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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1887

The Vietnam Project
Coetzee’s novel Dusklands begins with the section (some people refer to it as a novella) called “The Vietnam Project.” The protagonist is Eugene Dawn, who is the author of a special report on propaganda in reference to the Vietnam War. The story opens as Eugene considers the merits of his report, which he feels he must defend since his supervisor, named Coetzee, is not quite pleased with it. Coetzee praises Eugene’s ability to write but suggests some changes. Eugene, in the meantime, despite his constant reminders to himself to be confident, feels insecure. “He is going to reject me,” Eugene says while recounting the day’s events in his supervisor’s office.

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Coetzee tries to explain to Eugene that the report he has written is for the military, which is made up of people who are “slow-thinking, suspicious, and conservative.” So Coetzee suggests that Eugene rewrite his report in words of one syllable and more fully clarify Eugene’s abstract concepts. Eugene leaves the office depressed.

Eugene tries to rewrite his report in the basement of the Harry S. Truman Library, where he researches topics related to the culture of Vietnam, “mythography,” and propaganda. It is while he is surrounded by books that Eugene feels the closest to happiness, an “intellectual happiness,” Eugene informs the reader, which in his mind is the highest form. He mentions Harry, the library clerk, who dislikes it when people take down the books from the shelves. Eugene, in turn, appreciates order and hopes that Harry appreciates Eugene’s neatness. Eugene also exposes how rigid his habits are. He faces a certain specific direction when he writes. He can write creatively only in the early hours of the morning, before so-called walls appear in his brain, blocking out his inspiration.

Eugene then describes his wife and his relationship with her, which is very dismal. He blames his wife for there not being any feelings between them. And when he refers to their son, he calls him “her child,” and mentions that Marilyn’s and the boy’s conversations disturb his peace. He does not trust his wife. She is a conformist, he says, whereas he is willing to forge new trails, although this nonconformist side of him is slow to emerge. Thus he has given Marilyn the false image that he is a conformist like her. He also believes that she thinks he leans toward violence because of his involvement with the Vietnam project. Marilyn goes to a therapist for her depression once a week. And it is during this time that Eugene misses her. He leaves work early so he can be there and greet her when she opens the front door. While he hugs her, he sniffs at her, trying to catch the scent of another man. Eugene is addicted to marriage, he states, which is a “surer bond than love.” Eugene carries with him a handful of photographs taken in Vietnam. One is of a U.S. soldier having sex with a Vietnamese woman, maybe a child. Another shows soldiers holding two severed heads of Vietnamese men. Another is of a U.S. soldier walking past a Vietnamese man locked in a cage. The man has been tortured, and Eugene discusses the affects of torture.

The second part of the story contains excerpts from Eugene’s report. In it, he discusses the aims and achievements of propaganda and the difference between its affect on people from Western cultures and those from Asian cultures. One theory that Eugene pays special attention to is that of the “father-voice” and how it works to control the common citizen as well as how it fails as a device of propaganda. Intermixed with the narrative of the report are Eugene’s interior monologues. His comments tend to exaggerate his position, such as when he refers to himself as a “hero of resistance.”

In part three, Eugene reflects on his childhood and how much time he spent with books. Then he quickly returns to the discussion about Coetzee and how much he wants to please him and be more like him. He then discusses how he feels abandoned by Coetzee, how his boss ignores him. Eugene is bored at work. Sometimes he passes the time by calling his wife. After she did not respond to one of his calls, he left work to spy on her.

Eugene marvels at himself, in part four, because he has “done a deed.” He has kidnapped his son and is hiding in a motel room, where he hopes to write. He wants to find the peace and order that his mind requires. And by being away from his wife, he thinks he will find it. His son is happy at first, but he soon becomes bored with the inaction of the daily routine. Eugene believes his son fares better when away from his mother who coddles him. After a few days, Eugene’s interior dialogue begins to disintegrate as evidenced when he begins to talk about a child who lives inside of him. This is a child who robs him of nourishment and consumes his inner organs. Shortly afterward, Marilyn arrives with the police. Eugene is taken away but not before it is obvious that Eugene has experienced a mental breakdown. He pierces his son’s skin with a knife.

Locked away in a hospital, Eugene feels comfortable. Life is simpler. In his thoughts, he is on an equal basis with the doctors, not with the other patients. He talks about wanting to get out eventually, but not yet. He still has much to figure out. Eugene’s story ends with the lines: “In my cell in the heart of America, with my private toilet in the corner, I ponder and ponder. I have high hopes of finding whose fault I am.”

The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee
Coetzee’s “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee” completes the novel Dusklands. He begins with a “Translator’s Preface,” giving the novella the feel of a historic piece. Immediately after this, the socalled journal of Jacobus Coetzee begins. The narrative starts with a brief exposition about the changes that have occurred in relationship to the Boers, the white settlers (of which Jacobus is one) and the native, black African tribes. This theme is discussed throughout the narrative, as Jacobus relates circumstances of his life while living in the northern lands of South Africa.

Although the Hottentots and Boers share similar circumstances and therefore also share a particular way of life, Jacobus states that the main difference between the two groups is Christianity—the Boers are Christian and the Hottentots are not. Even if the Hottentots are converted, their “Christianity is an empty word.” The Hottentots, Jacobus believes, use Christianity in order to gain favors from the whites. Jacobus proves, through the tone of his writing, that his understanding of the Hottentots and the Bushmen is stereotypical. This is because he considers himself a master and the black Africans as slaves to help further Jacobus’s own cause.

Jacobus goes on to describe the Bushmen, the other major tribe that he encounters. Jacobus describes how the white people set traps for the Bushmen, much like they set for animals. He offers instructions on how to kill them and thus clear the countryside of them. “A bullet is too good for a Bushman,” he writes. Then he tells of seeing a Bushman tied “over a fire and roasted.”

After these descriptions, Jacobus records the incidents of a journey to the “Great River.” He takes some of his men with him on an elephant hunt to gather ivory. He hires one extra man, Barend Dikkop, a good shooter but a troublemaker. Jacobus eventually tells Dikkop to leave the troupe, but before Dikkop takes off, he steals a horse and some supplies. Jacobus beats him when he finds him and leaves him in the desert. As the remaining troupe continues on their travels, the harsh land exhausts them. Although his men do most of the work, Jacobus states that they would have all perished if he had not told them what to do. “They saw me as their father,” he writes.

After a few days on the trail, Jacobus and his men encounter members of the Great Namaquas, who are tantalized by the supplies that Jacobus carries in his wagon. They taunt Jacobus, who manages to save his supplies, then promises to visit their village. These people invite Jacobus to join in a meal with them, but he is wary of their motives, suspecting that they will ransack his supplies. When Jacobus finds the villagers doing just that, he cracks his whip into their midst. And then he leaves the village.

Jacobus becomes ill, which he describes in very graphic detail. As his fever takes over, he descends into dreams of his childhood. He awakens for brief moments and hears his men talking. Jacobus suspects they are planning to betray him. Jacobus is taken back to the village, where he is placed in a special isolated hut.

While in the depths of his fever, Jacobus envisions his role in the wild. He ponders death and the boundlessness of the wild land. When Klawer comes to visit him, Jacobus asks why his other men did not also come. Klawer tries to conceal the truth from Jacobus, but Jacobus becomes even more suspicious of the remaining men. Jacobus is fed and cared for but he continues to demean the people who help him back to health. He criticizes their way of life, their food, their lack of spirituality. He sees no sense to their lives.

When he is strong enough to walk, Jacobus leaves the hut and searches for his men. He finds them sleeping off a wild night of drinking and sex. He tries to rouse them but only Klawer pays any attention to him. When Jacobus attempts to awaken Plaatje, the young boy threatens Jacobus with a knife. Plaatje then tries to convince Jacobus that he should leave all the men alone, let them continue to sleep. Jacobus leaves to take a bath in the river. When he is in the water, children come and steal his clothes. Jacobus chases them. When they jump him and punch him, Jacobus bites off one of the children’s ears. Men come and insist that Jacobus leave without a horse, supplies, or weapons. Klawer is the only one who leaves with him.

As they travel across the desert, Klawer becomes sick. Jacobus promises to come back for him, but there is no further mention of Klawer. While Jacobus travels alone, he wishes he could stay in the limitless existence of the wild. He almost fears finding his farm and returning to the domesticity and boredom of routine.

Jacobus finally arrives home and soon after returns to the Great Namaqua village to claim his vengeance. He returns with an army of men, who burn the huts. Jacobus singles out the men who betrayed him and focuses his attention on Plaatje. He tells them he is there to execute them. Jacobus personally kills Plaatje and seems to relish in the act.

There is an “Afterword,” supposedly by the author, following Jacobus’s account. The afterword, much like the “Translator’s Preface,” adds authenticity to this fictionalized history.

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Themes