'There is no need for us to know what freedom means, Susan. Freedom is a word like any word. It is a puff of air, seven letters on a slate. It is but the name we give to the desire you speak of, the desire to be free. What concerns us is the desire, not the name. Because we cannot say in words what an apple is, it is not forbidden us to eat the apple. It is enough that we know the names of our needs and are able to use these names to satisfy them, as we use coins to buy food when we are hungry. It is no great task to teach Friday such language as will serve his needs. We are not asked to turn Friday into a philosopher.'
The basic setting of this novel is clear enough in the beginning: a woman, Susan Barton, is shipwrecked onto an island. She discovers that the island is inhabited by an elderly white man named Cruso, who has a black slave, Friday. Sound familiar? Yes, this is the old Robinson Crusoe story told from a female perspective.
But the island and its inhabitants are somehow distorted, creepy and disturbing. There is something sinister about Cruso and his obsession to try to make the barren island bear fruit. Friday is a problematic character in that he has literally lost his tongue - whether cut off by Cruso himself or by slave traders in his earlier life remains a mystery. Even Susan Barton herself, who initially seems like a respectable, sensible woman, goes through some kind of psychological change and turns into something unstable, incomprehensible and wild.
Miraculously, the three islanders are rescued by a passing ship. Cruso, however, is reluctant to leave the island and finally dies from a mysterious illness aboard the ship. Susan Barton and Friday arrive in Britain where Susan seeks out a famous writer, Daniel Foe (!), whom she hopes will hear and write her amazing story of shipwreck and rescue for generations to come. The writer is reluctant and evasive, eventually disappearing, forcing Susan and Friday to go roaming around Britain like tramps, looking for him. Another mystery is related to Susan's lost daughter, whom she has also been searching for. A woman with the same name as her appears later on in the novel, claiming to be the lost daughter, but Susan does not believe her. The problem of Friday - what to do with a slave who is no longer needed, who has no tongue and no home - remains.
The novel is not easy to read and it is even more difficult to understand or analyse. The symbolism is complex, especially in the second half of the novel, which consists mainly of Susan's own confused thoughts, personal reflections and the strangely philosophical discussions between Susan and Cruso. In the end, I think Friday becomes the most interesting and problematic character in the novel, in spite of the fact that he has no language to express himself in.
J. M. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.
J. M. Coetzee: Foe. Penguin Books. 1986.
NY Times: "Her Man Friday"
Wikipedia: J. M. Coetzee