Michel Tournier, Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique [Friday]

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Decades after the publication of Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique, Michel Tournier’s rendering of the 1719 classic, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, remains a narrative tour de force. Tournier’s very first novel, Vendredi bespoke such virtuosity that it was awarded the highly prestigious Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française [French Academy’s Grand Prize for a Novel] in 1967. Not one text, but many, it transposes Daniel Defoe’s Enlightenment-era tale into a postmodern reflection on the Self and the Other in a remarkably compelling, multifaceted way. In fact, so fascinated was Tournier with the story that he reworked his novel into Vendredi ou la vie sauvage [Friday and Robinson] for young readers in 1971 and also composed “La fin de Robinson Crusoé” [“The End of Robinson Crusoe”], a short story in Le Coq de bruyère. Thus, it is clear that the shipwreck and Robinson’s subsequent voyage of self-discovery provided the perfect elements for Tournier to explore the wide range of philosophical, psychological, and social questions around which most, if not all, of his subsequent novels, short stories, and essays revolve.

Vendredi is organized into twelve chapters, all recounted in the third person, with interspersed first-person passages from the “logbook” that Robinson keeps as a record of his life. A prologue (not entitled such) recounts the fateful night when the ship’s captain, Pieter Van Deyssel, does a tarot reading for Robinson as their vessel, the Virginie yaws and pitches toward impending oblivion. Described as a Buddha-like figure, a Dutch version of Silenas, an “epicurean cynic”, and a “devil of a man”, he interprets each card that Robinson successively draws: the Demiurge, Mars, the Hermit, Venus, Chaos, Saturn, Sagittarius, Gemini, Capricorn, Jupiter, Earth. The series of cards portends, of course, Robinson’s destiny as the sole human survivor of the shipwreck. He will have to battle the chaos of nature and of his mind, come to terms with his complex love of the island on which he will wash up, and negotiate his relationship with the “Other”, who will turn out to be both Vendredi and himself. With Van Deyssel’s final pronouncement ringing in his ears, that “purity” is the “vitriol of the soul”, Robinson feels the ship give up its fight against the storm as he is hurtled into the churning blackness of the sea.

The first two chapters of Vendredi find Robinson alternating between fear of losing his mind, once he has ascertained that he is the lone human on the island, and determination somehow to escape. To the latter end, he formulates a plan to construct a vessel, which he dubs in advance the “Evasion” [“Escape”], but foolishly builds too far from the water ever to sail. In Chapter 2, the extent to which Robinson is reverting to a primal state becomes obvious. He kills the first living being he encounters, a wild ram, by bashing in its head with a club. Later, Tenn, the dog from the Virginie, crosses his path, then runs from him, terrified of his “savage” appearance. Robinson is metamorphosing into a veritable beast: “His beard and his hair were matted together, and his face was disappearing into that hirsute mass. His hands, turned into hooked stumps, served him only for walking, for he was overcome with vertigo as soon as he tried to stand upright” (38). Further indication of his encroaching bestial state is his attraction to the muddy filth [la souille] in which he had observed a wild pig wallowing and of which he begins to make use himself. At the end of the second chapter, in a rapidly deteriorating mental state, Robinson experiences the hallucination of a Spanish galleon that carries an orchestra accompanying a ball, as well as his sister Lucy, who died as an adolescent.

After this initial brush with insanity, Robinson decides in the third chapter to take a census and to map his island, which he names “Speranza”, or “Hope” in Italian. He fashions himself a pen out of a vulture feather and decides that his return to the world of sound mind will come through the “sacred act” of writing. After tracing the outline of the island, he cannot help but notice that its profile resembles a woman’s body, without the head, “a seated woman with her legs folded beneath her, in an attitude that would not have enabled one to distinguish between submission, fear, and simple abandon” (46). In addition to census-taking and mapping, Robinson sets about raising animals and crops in an attempt to bring order out of chaos, at least according to how Western society defines order. He even devises a clepsydra to measure the passing hours. Not yet able to resist completely the temptation of the hog wallow, he returns intermittently to that place where “time and space dissolve”, a filthy cradle that stirs up comforting memories of his infancy and childhood. Nevertheless, the multiple logbook entries that appear for the first time in this chapter testify that Robinson is grappling with all of the enduring questions that have preoccupied the human mind for millennia: where does moral order lie? what is the place of religion in the grand scheme of things? what does it mean to be human, and to be human in a state of solitude? what is the nature of time and how do humans reckon with it? what does language become when a human being lives in isolation?

Chapter 4 unfolds in several distinct phases. Having built himself a house in the previous chapter, Robinson dons his “cermonial suit” on day 1000 of his calendar and, as “Governor”, starts to write out the articles of Speranza’s “charter”, complete with penal code. The process is interrupted, however, when a band of Araucanian natives arrive on the island to conduct a human sacrifice, which Robinson observes in alarm. He resumes writing the articles by making provision for his island to be a fortified state and for him to assume the rank of general in the event of attack. To the building that houses his Bureau of Weights and Measures, he adds a Palace of Justice and a church, all within a fortified enclosure. To further ensure the island’s defense, Robinson positions the muskets and pistol that he had scavenged from the wreck of the Virginie in strategic locations among the enclosure’s crenellations. The latter sections of chapter 4 involve several dense logbook entries that challenge the reader’s understanding of existential philosophy and psychological theory. Ironically, the most challenging entry is the one that begins “Je ne suis guère versé en philosophie” [“I am hardly well-versed in philosophy”]. Therein, Tournier explores “l’acte de connaissance” [the act of consciousness or knowledge] and the definition of self, notably, “la connaissance par autrui et la connaissance par moi-même” [consciousness through another and consciousness through myself”] (96).

Chapter 5 presents the astonishing account of Robinson’s penetration of Speranza, who, in his mind, has assumed characteristics of both mother and mistress. In this, Tournier takes the reader into psychologically complex territory. Having found a cave with a narrow opening through which he can barely fit, Robinson stops the clepsydra, crawls through the opening, and enters what he will term his “période tellurique” [“telluric period”]. As he descends into the bowels [“le boyau”] of Speranza, his eyes eventually turn darkness into milky white and he associates the island’s “stomach” [le “ventre”] with his mother’s womb. Elsewhere on the island, he has located an “alvéole” [a “hollow”] that enables him to enjoy sexual pleasure with Speranza, their progeny being, to his way of thinking, the mandrakes that grow in the vicinity. Robinson also enjoys drinking from a spring produced by a “mamelon de terre” [nipple of earth] and begins observing, in rapt fascination, the sexual activities of insects. As the result of these experiences, Robinson deems himself “un homme nouveau” [“a new man”] in Chapter 6. He has emerged to ponder the meaning of existence: “Exister, qu’est-ce que ça veut dire?” Does one exist if everybody one knows is convinced that one is dead? Robinson concludes that he has been pushed into a liminal position, at the edge of existence, “aux confins de la vie, dans un lieu suspendu entre ciel et enfers, dans les limbes” [“to the confines of life, in a place suspended between heaven and hell, in limbo”] (130).

Chapter 7, exactly midway though the novel, marks the narrative’s major turning point, as the title character, Vendredi [Friday], arrives on the scene. Having noticed three outrigger canoes on the beach, Robinson spots through his spyglass a group of natives surrounding a nude man and fears that he is about to witness another human sacrifice. This time, however, the soon-to-be victim leaps to his feet and bounds toward the forest with amazing speed. Some moments later, when Robinson discovers him crouching in a mass of ferns, the escapee assumes an attitude of submission:

un homme nu et noir [...] inclinait son front jusqu’au sol, et sa main cherchait pour le poser sur sa nuque le pied d’un homme blanc et barbu, herissé d’armes [...] la tête farcie par trois millénaires de civilisation occidentale [a nude black man bowed with his forehead touching the ground, and his hand searched, in order to place it on his neck, the foot of the bearded white man bristling with weapons... his head stuffed with three millennia of Western civilization]. (143-144)

Although Robinson assumes that God has sent him a companion from the “lowest rung of the human ladder” to be his slave, his plans, as governor and pastor of the island, nonetheless fail to impress. Vendredi seems to laugh off the protocol of slavery; he does not understand what money represents when Robinson gives him a few coins, salvaged from the Virginie, in payment for his services; he observes that Christianity’s Holy Scriptures are difficult to believe. To make matters worse, Robinson discovers that Vendredi possesses skills and knowledge that he himself lacks. Much troubled by this state of affairs, he stops the clepsydra and departs for the forest.

The discovery that his “master” has disappeared, at the beginning of Chapter 8, signals to Vendredi that a certain order has been suspended. He takes off across the island, leaving behind signs of his passage, such as some cacti “dressed” in his Western garments and trees that have been intentionally uprooted and then replanted upside-down. Robinson, now searching for Vendredi, notes this trail, as well as a curious patch of zebra-striped mandrakes. The explanation for their color is not long in coming, as he soon happens upon Vendredi in flagrante delicto, making use of the “hollow” for sexual gratification. In a fury, he punches and kicks Vendredi for this outrage. Then, he blames Speranza for having seduced Vendredi. Be that as it may, he is left with the disturbing notion of “l’existence possible d’un autre Vendredi [“the possible existence of an other Vendredi”] (181). Finally, the entirety of Robinson’s “civilization” is blown sky high when Vendredi, who had decided to enjoy a smoke on Robinson’s pipe, tries to hide this activity by throwing the still-lit pipe into the cave that caches the island’s gunpowder.

The final third of the novel recounts the inversion of the relationship between Robinson and Vendredi. As the latter shows greater and greater knowledge and mastery of the environment, the former returns more and more to a state of ignorance. Vendredi has much to teach Robinson, who now views him as a brother. The central action of Chapter 9 concerns Vendredi’s getting the better of, and ultimately killing, an aggressive wild ibex he calls “Andoar”. In order to illustrate for Robinson that he needs to “soar”, he then guts Andoar and stretches his hide to make a kite. The ibex’s head he crafts into an aeolian harp that emits “elemental” music when air passes through it. As the relationship between Robinson and Vendredi deepens and becomes truly symbiotic, they play at exchanging roles: master becomes slave and slave becomes master.

Chapter 10 comprises solely logbook entries that trace the final stages of Robinson’s great metamorphosis. Returning to the tarot predictions of the prologue, he now interprets the Gemini card as follows:

Je revois confusément sur une carte deux enfants – des jumeaux, des innocents – se tenant par la main devant un mur qui symbolise la Cité solaire. Van Deyssel avait commenté cette image en parlant de sexualité circulaire, close sur elle-même, et il avait évoqué le symbole du serpent qui se mord la queue.
Or s’agissant de ma sexualité, je m’avise que pas une seule fois Vendredi n’a éveillé en moi une tentation sodomite. C’est d’abord qu’il est arrivé trop tard: ma sexualité était déjà devenue élémentaire, et c’était vers Speranza qu’elle se tournait.

[I again confusedly see on a card two children – twins, innocents – holding each other by the hand in front of a wall that symbolizes the Solar City. Van Deyssel had commented on this image by talking about circular sexuality, closed upon itself, and he had evoked the image of a snake biting its own tail. Now as concerns my own sexuality, I note that Friday never once awoke sodomitic temptation in me. That’s first of all because he arrived too late: my sexuality had already become elemental, and it was toward Speranza that it was turned.] (229)

Robinson, in his new “element”, finds life in his “amours ouraniennes” [“uranian love”] and draws vitality from “ce coït solaire” [“this solar coitus”] (230).

The final two chapters of the novel deviate from the conclusion of Defoe’s narrative in a way that is completely consonant with the new elemental being that Robinson has become. When an English ship, ironically named The Whitebird, arrives at the island, Robinson realizes that it brings with it the weight of twenty-eight years that had not existed for him during his time on Speranza. Thus, in Chapter 11, he reaches the only decision that makes sense: to stay with her. When Chapter 12 reveals that Vendredi has left with the ship, Robinson cannot help but feel that this act is a betrayal. Vultures gather above his head. Nevertheless, he is not doomed to be the King of Solitude, as the tarot cards had suggested, for the young Estonian cabin boy, Jaan Neljapäev, had jumped ship and made it to the island in an attempt to escape mistreatment on The Whitebird. Robinson renames him “Jeudi” [“Thursday”] because “C’est le jour de Jupiter, dieu du Ciel. C’est aussi le dimanche des enfants.” [“It’s the day of Jupiter, god of the Sun. It’s also children’s Sunday.”] (254)

It would be difficult to overstate the continuing relevance of both Tournier’s version of the Robinson Crusoe story and Defoe’s original text, which is believed to have been loosely based on the experience of a Scottish castaway at the beginning of the 18th century and on other perhaps fictional accounts. The idea of being the only human on a deserted island has never failed to capture the imagination, for the human sense of self is inextricably bound to relationship with others. Indeed, the second half of the 20th century spawned stories of being the only survivor on earth after an atomic bomb had fallen or the only human stranded on a distant planet following the crash of a space ship. Film and television interpretations of Robinson Crusoe’s tale continue to appear regularly, ranging from movies of that title to Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) and Cast Away (2000).

Further from the realm of popular culture, Michel Tournier’s novel retains its importance on many levels, as it confronts head on the concept of alterity that, in recent years, has been a major focus of philosophical, psychological, and literary studies alike. Robinson’s journey into the depths of his being during his life on Speranza – his journey toward Self consciousness, through consciousness of the Other – cannot fail to resonate in modern times, particularly as interaction with fellow humans becomes more and more a phenomenon of the virtual realm. More “connected” with “others” than ever before, we may find that the nature of communication in civilized society leaves us on an island where we struggle to make sense of time and cyberspace.

Works Cited

Tournier, Michel. Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique. Paris: Gallimard, 1967.

2745 words

Citation: EVANS, Beverly. "Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 23 June 2011 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=31710, accessed 06 February 2023.]

31710 Vendredi ou les Limbes du Pacifique 3 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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