In his Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, J. M. Coetzee provides his readers with his own portrait of the artist as a young man. Like James Joyce, Coetzee depicts himself as a boy trying to find himself, to adjust to his society, to come to terms with his parents, and to lay the groundwork for his future career as a writer and an academic. The book focuses on Coetzee’s life from the age of ten to thirteen, formative years marked by an awakening sexuality, a love-hate relationship with his smothering mother, a fascination with literature, and a sense of his alienation and isolation from his classmates.
Narrated in the third person, the book provides readers with a slice of an autobiography, but a very selective and crafted one. While the book proceeds chronologically, Coetzee tampers with time to create a sense of fiction: Certain themes recur regularly, events foreshadow others, and Coetzee is at once a real boy and a symbol of the influence of repressive, racist regimes. Boyhood is about Coetzee, but it is also about South Africa. Rather than discussing the evils of apartheid, Coetzee lets his readers see how apartheid affects relationships through events in his own life.
Boyhood also concerns colonialism, and one of the causes of his parents’ problems is the British/Afrikaans division, itself a legacy of South Africa’s colonial past. As a minority, Coetzee experiences discrimination and persecution at the hands of his Afrikaaner classmates, whom he regards as surly, intransigent, and brutal. He constructs theories about the mental superiority of the British, but these theories are destroyed when Trevelyan agrees to flog Eddie, a seven-year-old “Coloured” boy guilty of a minor transgression. This event is traumatic for Coetzee: He was indebted to Eddie, who had taught him to ride a bicycle. Coetzee cannot forget Eddie and knows that “Eddie will have no pity on him.” Coetzee’s passivity is his sin and the sin of South Africans who passively tolerate similar acts of injustice and the system that condones it.
Coetzee, in fact, describes childhood as a “time of gritting the teeth and enduring.” While much of the enduring involves school, it is his parents who cause him the most psychological and emotional turmoil. His home is a “box,” where he is trapped by an ineffective father and a self-sacrificing, smothering mother. Caught between them, his allegiance wavers, and he vacillates, first betraying his mother by joining his father in criticizing her, and then ultimately rejecting his father. He hates his father’s personal habits and states that he does not want to have a father. For Coetzee, his father is an “appendage” outside the family core. His dislike of his father is also fueled by his father’s limitations: While his father is an attorney, was a soldier, and played rugby and cricket, Coetzee states that, in each case, “there is an embarrassing qualification,” since all these attributes are followed by “but.” These early declarations prepare readers for the father’s later decline when his legal practice fails and he goes into debt.
His attitude toward his mother is almost a case study in psychology. Bent on separating himself from her, he determines to share nothing with her. When his mother, who does not have enough money for three circus tickets, stands outside in the blazing sun while he and his brother enjoy the show, he sees her behavior as exhibiting “blinding, overwhelming, self-sacrificial love” that demands “a debt of love,” which he is unwilling to pay. He cannot, however, even at the end of the book, escape her influence and her judgment. Aware that she “can choose to stop loving him,” he realizes that he is still bound to her.
Much of Coetzee’s youth involves his identity, not just in terms of his ties to his parents but also in his religion, his politics, and his literary tastes. For a variety of reasons, he feels isolated and believes, because of his boyish egocentrism, that he is not normal, that his desires and secrets, even his double life, are not shared by any of his peers. Like most people, Coetzee is haunted by his failures and humiliations, from the woodman’s badge he does not receive, the wrong ground sheets he takes on the scouting trip, and his near-drowning to his blistered feet when he is forced to go barefoot.
Asked about his religion and given three choices (Christian, Roman Catholic, or Jew), Coetzee answers “Roman Catholic,” even though he and his family are “nothing” religiously, certainly not Catholic. This snap decision, irreversible because he fears the disgrace that would follow the discovery of his ignorance, adds to his minority status (most of his classmates are “Christians”) and marginalizes him with the Jews as targets for prejudice. Having attributed his answer to his reading about ancient Romans, he demonstrates his...
(The entire section is 2000 words.)