John Coetzee may very well be the finest allegorical novelist writing today, a South African writer whose works evidence a deep but decidedly oblique political commitment, one whose fictions cannot be reduced to mere dogma but which instead open out to explore in the widest sense possible the basic concerns of human freedom and dignity in ways that clearly pertain to and yet nevertheless steadfastly transcend the political situation in his native land. In doing so Coetzee makes plain the importance of novel-writing in an age which has witnessed the growing estrangement of the novelist from his world both in England and the United States, where fiction has come to occupy a more and more marginal place.
While Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and The Life and Times of Michael K (1983) may be Coetzee’s most clearly South African novels, Foe, his fifth and perhaps best novel, is by far his most troubling, both in subject and structure; it is a fiction that engages the reader’s sympathy and intelligence even as it defies his or her efforts to understand the text in some final, definitive way. It is impossible to decide whether Foe is the story of or, alternately, the story told by Susan Barton, the “female castaway” whose quest for her abducted daughter comes to nothing and whose return voyage to England leads to her being cast adrift by a mutinous crew, an ordeal that ends (to the extent that anything may be said to end in this novel) when she reaches an island inhabited by two earlier castaways, Cruso and Friday. Any comfort the reader may feel upon discovering himself on so familiar a narrative ground is short-lived, however, for Coetzee quickly moves to defamiliarize Defoe’s text and the cultural and narrative conventions upon which it is based. Coetzee’s revisionist telling of Susan Barton’s suppressed story—of “herstory” to parallel, oppose, and modify Defoe’s fictive “history”—would undoubtedly have provided a different kind of novelist with sufficient material for parody or pastiche, but Coetzee’s interest lies in another direction.
Even as Susan’s straightforward language lulls the reader into accepting her narrative, Coetzee’s larger structure serves to unsettle. The first two of the novel’s four parts appear within quotation marks and, in retrospect, appear to consist of Susan’s written accounts. The first is a memoir of her adventures, or more accurately of her lack of adventures, while on Cruso’s island. Not until its closing pages does the reader discover that the “you” Susan has been addressing is “Mr. Foe,” better known to readers by his adopted name, Daniel Defoe, author of The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner (1719), a fiction which purports to be fact, its fidelity to factual truth being precisely what Susan’s narrative calls into question, placing Defoe’s entire novel in what the critic Mikhail Bakhtin would term figurative quotation marks. Defoe is not the only one to suppress information, however, each of the subsequent parts of Coetzee’s novel coming to add material that serves to explain and qualify what came before, adding information but also raising new questions. Such is surely the case with Susan’s letters to Foe (part 2), in which Foe is addressed in both the second and third person. The status of these letters, which the reader initially assumes have been sent to Foe, is clarified in the novel’s third part, the first to appear outside quotation marks, a sign, perhaps, that it is intended (by Coetzee? by Susan?) as a spoken rather than written account.
In effect, then, each of the novel’s four parts alternately clarifies and confuses. Far from merely fleshing out the skimpy, “artless” sections of Susan’s narrative, the subsequent chapters create alternative versions, all of them possible, none of them verifiably true. This is especially evident and especially disconcerting in the brief part 4 with which the novel concludes. Here Susan views her own dead self lying at the bottom of the sea in the wreck (one assumes) of the ship that had rescued her and her two fellow castaways from their barren island and taken her to England, where (one again assumes) Susan wrote what the reader has just read in the first three parts. Foe, however, is a novel in which assumptions are always suspect. In the fictional world that Coetzee has so artfully conjured, like Shakespeare’s Prospero conjuring his island, his fictive reality, alternatives and uncertainties abound, as do narrative “erasures” and “cancellations.” What, the reader may well ask, is true, and how is the truth to be known?
Paradoxically, in a novel in which all versions are suspect, each a mere fiction, the fiction-making process remains necessary. Just as Robinson Crusoe lives in and through Defoe’s tale, Cruso lives through Susan, and Susan in turn “desires” to live through Foe. Yet even this simple need, to tell and be told, is not without its own complication, for the relationship between character and author, between self and other, entails a risk, includes within itself its own deconstruction. For while to tell means to give story and therefore substance to the other, in effect to liberate the other from abstraction by giving him some one particular shape, his own narrative reality, this same process that liberates the other encloses him as well, defining the other too precisely, reducing to some one story what is in fact a plurality of stories, of narrative transformations. Equally dangerous, to give voice—to give a voice—to a Cruso or a Foe or a Susan Barton is to define the creation in terms of the creator’s desires—a situation analogous to the interpretive process itself, particularly in this, the intertextual age of reader-response criticism in which the earlier authoritarian concept of the inviolable meaning—always singular—of...