Castaways and colonists from Crusoe to Coetzee
Smit-Marais, Susanna Johanna
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Generic transformation of the castaway novel is made evident by the various ways in which the narrative boundaries that separate fiction from reality and history, the past from the present, and the rational from the irrational, are reconfigured in Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before (1994), J.M. Coetzee’s Foe (1986) and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2002). The dissolution of boundaries reflects the dominant shift that has occurred in the castaway novel from the 18th century literary context to the present postmodern, postcolonial context. In this regard, the narrative utilizes various narratological strategies, the most significant being intertextuality, metafiction, historiographical metafiction, allegory, irony, and the carnivalesque. These narratological strategies rewrite, revise, and recontextualize those generic conventions that perpetuated the culture of masculinity and conquest that defines colonialism and the traditional castaway novel epitomized by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). From a postcolonial perspective, the castaway’s state of being reflects on the condition of the colonized as well as the colonizer: his/her experience of displacement is similar to colonized peoples’ separation from their cultural, spiritual and personal identities; simultaneously, processes of appropriation, adaptation and control of space resemble colonization, thereby revealing the constructed nature of colonial space. As such, space is fundamental to individual orientation and social adaptation and consequently, metaphorically and metonymically linked to identity. In the selected postmodernist and postcolonial texts, the movement from the position of castaway to colonist as originally manifested in Robinson Crusoe is therefore reinterpreted and recontextualized. The postmodernist and postcolonial contexts resist fixed and one-dimensional representations of identity, as well as the appropriation and domination of space, that characterize shipwreck literature from pre-colonial and colonial periods. Rationalist notions of history, reality and truth as empirically definable concepts are also contested. The castaway identity is often characterized by feelings of physical and spiritual displacement and estrangement that can be paralleled to postmodernist themes of existential confusion and anxiety.
- Humanities