Racism, Travel and the Noble Savage in Translation by Margaret Saine


A warning forthwith: I’m retired, and therefore have the fool’s freedom of free play, that is, I have the right to only deal with the literature I like anymore! And I want to start with a quote of the great German-American anthropologist at Columbia University, New York, Franz Boas. He said in 1905: “If we unite the most creative and gifted individuals of the earth, there will be women and men of all existing races and cultures among them.” Look at that: Our Franz Boas has single-handedly taken the sting out of our poisonous bugbear, racism!

I once submitted a proposal to participate in a conference on travel literature. I offered to examine poems about the earth by the great Uruguayan poet Juana de Ibarbourou, but the committee turned my proposal down, claiming that poetry was irrelevant to travel literature. Thry were incompatible: there was nothing poetic about traveling. I was puzzled: had they not read Homer’s “Ulysses,” Luis de Camõens’ “Lusiadas” or the poetry of the French Romantics? And many other travel poems by William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop– or myself? Apparently not, but the following year, I got my revenge. I chose to write a proposal about “Patagonia” by Bruce Chatwin. At the beginning of his book, Chatwin told how his trip was inspired by a piece of supposed “dinosaur fur” in his grandmother’s china closet, which her son, his uncle, had sent her from Patagonia. As a young boy, Bruce was fantasizing about this improbable piece of fur, and this was exactly what inspired him to the Patagonia trip and his book.

So it seems to me, the question is rather: How much of travel is not inspired by fantasy?

For over four centuries, since the sixteenth, colonialism fermented and fomented racism. In 1855 in Paris, Arthur Gobineau published the “Essay on the Inequality of the Races,” a clear refutation of Rousseau’s “Discours sur l’inégalité” [Discourse on Inequality] of exactly one hundred years earlier, 1754. Gobineau establishes a pseudoscientific science of race: Dark-skinned races were inferior. People believed him to varying degrees. But above all, it was the neatest justification of colonialist exploitation anyone could have invented.

While racism developed, there also developed a fantasy literature that criticized racism and colonialism. Ever since Defoe and Swift and in France, Diderot and many others, presented people in other cultures and races as being wiser and closer to nature than decadent Europeans. Over years and centuries, these old classics, Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” of 1719, Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” of 1726, Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters,” a satirical look at Paris by several Persians, Diderot’s “Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage” of 1796, and many others, have argued against racism and colonialism. And some were even turned into children’s or schoolbooks, guaranteeing a wide distribution, and a not inconsiderable influence upon society.

Such is the case of French novelist Michel Tournier’s “Friday or the Limbs of the Pacific”, a “rewrite” of Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.” Tournier learned to write novels through translating German authors into French. [Tournier’s dates are 1924-2016 and his novel of 1967 is translated in English as “Friday and Robinson” or “Friday and the Other Island.”] To be sure, Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” was already a rewriting of several accounts by shipmates of Alexander Selkirk’s four years as a castaway on the San Fernández Islands off the coast of Chile.

Tournier children’s version, “Friday or the Lives of Savages,” became very popular in France as a textbook in schools. It is said to have been sold in 7 million copies. Savages? We are talking about the “noble savages” of the eighteenth century, who were extolled by Swift, Rousseau, Diderot, and many other writers, as being more honest and moral than the corrupt Europeans of the Ancien Régime. Tournier tells in an interview*– and I am translating:

It is about the integration of a man of color. Robinson is white. Someone knocks at his door: Friday, a Black man!

And Tournier notes that the French school children who read his books had “Black or North African children sitting right among them.”

Tournier’s Robinson calls the island “Speranza,” hope in Italian. But the hut he constructs he calls “Evasion.” In his struggle to build it, he and the materials of the island blend and almost become one body, and I quote:

The long story of its construction remained written forever in his flesh. Cuts, burns, puncture wounds, calluses, unerasable scruffings and bulging scars told of the determined struggle he had carried out for so long, to arrive at this little squat and winged building [46].

In addition to writing a diary in his log book, Robinson drafts a political Magna Carta and a Penal Code for the island, as well as creating a Conservatory of Weights and Measures, intending to recreate French society for himself alone. He writes of the “formation of a new man,” [69], but despairs that it would only be himself— judging himself for a crime?

But the island of Speranza becomes almost alive for Robinson:

He felt, like never before, that he was lying on an island, like on top of someone, that he  had the body of the island under him [105]. In French “île” is feminine, so the  sexualization is apparent, which is not the case in the ungendered English.

Then Robinson chances upon three native Araucanians who seem hostile. He shoots one with his musket, the second one flees, and the third one bows deeply before him. Robinson names him Vendredi, Friday.

At first Friday subjects himself, or is subjected by Robinson, to the political and social structures that Robinson had created. The two strenuously observe each other for weeks. Robinson realizes that he must appear as “crazy to the eyes of” Friday [128], just as  Friday appears to him. Later Robinson realizes that his efforts at “reeducation” have been completely rejected by Friday [154].

After all this time, Friday gains the upper hand, because Robinson realizes that he is too attached to the old order and cannot control Friday, who is at one with nature. Now Robinson learns from Friday. From a massive wild ram he calls Andoar, Friday fashions a huge kite that allows him to fly “into the middle of the clouds” [168]. Andoar does not only become a flying machine, outfitted with huge vulture wings, he also makes wild harmonious sounds, especially through his hollowed-out skull: he is “an elementary instrument, an aeolian harp whose only player would be the wind” [170]. To keep Andoar, they fasten him to the crown of a dead cypress:

The wind doubled its violence when the two friends approached the singing tree.Anchored on one of its lowest branches, the kite vibrated like the skin of a drum.  Under the changing light of the moon, the two vulture wings opened and closed spasmodically and lent the construction a fantastic life, attuned to the wind. And there was above all the strong and melodious murmur, a music that was truly elementary, inhuman, which was at the same time the tremendous voice of the earth, the harmony of the spheres, and the cry of the great sacrificed ram.

Before this mighty spectacle of nature and human art, the European and the Araucarian become brothers:

Pressed against one another, sheltered by an overhanging rock, Robinson and Friday soon lost conscience of themselves in the greatness of the mystery in which the brute forces of nature communicated. Earth, tree and wind celebrated in unison the nocturnal apotheosis of Andoar.

Travel is inspired by fantasy, as we said at the beginning, but travel is also a search for the “noble savage,” the person of another race and culture, the other self that we are driven to know, in order to complete and fulfill our humanity. Travel is a translation, a transition: and trans-lation actually means transmission.

Without a translation of Robinson Crusoe, Tournier would not have been able to write his novel. Without a translation of Tournier, we might not be able to read his marvelous transmogrification of Robinson Crusoe, nor the creation and final triumph of Friday, who does not occur at all in Selkirk’s original story. Tournier practices what the ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in 1983 has called “the faraway look,” “le regard éloigné,” which is about learning to see with the gaze of someone who lives far away.

This returns us to Franz Boas and his contention that creative human beings— Friday, and Crusoe, and many others— spring from all races and cultures alike. Observation and travel creates the bridge, it is the human and humane attitude to find them.

* Michel Martin-Roland, Michel Tournier: Je m’avance masqué. Interviews. Gallimard Folio, 2011, p.96.
** Levi-Strauss, “Le Regard Eloigné,” Paris, Plon, 1983. See also the titles “Race et Histoire,” Paris, UNESCO, of 1952, followed by Race et Culture, a UNESCO conference, published in 1971.
All translations are mine.

By Margaret Saine

Margaret Saine was born in Germany and lives in California. With a PhD from Yale University, she has taught French and Hispanic literature. She writes poetry in and translates poets between six languages. She has published five books of poetry in English and four in Germany, plus a postwar childhood memoir in German. In the fall of 2020, she will publish a book in Spain and another in Canada. She has written over 5 000 haiku and has several manuscripts in Italian, French and Spanish pending. She is an editor at the California Poetry Quarterly.

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