Although contemporary South Africa is seldom mentioned or referred to explicitly in most of J. M. Coetzee’s novels, the land and the concerns of that country permeate his works. One may see this indirect approach as an evasion of the censorship that was a factor for any writer in that state during the years of apartheid, but this necessary blurring of temporal and geographic actualities also endows each work with universal overtones. On one level, Coetzee’s novels deal with the suffering that human beings inflict on one another, whether as agents of the state or as the victims of their own obsessions. Colonialism and its legacy form the basis for much of his fiction. Also permeating his work is the issue of the treatment of animals and the perception of difference in the rights of humans and the rights of animals, a perception that Coetzee often challenges.
Coetzee’s first major work, Dusklands, is composed of two novellas, The Vietnam Project and The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee; the common thread that runs through the two seemingly unrelated pieces is the obsession of eachprotagonist with the personal dimension of colonization. Eugene Dawn, the narrator of The Vietnam Project, is a mythographer inquiring into the efficacy of American propaganda in Vietnam. His discoveries are disturbing and soul shattering to the point that Dawn is driven to kidnap his child from his estranged wife and use him as a hostage. In the course of his confrontation with the police, Dawn stabs his son, marveling at the ease with which the knife slips into the flesh. He is last seen in an insane asylum, his consciousness peopled with images of power and powerlessness.
The second novella purports to be anarrative of an eighteenth century Boer settler, translated from the Dutch by J. M. Coetzee, with an afterword by Coetzee’s father. The work relates a trek undertaken ostensibly to hunt elephants but really to see what lies beyond the narrator’s immediate environment. The decorous, antiquarian headings that break up the narrative—“Journey Beyond the Great River,” “Sojourn Among the Great Namaqua”—contrast strangely with the horrors endured by both the narrator and the tribespeople he meets. Stricken with illness, Jacobus remains with the not-yet-colonized Namaqua, whose relations with him are at times contemptuous, at times nurturing, but never the expected ones of respectful native to European explorer. Jacobus’s Hottentot servants desert him to stay with the Namaqua, and naked, unarmed, and alone, he returns to civilization after an arduous journey. He goes back to the land of the Namaqua with troops and takes his revenge on the tribespeople, who have shown him less respect than he wanted.
Throughout, the narrator hints, almost unconsciously, at what he is seeking: a sense of limits, and therefore a definition of his self. This motif is introduced in the first novella by Dawn’s analysis of the hate felt by Americans toward the Vietnamese: “Our nightmare was that since whatever we reached for slipped like smoke through our fingers, we did not exist.We landed on the shores of Vietnam clutching our arms and pleading for someone to stand up without flinching to these probes of realitybut like everything else they withered before us.”
This concern with boundaries seems to stem from the physical environment of the vast African plain, into which Jacobus expands endlessly but joylessly. There are no rules, and Jacobus is worried by the possibility of “exploding to the four corners of the universe.” There is an unmistakable grandeur in such a concept, one that reflects the position of the powerful in relation to the powerless, but it is a qualified grandeur. It is one that Coetzee’s protagonists reject, drawing back from the spurious apotheosis of limitless being, understanding that it is not worth the dreary awareness of the void. Transcendence cannot occur when there is nothing to transcend.
In the Heart of the Country
Indeed, transcendence is the object of the quest for all of Coetzee’s main characters, and what they seek is the obstinate, obdurate object that will resist them to the point that they know that they exist, and against which they may define themselves. This quest is an important factor in Coetzee’s second book, In the Heart of the Country, a novel written in the form of a diary kept by a young woman on a sheep farm. The farm is isolated in the featureless landscape, and Magda has recourse to fantasies, terrible and bloody, of revenge on her father, who to her has always remained an “absence.” Little by little, Magda peoples her life, writes variations on reasons that she wants to kill her father, imagines situations in which she becomes the servant of her father and his brown mistress, and ultimately kills him, more or less by accident, while he is making love to Anna, the wife of the servant Hendrik. The uncertainty of the act’s reality lingers after the occurrence; the father really has been shot, however, and takes several days to die.
At this point, the diary takes on a more straightforward tone, as if the difficulty of disposing of the body has finally focused Magda’s life. Hendrik and Anna are moved into the house, and Magda begins sleeping with Hendrik, who now seems to despise her and who treats her as if she were the servant. Eventually, worried that they will be blamed for the murder of Magda’s father, Hendrik and Anna disappear in the middle of the night, and Magda is left alone in the great house.
Without money, without any visible means of support, she manages to live into an old age in which she hears voices from airplanes passing overhead. The voices say things that she takes to be comments on her condition: “Lacking all external enemies and resistances, confined within an oppressive narrowness and regularity, man at last has no choice but to turn himself into an adventure.” The solipsism that is evidenced in the earlier part of the diary (and that is a function of the diary form) is thus recalled to cast doubt on the truth of what Magda has been writing. Has all the foregoing been the product of a spinster’s fevered imagination? Every event surrounding the father’s murder and burial may have been so, and Magda herself wonders whether her father will come striding back into her life. Yet the one point in which Magda truly lives is the point where her father has ceased being an absence, when the weight and increasing rigidity of his corpse have lent reality to his dutiful daughter’s heretofore thwarted love.
Waiting for the Barbarians
This relationship between the violent act and the affirmation of one’s identity, along with the connection between hate and love, between master and slave, between the tortured and the torturer, forms the central theme of Waiting for the Barbarians (the title of which alludes to a poem by Constantine P. Cavafy). An unnamed, aging magistrate of a town on the far borders of “the Empire” narrates the story of an attempt by the Empire to consolidate its northern border against the depredations of “the barbarians,” nomads who had previously existed peacefully—with the exception of some dubious raids—in the face of increasing expansion by the agrarian settlers. The magistrate is far more interested in comfort, his books, and his antiquarian researches into the ancient sand-buried buildings near the town than he is in the expansion of empire. He is disturbed by the arrival of the sinister Colonel Joll of the “Third Bureau,” a police force given special powers for the duration of the “emergency.”
At first, the magistrate merely resents the intrusion of such affairs into the somnolent world that keeps him comfortable. He is severely shaken, however, by the torture of two obviously innocuous prisoners (and the killing of one of them) by Joll. As a result, the magistrate is compelled to place himself, quiet servant of the Empire, in opposition to the civilization to which he has been dedicated.
Joll has taken out an expedition to capture barbarians, some of whom he interrogates upon his return. The magistrate cannot simply ignore what is happening, but neither can he act. When Joll leaves, the barbarians are released and they depart; they have left behind a girl who has been tortured: Her eyes have been burned and her ankles broken in order to wring information from her father. The magistrate takes her into his house and enters into a bizarre relationship with her, one that consists of washing her swollen feet and badly healed ankles; the washing progresses to the other parts of her body, but there is no straightforward sexual act. During these ministrations, both the magistrate and the girl fall asleep, a normal sleep for the girl but a heavy, drugged torpor for the man. He cannot fathom his fascination with this girl who has been so cruelly marked, but he begins to understand that perhaps it is her damaged quality that so attracts him. She is unresponsive to him, accepting his tenderness as he imagines she accepted her torture, passive, impenetrable. He decides to take her back to her people after he realizes that to her, he and Colonel Joll are interchangeable, two sides of the same empire.
After an arduous journey, the magistrate and his small party come face-to-face with the barbarians in the mountains; he gives the girl back to them, since she expresses her desire to leave him and civilization. Upon his return, he is arrested by the occupying force of the Empire on charges of collaborating with the barbarians. A new policeman has installed himself in his office, and the magistrate goes to his cell almost gladly: “I had no duty to her save what it occurred to me to feel from moment to moment: from the oppression of such freedom who would not welcome the liberation of confinement?”
He manages to escape, but he returns, knowing that he cannot survive in the open spaces. Eventually he is released: The expedition against the barbarians has been a dismal failure, the town is emptying of soldiers and civilians, and the Empire is crumbling at the edges. He assumes his former responsibilities and tries to prepare the town for approaching winter. The novel ends with the same image that has haunted the magistrate’s dreams: children playing in the snow in the town square. The children are making a snowman, however, not a model of the empty town, and the faceless girl is not among them.
The Empire could be anywhere: Its geography encompasses Africa as well as Mongolia or Siberia. The townspeople are not described physically, and the description of the barbarians gives the impression that they are Mongols. Colonel Joll and the warrant officer—and their methods—evoke the Gestapo, the KGB, and, for that matter, the apartheid-era South African police. The time appears to be set in a future so distant that sand dunes have engulfed buildings of staggering antiquity. What does endure, Coetzee seems to be saying, are the sad constants of human history: the subjugation of the weak by...
(The entire section is 4550 words.)