The original `nonfiction novel'. Rereading `Robinson Crusoe'

WE tend to think the fuzzy line between fact and fiction is a recent phenomenon. Remember, for example, the stir created in the 1960s by Truman Capote's ``In Cold Blood,'' which was hailed as the harbinger of a new literary genre, the ``nonfiction novel,'' and spawned a host of imitations. How easily we forget that Daniel Defoe was there before him, in 1719 to be exact, with the publication of ``Robinson Crusoe.'' Defoe, a compulsively prolific but frequently impecunious journalist, had little patience with works of the imagination and probably would have found the distinction posthumously conferred upon him - ``father of the English novel''- a dubious one at best. Always on the lookout for a way to translate words into currency, Defoe knew a good story when he heard one and pounced on the tale of Alexander Selkirk with all the avidity of a contemporary gossip columnist getting wind of a celebrity scandal. Selkirk was a real English seaman marooned alone on a real desert island who learned to survive by his wits, and Defoe based his book on the various interviews conducted with Selkirk after his rescue. He may even have met Selkirk.

Rather than calling it a novel, Defoe would have been far more comfortable with the cumbersome but comparatively accurate labels, fictionalized narrative or fictionalized autobiography. In his preface he assumes the point of view of an editor and presents the narrative as Crusoe's own.

Nevertheless, Defoe takes great liberties with Selkirk's account, such as extending his sojourn from four to 28 years. That Crusoe retains his sanity, remembers his language, and never once thinks about women only heightens this implausibility.

It is clear that Crusoe is as much a product of Defoe's imagination as of Selkirk's experience and an early example of how the boundaries between fact and fiction blur, whether the genre be the nonfiction novel, ``new journalism,'' or even conventional biography.

If its ambiguous genre makes ``Robinson Crusoe'' surprisingly contemporary, its ambiguous interpretation continues to tantalize the 20th-century reader. Although this novel is far too often consigned to the purgatory of children's classics, the scrupulous adult reader will appreciate that this is not a mere adventure tale but one that redounds with social, political, religious, and even anthropological overtones.

``Robinson'' has been variously interpreted as a survival myth in which ``Everyman'' overcomes the hostile forces of nature; an allegory about the rise of capitalism in which Crusoe turns a desert island into a mock bourgeois paradise; and a puritan fable in which the prodigal son who rebelled against his father by going to sea finds both punishment and redemption on his ``island of despair.''

To read the novel on one of these levels alone is to ignore the intricate network of ironies that gives the seemingly shapeless narrative an interlocking form and even humor. For example, Crusoe, who wants nothing more than to go to sea and see the world, spends 28 years in the most extreme isolation and confinement. Furthermore, having rejected the ``middle station'' of life that his father recommended and the circumstances of his birth assigned him, he devotes those 28 years to trying to duplicate not only the necessities of life but also the comforts of home.

These ironies are not lost on Crusoe, who is given to breast-beating and self-recrimination about his folly in succumbing to the irrational, e.g., ``I that was born to be my own destroyer...,'' and they reinforce the notion that ``fate'' or ``divine providence'' is conspiring to bring about his deliverance, not only from his situation, but also from himself.

Thrown back on his own resources, he busies himself with the fine art of survival, for which he develops a creative and innovative flair. He is proud of his ingenuity and his labor: ``I had never handled a tool in my life; and yet, in time, by labor, application, and contrivance, I found, at last, that I wanted nothing but I could have made it, especially if I had had tools....'' This formerly feckless, lazy fellow develops qualities of patience and perseverance and can expatiate on his achievements with a reverential regard for detail.

The struggle to survive, Crusoe discovers, has a certain salutary influence on the soul. Like Thoreau he learns to rely on himself and live in harmony with nature. He also transcends commonplace social values with such insights as, ``All the good things of this world are no further good to us than they are for our use ... we enjoy just as much as we can use, and no more.''

Defoe's novel is in many respects a paean to the indomitability of the human spirit. The ultimate irony is that it is only when Crusoe is stripped of civilization that he becomes most profoundly human. His fears, his needs, his wants, are no longer individual but universal. In getting back to basics, he becomes a mirror of man's best instincts, and we feel his continual efforts to make his life more comfortable are less a manifestation of materialism than of a fundamental need for stimulation and security.

We all have occasional fantasies of ``getting away from it all,'' but there is always a part of us that worries about how we could manage to live without any of it. Perhaps the reason ``Robinson Crusoe'' strikes such a resonant chord even in our time is that it sounds a message of hope. As the epitome of adaptability, Crusoe not only makes the best of a bad situation but also derives benefit from it. He even reaches the point where he feels he would be content to stay there, as ``prince and lord of the whole island'' with his pets in dutiful attendance, until the barest hint of humanity, that single surrealistic footprint in the sand (like the sound of one hand clapping), reawakens all his repressed feelings of loneliness and longing for human contact.

Defoe gives no hint of Crusoe's life after he deserts the island and returns to civilization. We are quite certain, however, that he will sally forth to sea no more and that, like his spiritual cousin Candide, he will be quite content to stay home and cultivate his garden.

Diana Loercher Pazicky is a free-lance book reviewer.

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