I am happy to report I have read the third in my (self-imposed) Great Twentieth Century Writers task. After reading two large philosophical tomes originally written in German, I now move on to a slender book originally written in French. But for all its seeming smallness and two-hundred-page length, this book required as much mental focus as its German predecessors. For Friday is a deeply philosophical book. A book about a man stripping away layers of personality and conditioning, in the most extreme fashion.
I had a vague memory of reading Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as a child and recalled it as a tale of survival. I had not taken in the fact that Crusoe was a slaver, who sold off his servant as a slave, and man who typified many of the bad aspects of the colonialist of the early Eighteenth century. Having read Michel Tournier’s The Erl-King many years ago (a wonderful novel about the collapse of the Third Reich) I was expecting quite a different take on Crusoe and Friday and this novel provided it.
The opening lines, masterly in their depiction of place
With the precision of a leadline the lantern hanging from the cabin roof measured by the extent of its swing the roll of the brig Virginia in a sea that was growing steadily worse. Captain Pieter Van Deyssel bent forward over his stomach to place the tarot-pack on the table in front of Robinson
show Robinson having a tarot reading. The last words of advice he hears are
‘Crusoe…take heed of what I say. Beware of purity. It is corrosive of the soul.’
The ship is wrecked, and Robinson thrown ashore on to a small island. All the other crew is lost. At first he devotes himself to thoughts of rescue. He builds beacons. He salvages what he can from the wreck and devotes himself to building a rescue craft which will enable him to sail away from the island where he is marooned. Then the day comes when he realises the boat he has built can never be launched. It is too heavy and solid for him to get it from land to sea. He completely gives in to despair. He wallows in the mire with the wild pigs, he walks on all fours, he grazes on disgusting foods.
His hair and beard were so grown that his face was almost invisible beneath their tangled mass. His hands had become mere forepaws used for walking, since it made him giddy to stand upright. His state of physical weakness and the softness of sand and mud, but above all the breaking of some spring in himself, had lead to his only moving on hands and knees.
But in this version of his story, Robinson Crusoe is only twenty-two years old. The drive to live is still strong in him. He decides to master the island. He calls her Speranza, Hope.
He must work. Without more dreaming he must consummate his marriage with solitude, his implacable bride.
Through his own rigor and hard work Robinson colonizes the island. He becomes its Governor. He domesticates the goats, he grows crops, he has a day of rest, he creates a routine that supports him. And in a strange way he falls in love with it. But all the time, in his journal, he is reflecting on the qualities of the human person.
I know that if the society of others is a fundamental element in the constitution of the human individual, it is nevertheless not irreplaceable.
And it is the coming of another human individual into his isolated life that causes Robinson to question his way of life and his achievements. Because Friday has a way of thinking and behaving that is beyond his understanding. Friday has dark skin, so Robinson makes a servant of him according to his social conditioning. But he soon realises that Friday, while appearing to submit, is beyond any domination. He finds Friday’s laughter maddening, and although he is compliant, Robinson never has any sense of being his master.
Robinson goes through another change, perhaps reaching a kind of enlightenment by observing Friday’s attitude to life
Under his influence, and the successive blows he dealt me, I have traveled the road of a long and painful metamorphosis. The man of earth dragged from his labours by a spirit of the air…
Friday is Michel Tournier’s first novel, published in 1967 and winner of the Grand Prix de Roman de l’Academie Francaise.
Thought provoking and delightful, and philosophical in a less long-winded way than the two German authors I have read previously, it examines every aspect of human kind.
For April a complete change.
A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth. A gossipy tale of suitable and unsuitable marriage prospects, and 1349 pages long.