything is dissolved: nation, culture, norms, the shapes of all things human. Spoiler alert (but in my defence, judging by the recent record, it will be years before this book is translated into English): The footprint in the sand, opening a chasm of terror alternating with erotic desire, turns out to be the castaway’s own. No trusty savage (Friday here is but a phantom, renamed Sunday, significantly the day when commerce ceases), no stable forms or meanings of any kind resolve into characters or references, nothing provides any signposts or relief to an immobile, eventless journey, where narration gives way to a stream of consciousness (without capital letters, nor full stops, only semi-colons, like those that had punctuated Defoe’s feverish prose) that records hallucinatory convergences between gropings of consciousness and the shape-shifting masses of opaque surroundings. Language here serves paradoxically not to name and order but to restore the volatility and thickness of perception. A thoroughly abstract book, whose relative unreadability is precisely the point. If Defoe’s novel was all about account-keeping, and a methodical rationalising of hostile, inchoate forces into means of production and preservation, Chamoiseau proceeds to turn the tale inside out, digging deeply into all the places where Crusoe’s certitudes might have brushed up against unknown, unaccountable regions of sensation and being.

“Defoe deploys an innocent narrative energy,” writes Chamoiseau in the notes included at the end of the book, “I envy this innocence of another century, it can be read, it can no longer be reproduced.” Rather than offering a clear political corrective to Defoe, Chamoiseau’s Crusoe patiently revisits both Defoe’s and Tournier’s versions to drag the well-known story towards its inner precipices, to what philosopher Gilles Deleuze (whose influence here looms large) might have called its “zones of underdevelopment”. One could say that Chamoiseau recovers a kind of vulnerable “humanity itself” from the Crusoe tale. Yet the end brings a reversal that casts its shadow over the whole of the narrative. Suffice it to say here that the politics of this retelling lies in the gap opened between the narrator and his supposed name. In this space is reawakened the ghost of slavery, which had featured in passing but crucially in the back-story of Robinson Crusoe (who had himself traded in slaves – the Atlantic slave trade was in Defoe’s time well under way). But it is in its last pages that the novel yields its gravest hypothesis: that the tale of Robinson Crusoe on his island had itself erased another tale, another existence, whose protagonist had no name and whose footprints had melted into the landscape. This is, properly and poignantly, a return of Defoe’s story to the place of its setting. Indeed, the Caribbean islands, settled over the years by exiled Huguenots, planter colonialists and African slaves, later Indian indentured labourers, had once had their own indigenous inhabitants, the Caribs, who like so many indigenous peoples in the New World all but perished upon contact with Europeans, whether through disease, warfare or deliberate extermination (at the hands of French troops in 1657, in the case of Chamoiseau’s Martinique). Only 3000 Caribs remain in the Caribbean; the Carib language has been dead since the 1920s. Beneath each story of progress and profit that has built modern societies, other stories are eroded or more deeply buried. As we receive dispatches (languages disappearing, Jarawas dancing) from India’s islands, as we witness competing claims to land and history, it is as if the Robinson Crusoe story were continuing to deploy its “innocent narrative energy”. Such innocence can be refused. The real energy of this narrative, as Chamoiseau is the latest to suggest, is in its insistent demand to be rewritten.

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