In the final years of her life, Boa Senior was marooned in an island of solitariness. There was no one alive with whom she could speak in her native tongue. To the global citizens of today, tangled up in the World Wide Web and fettered to one another by a lingua franca, Boa’s reality would appear obscure, even fantastical, the stuff of science fiction. The scene could well belong to absurd drama. Think of Winnie, speaking all by herself in the wilderness in Beckett’s Happy Days; or even of a futuristic nightmare, in which one wakes up to find oneself trapped inside a bubble, alone and unheard in a sea of voices.
The truth of Boa’s predicament can be glimpsed at in surreal contexts or in indulgent fantasies — such as making a wishlist of books that could see one through if left alone on a desert island. How would it be if one has to live in the company of fictional beings, without the comfort of real voices? The prospect of being spoken to only by Prince Hamlet or Little Nell may not be unwelcome — until one hits against the reality. At the end of his novel, A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh’s hero, Tony Last, ends up in the Brazilian outback after fleeing the decadent life of the British aristocracy. He has a freak accident and roams deliriously around until being rescued by a certain Mr Todd, who happens to be the love-child of a white father and a Pie-wie Indian mother. The sole English speaker in the vicinity, Mr Todd is terribly proud of his patrimony, a set of rat-eaten novels of Dickens, which he forces Tony to read aloud to him over and over till the end of his days.
Boa’s fate harks back to pre-modern times, when explorers, traders and sailors set sail for stranger shores (as anthropologists ventured into the habitats of primitive tribes more recently). History is replete with accounts of travellers coming in contact with people from unfamiliar corners of the world. Mutual incomprehension often gave way to the clash of civilizations and the beginning of empires. Others like Herodotus, Montaigne, Jean de Léry and Mandeville set out in search of ‘marvels’ — to experience the thrill of the uncanny, to listen to the cadences of barbaric tongues.
But seldom were the natives allowed to speak to the foreigners in their own tongue. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe spent years on a remote island without human company, before he saved his “man Friday” from a bunch of cannibals. From the moment of his rescue, the black man surrendered himself to Crusoe, allowed himself to be moulded according to the white man’s taste and notions of civility. Friday’s “gibberish” was silenced by the foreigner’s pre-eminently sweeter tongue. J.M. Coetzee, whose Foe is a masterly retelling of the Crusoe story, revives the figure of Friday in his Nobel lecture of 2003. Coetzee’s account is set in England years after Crusoe has returned home with his man. Friday’s gentrification, by this time, is complete. A scholar gypsy, he travels across the country preparing reports for his master in impeccable English — the native has finally unlearnt his tongue, letting it fall into disuse and fade away along the generations. This is the way tribes lose their language.
So even after spending years with another human being on an island, Crusoe does not learn a word of Friday’s native tongue; the possibility never occurs to him. Like Crusoe’s first companion, the parrot, Friday is merely taught to amuse and respond to his master in broken English.
Talking parrots also appear in Hergé’s Red Rackham’s Treasure, as Captain Haddock and Tintin are greeted by a cacophony of birdcalls saying, “Rrration my rrrum!”, or swearing wildly at them. But why is it that only jungle folk like Mowgli, Tarzan or Hiawatha are able to talk to animals, while visitors from the ‘civilized’ world never learn the language of the barbarians?
A rare fictional exception is the British explorer Ridgewell, settled among the Arumbayas in the South American rainforests. He first appears in Tintin and the Broken Ear and saves Tintin from the Arumbayas and the Rumbabas, thanks to his command of the tribal dialects. And for once, a dependable knowledge of the native’s tongue, rather than that of the great European languages, becomes a precious gift.