Una comunidad abstracta and Te Faruru

Te Faruru

In the past year or two, the young Ecuadorian writer who goes by the name of Salvador Izquierdo has published two works of what I hesitate to call fiction: Una comunidad abstracta (2015) and Te Faruru (2016). Each is intriguing and frustrating in equal measure, though the frustration itself is part of Izquierdo’s strategy. Indeed, the more frustrating of the two–the later, longer Te Fararu–is also the more interesting precisely because it outright refuses any simple resolution.

The manifest content of the two books is similar. They consist of a lengthy series of often very short paragraphs detailing facts or offering hypotheses about literary and artistic figures, texts and performances, essentially from modernism to the present. Often the form these paragraphs take is short quotations by or about the figures under discussion. So we have brief (sometimes absolutely telegraphic) musings from or about everyone from Paul Gauguin or Hart Crane to Henry Miller, Elisabeth Bishop, Juan Carlos Onetti, Jean-Luc Goddard, and Susan Sontag, along with a host of other, more obscure denizens or hangers on from the international artistic demi-monde.

The links established among the multitude of characters that thus populate each book are often at first sight tangential, almost random associations. Artists who feature (or don’t) in a book entitled Fifty Twentieth-Century Artists You Should Know (Picasso, twice, but not Ana Mendieta or Robert Crumb). Authors who changed their names (Comte de Lautréamont, George Orwell, Pablo Neruda). Writers or actors who went bald (Philip Larkin, Alfonso Reyes, Ed Harris). Men named Robert (Rauschenberg, Capa, Graves). People who came from, visited, or may have visited, Vancouver (Bill Reid, Malcolm Lowry, Kurt Vonnegut). People from or with some connection to Uruguay, however minimal (Josephine Baker, Joaquín Torres García, Martin Amis). The narrator of Una comunidad abstracta tells us that “it’s not me who’s making these connections” (58). But collectively they begin to establish patterns that respond to the particular preoccupations of this shadowy compiler of apparent trivia: people who had a child at the age of 24 (Robert Hughes, David Bowie, Bob Dylan); “I mention it,” the narrator tells us, “because, whatever else separates us, I too had a child when I was 24” (49).

“What have I said about myself?” asks the narrator of Una comunidad abstracta (86). The answer is both “not much” and “a fair bit.” This is someone concerned with the process of translation, in all its meanings, and in establishing facts while worrying as much about their accuracy as about their relevance: “Errors in books or errors within myself?” he asks about the possibility of mistakes (86). But to “err” is also to deviate, to roam, to travel (and so also to translate). These are definitely “errant” books, which roam widely with no obvious destination or purpose.

Ultimately, Una comunidad abstracta ends up being something of (quite literally) a shaggy dog tale. It seems to revolve around a lost dog, called Fito: “I write these little paragraphs [. . .] for Fito.” But this is both too neat and too unsatisfactory a key to the endless perambulations, meanderings, and circumlocutions that characterize the book. Indeed, surely it’s at best an alibi, or a metaphor for everything else that also escapes such attempts to put an end to the chain of connections and apparent coincidences. Te Faruru hints more directly at what else may lay beyond or beneath the imperfect search for order, for putting everything in its place.

In this more recent book, the narrator (although really nothing is ever narrated) may or may not be the same as in the previous one. But he shares many of the same obsessions. And he shares a little more, too, above all in a series of long footnotes that take up more space on the page as the book progresses. It is in one of these notes, for instance, that he tells us of a grandmother who once gave him a book by Eduardo Galeano, dedicating it to a “great reader” (113)–a compliment, however, that the narrator wishes quickly to disown. And another footnote tells us of a former literature teacher who also gave him a book, this time the collected works of Cavafy, inscribed to an “exceptional person” (126)–but he has to admit that he has lost touch with the teacher, and hasn’t returned to any of the authors he read with her.

In these footnotes, then, Te Faruru‘s reluctant narrator struggles with the slogan “Don’t Look Back” that otherwise reverberates through the main text, in all its various versions from Lot’s Wife to Orpheus to Bob Dylan and Pennebacker’s documentary. After all, the footnotes themselves interrupt the onward flow of the connections and interconnections that comprise the text, each point linked to the other by little more than free association with no attempt to dwell on any moment in particular: “Now I think of it” is otherwise the book’s refrain, like an exercise in ADHD. But in the footnotes lurks the shadow of something that the narrator can’t think about and can’t help thinking at one at the same time. Something that demands a narrator, however much our guide denies that this is what he is: “To relate what I don’t want to relate I’d have to begin much further back, I’d have to put together a story [or history–historia], I’d have to look back, and I don’t feel up to it” (131). Or later: “Again, I’d have to relate certain things that are neither here nor there [que no vienen al caso aquí]. It would be better to come up with a narrative, but I’m no narrator” (141).

But it may just be that the footnotes are pointing out something that’s present also in the main text. For all the injunctions to keep looking ahead, in fact it, too, is full of repetitions and returns. Its last line, after all, declares that “here, where there is nothing but repetition, the same thing happens” (157). And not only does its apparently random flow of consciousness incessantly revisit the same preoccupations, but the themes to which it returns often themselves deal with going back: Odysseus’s voyage home to Ithaca; and perhaps above all, Torres García’s return to Uruguay after 43 years away. For the narrator’s secret may well, it seems, have something to do with “what happened in Montevideo. To relate that episode in narrative form would shrink what I am holding on to in my memory, which wants to stay there, undisturbed [quieto]” (151). We can doubt, however, that this memory is really so quiet, so undisturbing. For it seems to be what sets in train the entire sequence of fragments that constitutes the book.

The book’s title, “Te Faruru,” is taken from a series of woodcuts made by Gauguin in the South Pacific. It means, we are told, “Here we make love” in the Maori language (81). But Izquierdo’s text is much more restless and unsettled than this title at first sight implies. The book seems to be telling us something, but we don’t know what–and perhaps neither does its author, let alone its (anti-)narrator. Or maybe all that matters is the movement itself, and by willfully frustrating us the text is warning against the childlike impulse to “connect the dots to come up with a figure that at the outset seems hidden” (23). Any story, any narrative, would ultimately be a trap, as arbitrary and at best merely fortuitous as any of the other relations and relatings that constitute these two books. So if we are to make (or find) love, it must be in the context of this uncertainty of the “neither here nor there,” of a concatenation of circumstances and encounters, errors and deviations, in which we happen to find (or lose) ourselves.

Watchmen

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, WatchmenAlan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen offers something of a counter-factual history of the Cold War. In particular, it imagines the central role of two generations of masked do-gooders: a 1940s cohort of “Minutemen,” most of whom are somewhat ephemeral and more than slightly ridiculous (of “Mothman,” “Dollar Bill,” and “Silhouette” we hear very little) and a 1960s/1970s gang of “Crimebusters” who take themselves a little more seriously and have a much more sinister edge.

The Minutemen are nostalgically portrayed mostly through a faded sepia photo and are clearly out of their depth when it comes to derring-do that goes beyond picking up petty thieves and minor gangsters: at their inaugural meeting, in 1939, one of them nervously admits that “Just thinking about war, it scares me.” The Crimebusters are made of sterner stuff, and feature at least one member who is genuinely superhuman. This is Doctor Manhattan, a former nuclear scientist who thanks to an accident at work now has almost unlimited powers to decompose and recompose matter, to mutate and multiply himself, to survive in the harshest environments, as well as to see past, present, and (with some restrictions) future in one instant. It is thanks to Manhattan that (in this version of twentieth-century history) the USA has won the Vietnam War and is able to hold off the Soviet threat of nuclear annihilation. Vital for US national security, he is now the only costumed crusader who legitimately pursues his vocation. By the late 1970s, as the US urban infrastructure crumbled and even superheroes were viewed as more trouble than they were worth, all the others were forced to hang up their capes. All but Rorschach, that is, a particularly violent and uncompromising individual whose mask is an ever-shifting pattern of blots and who in one way or another is the story’s central character.

But if this is a novel that stresses decay, disintegration, and the loss of innocence–and it is–none-the-less its portrait of the past is not entirely rose-tinted. For the rot set in early, as did the general sense of ambivalence that surrounds all these supposedly “super” figures. Even in 1939, the sepia-tinged harmony is soon shown to be a sham: as soon as the photo session is over, a bloody fight erupts as the “Comedian” attempts to rape his fellow Minuteman (Minutewoman?) “Silk Spectre,” only to be beaten up in turn by a third of their number, the aptly-named “Hooded Justice.” There never was a Golden Age of heroism, and this inaugural violence and violation comes to taint the second generation of superheroes too: indeed, the Comedian is the only Minuteman to continue on to membership in the Crimebusters a generation later. His amoral cynicism and frank revelry in violence is presented as a constant temptation for vigilante avengers who choose to act outside the law without ever necessarily finding an alternative moral or ethical principle. At best, ultimately the book seems at first glance to endorse a very crude utilitarianism: that conspiracy and deception on a massive scale, not to mention the destruction of (here) the entire US Eastern Seaboard (and the deaths of many millions), is justified by a project to end the Cold War and bring perpetual peace. But this, after all, is precisely the logic of the Cold War itself.

Only Rorschach and (it is implied) the Comedian balk at this simplistic balance of the greater good. Rorschach’s words as he storms out of the utopian hero (or anti-hero)’s Antarctic lair are: “No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never Compromise.” But he and the Comedian are killed for their pains: indeed the two deaths bookend the narrative, as it’s the Comedian’s murder that kickstarts the plot, and Rorschach’s death takes place in the final act. Can we to sympathize with their doomed resistance to the calculations of power, however well-intentioned? I think and hope so, not least because the entire story is framed as Rorschach’s (he may have been eliminated, but he has got the word out against all odds), though in some ways this means that the end only takes us back to the beginning. More strikingly, it also means that the resulting ambivalence is extreme, almost unbearable: other characters, not least the second-generation “Nite Owl” and “Silk Spectre,” are much more immediately sympathetic, more “human.” In the end, however, we are asked to sympathize with an ultra-violent cynicism whose most obvious virtue is only that it is not so deadly as a rationalism that ends up indistinguishable from nihilism.

scar

The Odyssey is structured around repeated dramas of (mis)recognition: who is he? what is this? who am I? But no recognition scene is more crucial than the one in which Odysseus finally reveals himself to his son Telemachus. For this is always more a story about fathers and sons than it is about husbands and wives.

Penelope is at best a foil: her task is to keep a place open for the rightful head of the household, and therefore to fend off the suitors’ attempt to fill the void left by her husband’s long absence. But by the time that Odysseus returns, Telemachus finally has a claim to that spot, as is shown by his curt treatment of his mother in Book One: “So mother, / go back to your quarters. Tend to your own tasks, / the distaff and the loom [. . .] As for giving orders / me will see to that, but I most of all: / I hold the reins of power in this house” (1:409-414). The irony, of course, is that it is precisely by tending to “the distaff and the loom” that, in the long span during which Telemachus has been growing up, Penelope has in fact surreptitiously been holding the reins of power–or rather, preventing anyone else from taking them up.

But by Book Sixteen, Odysseus is back and ready (or as ready as he will ever be) to take his place and reassert order in what has become a household turned upside down, in which the guests have abused the code of hospitality by which Greek society is shown to cohere. The suitors have to be killed because they have confused the roles of host and guest. Odysseus will be the unwanted guest, the beggar at the threshold, who asserts his right to host–and to deny hospitality.

Telemachus, however, takes some persuading that his father has returned. Though Athena returns Odysseus to his former appearance (perhaps making him look still more like the younger man who originally embarked to war against Troy: “taller, supple, young” [16:197]), the son assumes that his transformation indicates divinity: “this must be some god [. . .] surely you are some god who rules the vaulting skies!” (16:202, 206). Even after “long-enduring” Odysseus clarifies twice–“No, I am not a god [. . .] No, I am your father” (16:209, 212)–his son continues to be skeptical. “No, you’re not Odysseus! Not my father! / Just some spirit spellbinding me now [. . .] you seem like a god who rules the skies up there!” (16:220-21, 228). It is only after our hero repeats himself once more that Telemachus finally accepts that his father has finally returned.

What then? How does one treat a man, as opposed to a god? If the poem repeatedly confuses the distinction between divinity and humanity (if a son cannot recognize his father, who can be sure who is what?), then what is the key difference?

The answer is simple: you ask a man to tell you his story.

As soon as Telemachus has it clear in his mind that he is dealing with his father rather than a god, he comes out with all sorts of questions: “What sort of ship, dear father, brought you here?– / Ithaca, at last. Who did the sailors say they are? / I hardly think you came back home on foot!” (16:252-54). And these questions echo the queries put to Odysseus by the loyal swineherd, who never doubted that the man before him (even if he didn’t recognize him) was a mortal like himself: “Who are you? where are you from? your city? your parents? / What sort of vessel brought you? Why did the sailors / land you here in Ithaca? Who did they say they are? / I hardly think you came this way on foot” (14:215-19). In turn, these questions also echo the myriad queries made of any guest throughout the epic. Nestor to Telemachus: “Strangers–friends, who are you? / Where did you sail from, over the running sea-lanes?” (3:79-80); the queen of the Phaeacians to Odysseus: “Who are you? Where are you from? / Who gave you the clothes you’re wearing now? / Didn’t you say you reached us roving on the sea?” (7:274-76). And so on and so forth.

Men tell stories. They tell stories about themselves, their ships, their crewmates, their clothes. And of course they also tell stories about their exploits, their families, their gods. This is how they reward the hospitality they receive. More importantly, this is what makes them human. And there is nothing more human, then, than the Odyssey itself: one long story about men, ships, crewmates, clothes, exploits, families, and gods.

The gods themselves do not tell stories. The appropriate reaction to a god is not to elicit narrative, but (as Telemachus makes clear) to make them promises of gifts and sacrifices: “Oh be kind, and we will give you offerings, / gifts of hammered gold to warm your heart” (16:207-8). Men tell stories about gods; the gods accept sacrifices from men.

So stories–discourse, narrative–are essential to human intercourse. No wonder every guest is asked to tell his tale. And in an oral culture, he tale told is all the more important: it is the performance of narrative that assures our humanity. But at the same time, the recognition that performance can also be “only” an act, a tall tale, a means of deception, provokes great distrust and ambivalence. Odysseus, after all, tells great stories. But even after insisting to the swineherd that he “hate[s] that man like the very Gates of Death who, / ground down by poverty, stoops to peddling lies” (14:182-83), he goes on to tell the most elaborate of whopping falsehoods about “hail[ing] from Crete’s broad land” (14:228).

Tale-telling is what makes us human, and how we relate to each other as humans, but it is also inherently unreliable, untrustworthy.

It is no surprise then that the only two characters who recognize Odysseus on their own account are either strangers to language (the master’s loyal dog; 17: 330-31) or do so by reading some rather more material sign. The old nurse, Eurycleia, is washing her former charge down when “in a flash, she knew the scar” (19:445) left on his knee by a boar many years earlier. Eurycleia reads Odysseus’s body directly, and as such is the only human to sound out the truth before the king himself makes himself known to them.

The mark on the body, a sort of primitive writing of injury and affect, shows up the precarious humanity of the tall tale that is The Odyssey itself.

fray

The notion of rewriting or creatively adapting a classic text is hardly new. From Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea to Apocalypse Now or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the idea is to take a cultural ur-text from which in some way we cannot escape, and to reform it for contemporary concerns or sensibilities.

Sometimes the aim is simply to recontextualize or update a story that is now thought to be stale or over-familiar (as with the numerous reimaginings of Shakespeare such as 10 Things I Hate About You). But often these always parasitical texts also present strong misreadings that are implicit, or even explicit, critiques of the original; Rhys’s novel could be the (by now itself classic) instance of such a critical rewriting.

J M Coetzee, FoeJ. M. Coetzee’s Foe belongs to this tradition, but in some ways his text is as much an unwriting of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as it is a revision or extension of the original. Coetzee purports to reveal and so undermine the writing strategy that gives us Defoe’s book; Foe is a parasite that aims to kill its host by imaginatively troubling the very process of its production. It poses as less supplement than antidote.

Hence, then, the novel’s title. In the first instance, “Foe” is a deformation of the name by which we have come to know Robinson Crusoe‘s author. It strips him of the claim to privilege that Daniel Foe attempted to assume when he changed his name to Defoe in order to imply some kind of aristocratic lineage. But second, Coetzee’s book also treats Defoe as the enemy of the story that Coetzee, or his proxy Mary Barton, wishes to tell about desert islands, so-called savagery, but above all story-telling and writing itself.

Barton is Foe‘s protagonist and, in one way or another, its narrative voice. To remind us of this notion of voice, the first two-thirds of the novel is written, literally, in quotation marks: this contains Barton’s own account of her arrival on a desert island in which Cruso (for so she spells his name) and “his” man Friday are already established, of the trio’s rescue by an English merchantman, and of Cruso’s subsequent death on the voyage home; it also includes her increasingly anguished letters, from various lodgings in London, to the author Daniel Foe to whom she has entrusted her story with the hope that he will produce a polished account of her travails. The final third of the book (apart from a very brief section that is more of an epilogue) then consists of Barton’s conversations with Foe when she finally tracks him down to find out what kind of narrative the author is making of her experience.

The problem for Barton is that, at least initially, she doesn’t trust herself to put things into suitable words. She is told by the captain of the ship taking her to England that hers “is a story you should set down in writing and offer to the booksellers” but replies that “a liveliness is lost in the writing down which must be supplied by art, and I have no art.” To which the captain responds that “the booksellers will hire a man to set your story to rights” (40). Enter Daniel (De)Foe, then, as the man who will set Barton’s story “to rights.”

Setting Barton’s story to rights, however, introduces a series of apparent wrongs. For one thing, art seems to require embellishment. Life on the island was, after all, on the whole rather boring, not least because Cruso had been far from an entertaining conversationalist: so engaged was he in interminable agricultural labors that he had “nothing left to talk of save the weather.” Barton therefore muses at the time that “Cruso rescued will be a deep disappointment to the world; the idea of a Cruso on his island is a better thing than the true Cruso tight-lipped and sullen in an alien England” (34-5). It is Foe’s task, then, to preserve the idea of Cruso from the disappointing reality.

This embellishment, though, further requires a whole series of other changes. Passion has to be added to the mix: if there was “too little desire in Cruso and Friday: too little desire to escape, too little desire for a new life,” then something needs to be done because “without desire how is it possible to make a story?” (88). And as a counterpoint (or perhaps, prompt) to desire, Foe injects also fear of exotic difference and strangeness: the island needs to be under the threat of encroaching cannibals, even though Barton herself notes that “As for cannibals, I am not persuaded” for “I saw no cannibals; and if they came after nightfall and fled before the down, they left no footprint behind” (54). No footprint: Foe’s task, his art, is to supply signs such as the famous footprint in the sand that will conjure up the range of affects that may transform Barton’s tale into one that satisfies English readers’ desires for… well, desire itself.

His enterprise is made easier, though its result all the more troubling, by the fact that not only is the sullen Cruso no longer around to disappoint would-be interlocutors, but Friday is mute, his tongue mysteriously removed by person or persons alone (other “savages”? Cruso himself?). The subaltern subject can only have his tale told for him: “The true story will not be heard till by art we have found a means of giving voice to Friday” (118). And yet Friday’s silence pervades the book, garnering almost physical presence as it is compared to “smoke [. . .] a welling of black smoke” (118).

Soon Barton, if not Foe, realizes that Friday’s story, which will remain forever untold, “is properly not a story but a puzzle or hole in the narrative” (121). Foe is apparently set on making up for this unfillable hole at the center of his story “by inventing cannibals and pirates,” but Barton continually and resolutely rejects such narrative solutions to the problem of mute subalternity.

So if Cruso is sullenly and uninterestingly silent, and Friday is mute because of some unnameable and unlocatable violence, Barton’s own lively but resistant voice, which gives Foe its substance, will in turn have to be silenced so as to give proper literary form to the text that will become Robinson Crusoe. The third and final silence, then, is the silencing of Barton for the sake of the story. As she herself imagines it, Foe will come to think “Better had there been only Cruso and Friday. [. . .] Better without the woman” (72).

The paradox, as Barton observes it, is that she is both essential to the story (“Yet where would you be without the woman?” [72]) and at the same time resistant to the process of story-telling and the sureties that it seems to require: “I am not a story, Mr Foe,” she asserts (131); “But now all my life grows to be story and there is nothing of my own left to me. [. . .] Nothing is left to me but doubt. I am doubt itself. Who is speaking me?” (133).

If then, Robinson Crusoe is a tale of destitution overturned or compensated for by (male) hard work and ingenuity (though as I have suggested, some markers of the doubt that undoes its claims remain), Foe is an account of a different kind of destitution: of the way in which in which literature itself is a means by which to deny the subaltern (woman) her questioning, doubt-filled voice, and to project other desires onto the mute subaltern (savage) that remains.

Foe is a reminder, moreover, of what Barton terms “the life of a substantial body” even though that life is “abject. It is the life of a thing” (125-7). Barton consistently affirms substance and “substantial being” (90) while recognizing the power of writing and the way that even substance can be written out, written over, or lost. “Return to me the substance I have lost, Mr Foe,” she entreats (51).

Foe suggests that that only way to do justice to such loss of substance is to take up arms against the writers of the classics, to undo their claims of authorial mastery–though of course one of the many ironies of this contest is that the masterful Coetzee emerges from the fray with substantial authority himself.

Thursday

Reading Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is a somewhat uncanny experience. You know, or you think you know, the general lineaments of what has become a classic narrative and founding myth of modern civilization’s relationship both to nature and to (purportedly) premodern barbarism. This is, after all, a familiar or even over-familiar story. Crusoe is the name of a seventeenth-century castaway who reconstructs a civilized life on a remote island with primitive tools; he finds a footprint on the beach and realizes he is not alone on the island; he subsequently is aided by and tutors his man “Friday.”

Presumably at some point Crusoe and Friday are rescued, but the story as it exists in popular consciousness doesn’t have (and perhaps doesn’t need) any particular conclusion: it is a tale about origins, not conclusions. Any destiny the tale may imply is that incarnated in the process of gradual civilization itself, a process that is (it’s suggested) without any fixed end.

Coming to the book itself, however, is a disconcerting reminder of how much is omitted, simplified, or corrupted as narrative becomes myth. For Defoe’s novel bears at times little more than a passing resemblance to this idea of Robinson Crusoe that has become embedded in our cultural (un)consciousness.

To begin with, the story as told by Defoe takes an awfully long time to get to the famous island. Crusoe isn’t shipwrecked until almost forty pages in, and before that point he’s already had a whole set of other adventures and misfortunes: a terrible storm in the North Sea on his maiden sea voyage; kidnap and captivity at the hands of Barbary Coast pirates; escape across the North Atlantic, in the company of a young Spanish Moor, Xury; and a stint as a planter in Brazil.

So the origin (if the book is really a story about origins) is several times deferred or, perhaps better, foreshadowed and so repeated in advance. The North Sea storm anticipates the hurricane that will shipwreck Crusoe’s boat in the Caribbean; his captivity in North Africa will be duplicated by the sense that his island home is a prison; his negotiations with Xury are a preemptive mirror of his relationship with Friday; and his life as planter foreshadows his attempts to establish agriculture as a castaway. By the time that we get to the founding moment, when Crusoe finds himself alone on his island, everything is already repetition.

A similar doubling can be found in the narrative provided of and on the island itself. For while the book opens as more or less standard first-person (pseudo-)autobiographical narrative, at the beginning of his sojourn Crusoe also starts to keep a journal, which he includes more or less verbatim in his account of those early days and months. So the same events are often told twice: once by Crusoe as novelistic narrator, and a second time in quotation as it were, by Crusoe as character. (Compare 37-56 with 57-61.) And so although the journal is intended initially as a kind of therapy–so “as to deliver my thoughts from daily poring on them, and afflicting my mind” (53)–this doubleness threatens a kind of narrative madness, the possibility of an endless proliferation of accounts. What, after all, if in the journal he had written up the process of writing the journal itself? An aporia threatens to open up, of narratives redoubled like reflections in multiple mirrors.

After a while, Crusoe appears to realize the senselessness of this procedure by which everything has to be described twice–a senselessness brought on ironically by an activity designed to give sense to his experience. As such he notes, for instance, of one construction he had made that “This wall being described before, I purposely omit what was said in the Journal” (61). Not long after, the conceit of quoting the journal is abandoned altogether or rather, as its conclusion or the end of the citation is never signaled with anything like the clarity that its introduction had apparently merited, the journal and the broader narration seem simply to blur one into another. What is quoted becomes part of the frame, and so the written account becomes part of the “real” world of the narrative. This, of course, in turn mirrors the strategy of the novel as a whole, which purports to be the true story of a castaway mariner, in other words to propose that the character’s narrative is one with that of the world itself, that “his story” is simply history.

Another surprise, for me at least, was that the famous footprint in the sand turns out not to be Friday’s; my assumption that it was collapses a whole sequence of events. The “print of a man’s naked foot on the shore” (122) comes almost exactly halfway through the narrative; but Friday doesn’t arrive on the scene for another forty pages (163). Again, then, there is a strange delay. Here, however, it’s a case of the sign preceding the thing; the two, which in my understanding of the story had been closely associated, are in fact much more loosely related.

More generally, in the novel as a whole signs are quite tenuously related to things. For the most part, in fact, Crusoe seems quite uninterested in naming or charting what he finds in this unfamiliar territory. He tells us early on that he calls his land “the island of despair” (57), but that name is never used again; perhaps like “primitives” are supposed to do, he sees little need to give a name to an environment in which he is fully immersed. But rather more strikingly, he makes no attempt either to follow the standard colonizing practice of naming the various geographical and topographical features that constitute the island: none of the bays or hills or woods have any signifiers attached to them; at best, he calls his initial settlement his “sea-coast house” (82; subsequently his “castle” [122]) and his inland outpost his “country-house” (82). Nor, though he notes his unfamiliarity with much of the island’s flora and fauna, does he bother to come up with words for them, either. Indeed, overall Crusoe is remarkably uninquisitive about his surroundings: he doesn’t even care to do much in the way of exploring–which is why the regular visits of so-called cannibals from the mainland escape his notice for so many years.

In short, Crusoe’s attitude is far from that of the typical colonizer, however much he does at various points consider himself the “prince and lord of the whole island” (118). He shows little or no interest in surveying, mapping, and so symbolically or even actually securing the territory that he considers his.

The one exception to Crusoe’s peculiar inhibition regarding naming is, of course, his manservant to whom he famously gives the name “Friday” because that was “the day I sav’d his life; I called him so for the memory of the time” (163). And yet this, too, is a remarkably uncertain signifier: Crusoe has repeatedly told us that he relatively soon lost track of the days, despite his best efforts. In an early fever he feels he surely “lost a day in [his] accompt, and never knew which way” (76), so Friday should by rights be either “Thursday” or “Saturday” or even (if Crusoe has tried to compensate for his error, either one way or the other) perhaps “Wednesday” or “Sunday.” In any case, the notion that the name will help fix memory and time is surely an illusion, as Crusoe should be fully aware.

In short, then, Robinson Crusoe turns out to be a rather odd and even singular book. It most certainly fails to ground in any secure way the various narratives of origin that claim it as some founding example loaded with significance, whether these be the fantasy of heroic self-fashioning (the economists’ “homo oeconomicus”) or the black legend of anti-heroic imperialism (the postcolonialists’ ur-colonizer). If anything, it actively destabilizes such accounts, by demonstrating the unknowability and precariousness of origins, narrative, and signification in general. Which is a striking conclusion to take from a book that supposedly has none.

To put it another way, Crusoe’s tale is best understood as more of a posthegemonic anti-narrative in which the many affects that mark the castaway’s long isolation soon undo any claims to construct hegemonic narrative. And yet, of course, in the popular (un)conscious those stories continue regardless.

blasé

Lieutenant Nun coverCatalina de Erauso’s Lieutenant Nun is a quite extraordinary little book. It is, as the subtitle indicates, the “Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World.” Or as Catalina herself summarizes her own story, when she ultimately reveals her identity to the Bishop of Huamanga sometime around 1619:

The truth is this: that I am a woman, that I was born in such and such a place, the daughter of this man and this woman, that at a certain age I as placed in a certain convent with a certain aunt, that I was raised there and took the veil and became a novice, and that when I was about to profess my final vows, I left the convent for such and such a reason, went to such and such a place, undressed myself and dressed myself up again, cut my hair traveled here and there, embarked, disembarked, hustled, killed, maimed, wreaked havoc, and roamed about, until coming to a stop in this very instant, at the feet of Your Eminence. (64)

This sentence also gives a sense of the tone of the book: breezy, even when recounting killings, maimings, and the wreaking of havoc. Details are distributed around the text in what appears to be a fairly arbitrary manner: we are often told how many monasteries a given city contains, and how many leagues it is from the next city; we may or may not, however, learn the precise reasons for a killing or a maiming or what exactly provokes our heroine to pack up her bags once again and move on in her adventures.

Catalina skips over some episodes and lingers over others for no obvious reason; she hardly seems to care about a reader’s desire to know more about the “this, that, and the other thing” (47) that she so casually invokes. She certainly has no desire to court the crowds that gather around her once her story becomes public. However extraordinary her tale is, she wants to treat it as absolutely matter-of-fact.

Yet it is extraordinary, not least because Erauso is indeed both lieutenant and nun in roughly equal measure. It is not that she transforms from one to the other, rather that she is constantly switching between the two.

On one level, for instance, the narrative is remarkably unified as it tells the tale of Catalina’s spiritual progress. She begins as a novice, sent to a Basque convent at the age of four, and she ends up in Rome where she meets the Pope (Urban VIII) and chats to cardinals. En route, moreover, she is in and out of convents and churches. Indeed, at just about every opportunity we find her running back to the church.

But on another level, that of Catalina the picaresque rogue and ne’er-do-well, the narrative is equally unified. For she turns to the church for protection so frequently simply because she is endlessly getting into trouble of one sort or another. More than once she is condemned to death, for instance, for some murder or another. Sometimes she is guilty, sometimes not; it matters little. Either way, through some trick (or the help of a passing fellow Basque) she makes her way to the local cathedral and holes up there for a while until she can sneak away once more and resume her wayward rough-and-tumble life.

Hence there is a little coda to the story. In the book’s final and shortest chapter, after Catalina’s meeting with the church hierarchy in Rome and after a nice little joke which feels like the punchline to the book as one long shaggy-dog story, she leaves Rome for Naples. And here, down by the docks, still dressed as a man but known to be a woman, she is dressed by a couple of prostitutes who are chatting up their potential tricks. “Señora Catalina,” they shout out, apparently flirtatiously, “where are you going, all by your lonesome?” (80)

Catalina de ErausoResponding to this combination of provocation and invitation from the prostitutes, this woman who has long lived as a man replies as… well, either as lieutenant or as nun, or perhaps as both. “My dear harlots,” she says, “I have come to deliver one hundred to your pretty little necks, and a hundred gashes with this blade to the fool who would defend your honor.” Michele Stepto argues that this is a “parody of masculinist culture,” which is surely right. It is also a threat to re-impose normative morality upon a pair of wayward women. And it is a curiously ambivalent response (“my dear harlots”) to an entreaty which itself is ambivalently coded as either heterosexual or homosexual (indeed, no doubt both). To the painted ladies of Naples, this Basque cross-dresser throws back a performance that they are unsure how to read or answer.

No wonder that, in what is the book’s rather abrupt final sentence, we are told that “the women fell dead silent, and then they hurried off” (80). A similar silence is perhaps also our best response to this narrative that demands to be read but whose author is strangely blasé about her (or his?) readers.

silencing

Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s “The Three Faces of Sans Souci” takes the Haitian ruins of Sans Souci as a case study for his investigation into historiography and the “silencing of the past.” What’s interesting is that he regards the ruins themselves as both complicit in this silencing and as a form of resistance against it.

Sans Souci refers, in the first instance, to the lavish palace built by Henry Christophe, self-styled post-revolutionary King of Haiti (or rather, the north of the country) in the early nineteenth century. In the second instance, it refers to another palace of the same name, built a few years earlier by Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great in Potsdam, near Berlin. Finally, Sans Souci was also the name of a now almost forgotten Haitian revolutionary who had, in fact, been put to death on Christophe’s orders.

Trouillot’s argument is that the Haitian palace is named for Christophe’s former rival, in order both to establish and to extirpate his memory. On the one hand, “Henry killed Sans Souci twice: first, literally, during their last meeting; second, symbolically, by naming his most famous palace Sans Souci . . . [which] erased Sans Souci from Christophe’s own past, and it erased him from his future.” On the other hand, “Christophe may even have wanted to perpetuate the memory of his enemy as the most formidable one he defeated” (59). However, now that it is generally assumed that the source of the name was its German precursor, even that original silencing is itself silenced and the revolutionary Sans Souci effectively disappears from history. The final result is “an erasure more effective than the absence or failure of memory, whether faked or genuine” (60).


Yet Trouillot also suggests that acts of erasure such as Henry Christophe’s are “silences of resistance, silences thrown against a superior silence,” specifically here the silence “which Western historiography has produced around the revolution of Saint Domingue / Haiti.” In this context the now “crumbling walls” of the former palace “still stand as a last defense against oblivion” (69). They recall at least one move in the internecine strategies played out among those who led the Haitian revolution, disrupting both the heroic narrative preferred by Haitians themselves, and also the broader attempt to portray the revolution as some kind of non-event.

Finally, Trouillot further argues that history is necessarily incomplete, and so warns against the hyper-empiricist fantasy that “an enlargement of the empirical base” will necessarily lead to “the production of a ‘better’ history.” No: “Silences are inherent in history because any single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing” (49). As such, history is always a collection of ruins; it is history itself that is, at root, ruined in advance.