Welcome to the 18th century!
With “Robinson Crusoe” I have officially opened a new century, something that does not happen too often going through this list, and in style. “Robinson Crusoe” was and still is a bestseller, one of the most popular novels of its time and remained so for at least two hundred years.
I must admit that the hype is deserved. It is every bit as interesting and engrossing as its popularity would indicate. Maybe my version had updated the language slightly, but I felt that the writing here was far smoother than what I have learned to expect from these old books. But that is actually the least of what this story has to offer.
Everybody knows the story of “Robinson Crusoe”. Or think they do. A man gets stranded on a deserted island and learns to survive. If you really know the story you also know that eventually he befriends a native and names him Friday. This basic story is so famous that it has generated a whole bunch of spin-offs or adaptions. I recently watched “Cast Away” and was struck by the similarity. Matt Damon has a tendency to get stuck on deserted planets. It even has a name, a robinsonade.
What fewer people realize is that the story is more than just being stuck on an island. The protagonist, Robinson Crusoe, spends the first part of the book escaping a sinking ship on the way to London, then escaping Moorish captivity while trading on the slave coast and finally setting up a plantation in Brazil. Each of these stories are interesting and detailed in their own right and it is quite late in the book that Robinson Crusoe sets out to Africa from Brazil and gets marooned on his island for 28 years.
It is true that a fair part of the book follows Crusoe in his challenge to first stay alive and then getting comfortable on the island, but the book then takes an interesting turn. Having stayed on the island for many years Crusoe finds out he is not alone. His island is used by a native tribe from the main land to take war prisoners for human sacrifice and to munch on them. The European horror story about wild savages. What is a lonely Englishman to do about that? This story develops in interesting ways that I had not expected and the short of it is that eventually Robinson Crusoe is not so alone anymore but ruling over a small population of various origin.
Throughout the story Crusoe is a crafty and prodigious fellow who manages to accomplish a lot with little. He is lucky at times, but he is also a hero who makes is own luck. He rarely gets things right in first attempt and he honestly admit to taking on futile projects that he eventually has to give up because he did not think them through, but he does not give up and usually gets where he wants in the end. Very commendable, yet humble traits. His attitude towards the natives are both what you would expect from a European in the 17th century, but also, when he thinks things over, surprisingly modern. His plans to simply kill the cannibals is abandoned because he is questioning his right to judge them. Something colonial Europeans rarely considered.
It is therefore easy to like Robinson Crusoe. The only place I was seriously questioning him was when he left with the English ship together with Friday rather than waiting for the Spaniards and Friday’s father. Where they not supposed to join them on the island and together work on a way to escape? That was a bit strange.
Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” enters my top 3 of best books so far in sharp competition with “Don Quixote” and “The Conquest of New Spain”. I had a great time reading it and I feel that a big gap in my general learning has been patched by finally having actually read to book. I feel ashamed it took me this long.