Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1126
A critically acclaimed novelist and critic—and an opponent of apartheid when it was the law of the land in South Africa—John Michael Coetzee (koo-ZEE) is one of the leading contemporary authors of South African literature. An Afrikaner who writes in English, he was born in Cape Town on February 9, 1940, and spent his childhood on his father’s isolated sheep farm in the stony semidesert of the Karroo.
Coetzee was educated at the University of Cape Town, receiving his B.A. in 1960 and his M.A. in 1963. From 1962 to 1963 he worked in London, England, as a computer programmer for the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). He married in 1963 and fathered two children, Nicholas and Gisela, before divorcing in 1980. He attended the University of Texas at Austin on a Fulbright exchange program and received his Ph.D. in 1969. His dissertation was entitled “The English Fiction of Samuel Beckett: An Essay in Stylistic Analysis.” While studying Anglo-Saxon and linguistics, Coetzee began reading colonial accounts of the exploration of South West Africa. Among these histories of the Hottentots, he found an account written by a remote eighteenth century ancestor, Jacobus Coetzee, which was to give rise to his first novel, Dusklands.
After teaching as an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo from 1968 to 1971, Coetzee returned to South Africa to become a lecturer in English at the University of Cape Town from 1972 to 1982, when he became a professor of general literature. He returned to SUNY at Buffalo in 1984 and 1986 as Butler Professor of English, was twice Hinkley Professor of English at The Johns Hopkins University (1986, 1989), and was a visiting professor of English at Harvard University in 1991.
Returning to South Africa in 1972, he brought with him the half-finished manuscript of Dusklands, which he finished and published in 1974. As he published scholarly essays on linguistics, modern European literature, and South African literature, Coetzee also began to establish his reputation as a novelist. His second novel, In the Heart of the Country, won for him the premier South African Central News Agency (CNA) Award in 1977. His second novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, also won the 1980 CNA Award, as well as the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Award. In 1982, his novels were published outside South Africa and began reaching a broader audience. Since then, he has won numerous literary prizes, including the 1984 Booker Prize, CNA Award, and Prix Fémina Étranger for Life and Times of Michael K. Disgrace also garnered many awards, including the Booker Prize. He was awarded the 1987 Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society, made an honorary doctor of letters from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, and he has been named a Life Fellow of the University of Cape Town.
Coetzee’s novels are often described as metaphysical, allegorical, or postmodern. Avoiding the realistic novel of character or social commentary, Coetzee nevertheless is concerned in his writing with the dynamics of oppression and injustice. Waiting for the Barbarians, for example, is set in a frontier town of a civilization known only as the “Empire,” which is apparently being threatened by nomadic, dark-skinned tribes called the “Barbarians.” The novel focuses on the town’s civil magistrate, who initially acquiesces in the military’s imprisonment and torture of the Barbarians, until a crisis of conscience prompts him to reject the Empire’s viewpoint. The parallels with the South African situation under apartheid are obvious. While Waiting for the Barbarians is set in an indefinite time and place, Life and Times of Michael K takes place in a futuristic South Africa torn by civil war. This lyrical novel follows the attempts of the slow and inarticulate Michael K to escape the senseless bureaucracy of the city for the pastoral peace and freedom of the country.
Oppression within the context of colonialism appears in almost all Coetzee’s novels. Dusklands juxtaposes the American intervention in Vietnam to the exploration of South Africa by the Dutch in the eighteenth century. In the Heart of the Country examines the power struggles between a domineering Afrikaner father, his lonely and half-crazed daughter, and the blacks who work for them on an isolated farm in South Africa. Foe retells the untold story of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), revealing that Crusoe actually died on the voyage back to England and that his story was told to Defoe by the woman who lived with him on the island. In this account Friday is not Defoe’s intelligent savage who quickly learns to appreciate the benefits of Western civilization. Rather, he is a mute, rendered speechless and unable to tell his story by the mysterious loss of his tongue. Age of Iron directly addresses the racial and political crisis of South Africa; a retired white professor realizes (as she dies of cancer) the horrors apartheid has wrought on the country. Disgrace both extrapolates the personal failures of an over-the-hill literature professor to South African society as a whole and epitomizes that society as a lecherous, contemptuous white man.
In all his works Coetzee considers the nature of oppression and its effects on both the oppressor and the oppressed. He is especially concerned with those marginalized groups who are often treated as “others”: blacks and women. His fiction also is cognizant of how language and writing participate in oppression. His critical study of South African literature, White Writing, examines the European myths through which South African writers have seen the land, themselves, and others. Coetzee’s novels demonstrate an increasing concern to allow the oppressed to speak, even as he struggles to speak for them without becoming an oppressor himself. These thematic concerns are also reflected in Coetzee’s postmodern style, which includes narrative ambiguities and repetitions, lyrical and nonlinear prose, allegorical characters, and surreal landscapes. Although he rejects such comparisons, his work is often seen as similar to that of Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka.
While Coetzee is frequently applauded for the powerful social and political implications of his works, a few critics remain unsatisfied with his lack of realism and apolitical narrative stance. On the one hand, Coetzee’s use of allegory allows his novels to make universal statements about violence and injustice. Yet some readers believe that Coetzee’s work is too metaphysical and lacks the specificity needed to comment on the social and material problems of South Africa. In general, though, Coetzee’s work is highly respected for its moral insights, its protest against injustice, and its skillful use of postmodern techniques. One of his projects has been writing a series of critical essays addressing issues of censorship and politics. These pieces have appeared in various academic journals around the world; a collection was published by Coetzee in 1996 as Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship.
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