Robinson Crusoe has returned after his long exile and singular existence on his island. He appears with Friday in tow, the “negro” without whom he would have been utterly alone during his long seclusion. Friday doesn’t take to life in England and begins to drink. Two “half-caste babies” are born; money disappears, then Friday too. Crusoe’s wife imagines her husband misses Friday terribly and that he secretly wishes to return to where he suspects Friday is – the island. Her death provides the opportunity and off he goes.

A second time he returns but this time he claims he couldn’t find his island. He insists it was there and that now it is gone. An old sailor advises him that the island is not gone, only changed, changed beyond all recognition: “your island has done what you’ve done: it’s aged! But of course, don’t you see – flowers turn into fruits, and fruits turn into wood, and green wood turns into dead wood. Everything happens very quickly in the tropics.”

“I did find it?” Crusoe asks, incredulous.

“Look at yourself in the mirror, you idiot! And tell me whether your island recognized you when you passed it?”

Crusoe, appearing to realise the truth in this, doesn’t look in the mirror but casts “such a sad, haggard glance over all the men that the ripple of laughter that had been starting up again with renewed gusto suddenly stopped short, and a great silence fell over the tavern.”

Michel Tournier’s short but rich short story works on at least two levels. It’s an elongation of Daniel Defoe’s classic novel, Robinson Crusoe, inspired by real events concerning Alexander Selkirk. But it’s also a metaphor for memory, identity and how we cannot act outside of ourselves, at least not until a usually harrowing moment of clarity that, in this case is quite sad. Character – whether we’re writing it or reading it – is about how one imagines oneself and how we choose (or simply tend to) make sense of the world in a way with which we’re comfortable.

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