J. M. Coetzee

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J. M. Coetzee with Tony Morphet (interview date 1983)

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SOURCE: "Two Interviews with J. M. Coetzee, 1983 and 1987," in TriQuarterly, No. 69, Spring-Summer, 1987, pp. 454-64.

[In the following excerpted interview, which was conducted in 1983, Coetzee discusses his novel Life and Times of Michael K.]

[Morphet:] The most immediately striking fact is the omission of "the" from the title [of Life and Times of Michael K]. I have puzzled over this, not without pleasure, but I cannot find a substantial answer to the riddle. Do you have any comment?

[Coetzee:] To my ear, "The Life" implies that the life is over, whereas "Life" does not commit itself.

The location of the story is very highly specified. Cape Town—Stellenbosch—Prince Albert—somewhere between 1985–1990. This puts it very close to us, closer than any of your previous work. Were you looking for a more direct and immediate conversation with South African readers? Or is it part of another strategy?

The geography is, I fear, less trustworthy than you imagine—not because I deliberately set about altering the reality of Sea Point or Prince Albert but because I don't have much interest in, or can't seriously engage myself with, the kind of realism that takes pride in copying the "real" world. The option was, of course, open to me to invent a world out of place and time and situate the action there, as I did in Waiting for the Barbarians; but that side of Waiting for the Barbarians was an immense labor, and what would have been the point, this time round?

How did you "find" Michael K? Where did he come from and how and why did he make his way into your mind as an heroic figure?

I don't remember how I found Michael K. I have no recollection at all. I wonder whether the forgetting is deliberate.

Did you at all feel that you were taking big risks by placing Michael at the center of your fiction? He has a very limited consciousness and it seems that it is for that reason precisely, that he becomes the central figure. It seems a very austere and risky procedure for a novelist to adopt. Are you happy with the result?

Yes, I certainly saw that I was taking a risk by putting K at the center of the book, or at least at the center of most of it. But then it didn't turn out to be a book about becoming (which might have required that K have the ability to adapt, more of what we usually call intelligence) but a book about being, which merely entailed that K go on being himself, despite everything.

You must not forget the doctor in the second part of the book. He is by no means a person of limited consciousness. But where does his consciousness get him?

Would it be fair and accurate to say that the novel is built on the structural opposition between "the camp" in all its hideous variety (from Huis Norenius through Jakkalsdrif, Brandvlei and the Kenilworth Race Course to the implied horrors of the penal camps), and "the garden," principally Michael's cultivation of the land around the pump in the Karoo, but including also De Waal Park and the Sea Point room?

I suppose you might say that there is an opposition between camp and garden. But I wouldn't lump De Wall Park and the Sea Point room with the garden in the Karoo. Nor, I think, should one forget how terribly transitory that garden life of K's is: he can't hope to keep the garden because, finally, the whole surface of South Africa...

(This entire section contains 2671 words.)

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has been surveyed and mapped and disposed of. So, despite K's desires, the opposition that the garden provides to the camps is at most at a conceptual level.

Michael's harvest of and feast upon, the pumpkins provides us with something relatively rare in your work—a powerful positive celebration. It is a very moving and beautiful scene. Did you have anything like the ceremonies of the first fruits in mind when you composed it? Is there anything further you would like to say about it?

K discovers or recreates some of the rituals of agricultural life, if only because he has to live by the cycle of the seasons. As for positive celebration, isn't there a fair amount of celebration (of elementary freedoms) in Waiting for the Barbarians?

The great "given," or "taken-for-granted," fact in the story is the war. No South African reader will be able to take his eye off the details which the story gives. Did you see it as an important purpose of the novel to take South African readers into the knowledge of what war here will mean?

I am hesitant to accept that my books are addressed to readers. Or at least I would argue that the concept of the reader in literature is a vastly more problematic one than one might at first think. Anyhow, it is important to me to assert that Michael K is not "addressed" to anyone. But the picture of war given in the book is, I would hope, a plausible picture of what a state of war might be like.

The narrator in Part Two—the pharmacist turned medic at the Kenilworth camp—mythologizes Michael. He sees him as Adam, the gardener of paradise and in fantasy he follows Michael away from the camp, pursuing him for his "meaning." Is this figure the crisis-ridden liberal of the time? He participates in the camp system but does what he can to alleviate its horrors and stupidities. He is burdened with guilt and with a complex consciousness but he is unable to act on his understanding. He is important to the development of meanings in the novel but his fate is to be swallowed by the facts of war and the camps. Would you like to comment on this figure?

You say that the doctor is "unable to act." But of course he does act, all the time. He heals people, he helps people, he protects people. Does it matter that his actions don't satisfy him? Maybe the world would be a better place if there were more people like him around. Maybe. I put the question, anyhow.

Maybe it isn't helpful to think of the doctor primarily as "the liberal." First of all he seems to me a person who believes (or wants) Michael K to have a meaning. I don't think that K believes (or wants) the doctor to have a meaning.

The closing sequence in Sea Point seems in some ways gratuitous—particularly the sexual incidents. Michael's own interpretation that this is people's "charity" is unconvincing. Can you throw further light on your purposes in this sequence—leaving aside the wonderful closing pages in which Michael characterizes himself as a mole or an earthworm.

If the closing sequence doesn't work, that's a pity. Obviously it would be a cop-out for the book to end after Part Two. It is important that K should not emerge from the book as an angel.

The image of the teaspoon and the windmill shaft is so specific and potent that it is almost emblematic with the effect that it tends to displace the density of the preceding sequences. Did you feel you were taking particular risks in using it?

I thought that the prose had been subdued enough for 250 pages to earn that last gesture.

The novel clearly speaks to a range of literary texts—your own books first and foremost but also obviously through the letter K to Kafka. Would you like to comment on your use of Kafka?

I don't believe that Kafka has an exclusive right to the letter K. Nor is Prague the center of the universe.

The story resonates powerfully within the context of your own writing. To explore just one line of inquiry, can we focus on the mind/body split. In Dusklands in particular this is a powerful theme in which the mind is dominant. Jacobus Coetzee and Eugene Dawn each in their own way are engaged in raping the world to satisfy the imperatives of the mind. In Life & Times you appear to be reversing the dominance. Michael complies in his mind to the demands of the war/camp system—it is his body that will not submit. It yearns for its food—the food of "the garden." It is this dumb imperative which gives his claim to being a gardener such force—even to the point where the camp medic's invocation of paradise seems trite since Michael's experience with the pumpkins is the experience of which the Garden of Eden is an image. He is an ingester of the earth—literally an earthworm, whereas Jacobus is an exploder of the earth. The radical and profound nature of these fictions (if I am not wholly mistaken) imposes great pressure on your readers. Do you pursue the logic of the fiction for your own sake or your readers?

I hope that I pursue the logic of the story for its own sake. That is what is means to me to engage with a subject.

Setting your story in the near future will inevitably draw comparisons with Gordimer's July's People. I do not like her work but I wonder whether you were conscious of the comparison and what it meant to you.

Fortunately Michael K had been born and was living his own life by the time I read July's People, so I didn't have to worry about questions of influence. Also, Gordimer writes about a Transvaal which is practically a foreign country to me. I don't recognize important similarities between the books.

Does it make any sense to you to recall Marvell—the poet who in the midst of civil war wrote consistently of both the war and gardens?

I had forgotten that about Marvell.

Would you describe your work as structuralist and, if so, what meanings would you want to attach to the term?

No, I wouldn't describe my work as structuralist, mainly because I prefer to give a quite strictly delimited meaning to the word "structuralist." But obviously I have learned a lot from contemporary French thought about the mediations that systems of signs provide.

Your fiction is, you must be aware, vulnerable to critique from both the political right and left. Both are in effect saying "Don't interfere—allow us to finish our tasks and there will be a time for what you want later. The making of a society is a fierce and brutal business and requires conscience to be silent." How would you answer such a joint voice?

Yes, my work is certainly open to attack from right and left, though how vulnerable it is we have yet to see. But would the right really join the left in expressing the sentiments you have attributed to it? I think there are more telling attacks that might be made. But the question remains: who is going to feed the glorious opposing armies?

The left, which in one or another form shares with you a common perception of the life of "camps," is likely to be especially angry at Michael's implicit answer to the guerrillas "in the mountains":

There must be men to stay behind and keep gardening alive, or at least the idea of gardening; because once that cord was broken, the earth would grow hard and forget her children.

The left will charge you with furthering the liberal fantasy of the politics of innocence and so obstructing progressive action. They will, possibly, question the final clause of the quotation most closely, "How will the earth forget her children?," and accuse you of mystificatory categories. Do you have a sense of how you will answer the objection?

I have no wish to enter the lists as a defender of Michael K. If war is the father of all things, let the objection you voice go to war with the book, which has now had its say, and let us see who wins.

You have always taken unusual care in creating your reader and in managing your relations with him. (The double death of Klawer is not easily forgotten.) Whom are you seeking to create as the ideal reader of Life & Times? And has your sense of the readers changed as a result of achieving such widespread international recognition?

I wasn't aware that I have ever taken care over my readers. My ideal reader is, I would hope, myself. But I know something of the insidious pressures faced by South African writers to simplify and explain for a foreign audience.

Did you conceive of the novel as in any way a task presented to you by history—the history of South Africa specifically?

Perhaps that is my fate. On the other hand, I sometimes wonder whether it isn't simply that vast and wholly ideological superstructure constituted by publishing, reviewing and criticism that is forcing on me the fate of being a "South African novelist."

If we can take it that Dusktands records the interior imagination of colonial conquest, The Heart of the Country the intricate ferocities of the master-slave relationship, Waiting for the Barbarians the mind of an empire in decline, Life & Times of Michael K the meaning of war and resistance, then your total project appears to record the drama of the ruling South African consciousness. Would you accept this description?

I don't know. It sounds very grand, the way you put it. There never was a master plan, though obviously certain subjects get written out and one has to move on. But then, meaning is so often something one half-discovers, half-creates in retrospect. So maybe there is a plan, now.

I don't know what you mean by "the ruling South African consciousness." Is it meant to describe me? Is that who I am?

As a writer you are working in cultural terms. Your fictions however, as we have them, present a puzzling double face. They articulate intensely within themselves, and to each other, but they also have a dramatic referential capacity. Sometimes the impression is that you write to satisfy cruel and exacting "internal" criteria and that any references external to the work are arbitrary and the creations of chance—at other times, especially in Life & Times, one gains the sense that you are conducting a very precise dialogue with the South African reality. Would you like to comment?

You have half-asked the question before, in a different form.

I don't know what "the South African reality" is, but I suspect that you are unlikely to discover it by reading newspapers, if only because what you read in a newspaper (of whatever "orientation") has been mediated through the epistemological framework called "news." I have never found anything about Michael K in the newspapers. If I was conducting any dialogue in Life & Times, it was with Michael K.


At points in the story—particularly for some reason when Michael is taken to work on the railway—it seems that you are writing your own way out of an intolerable realization. The structure of the book builds this sense. The opening sequences are exceedingly painful to read because one cannot deal with Michael's vulnerability to the horrors around him. But as the story proceeds, one begins gradually to realize the extraordinary strength and submerged purpose in Michael. As the terms "camp" and "garden" begin to deepen and clarify one realises that at a particular and intense cost there is a meaning deeper than, beyond, and ultimately more powerful than "the camps." Are you in a sense writing yourself (and your readers) into a future?

There is a sense in which Michael K cannot die.

Do you see yourself as exploring the deep structures of the South African imagination? (I can't think of a better phrasing to capture my sense of the meanings of Dusklands, Heart of the Country, Waiting for the Barbarians and Life & Times of Michael K.)

The imagination is my own. If not, I am really in the soup.


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J. M. Coetzee 1940–

(Full name John Michael Coetzee) South African novelist, essayist, critic, editor, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of Coetzee's career through 1997.

Regarded as one of South Africa's most accomplished contemporary novelists, Coetzee examines the effects of racism and colonial oppression in his works. While addressing the brutalities and contradictions associated with the South African policy of apartheid, Coetzee writes from an apolitical viewpoint that extends beyond geographic and social boundaries to achieve universal significance. This effect is enhanced through his use of such literary devices as allegory, unreliable narrators, and enigmatic symbolic settings.

Biographical Information

Coetzee has lived in numerous small towns in rural Cape Province as well as the suburbs of Cape Town, where he was born. He attended the University of Cape Town, where he received undergraduate degrees in mathematics and English by 1961. Moving to London, Coetzee worked for International Business Machines (IBM) as a computer programmer while writing poetry and studying literature in his spare time. "[I spent] the evenings in the British Museum reading Ford Madox Ford," Coetzee wrote, "and the rest of the time tramping the cold streets of London seeking the meaning of life." He eventually gave up computer programming and traveled to the United States to complete his graduate studies in English at the University of Texas; he earned a Ph.D. in 1969. There he became troubled by such events as the Vietnam War and the assassination of South African Prime Minister H. F. Verwoerd. In his first major published work, Dusklands (1974), Coetzee addressed the underlying imperialism he sensed in the Vietnam War and applied its meaning to the ongoing sociopolitical situation in South Africa.

Major Works

In the Heart of the Country (1977) was the first of Coetzee's works to be published in both South Africa and the United States. Presented in stream-of-consciousness form, the novel relates the story of Magda, a troubled while woman who murders her father, ostensibly because of his affair with a young black woman. Unable to adjust to change and doomed by her isolation, Magda is usually considered by critics to represent the stagnant policies of apartheid. Coetzee's strong international reputation was solidified with his next novel, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). Set along the frontier of an unspecified empire, this work addresses oppression through its depiction of a magistrate who must choose between helping to dominate a group of natives known as "the Barbarians" and his desire to ally himself with them. Waiting for the Barbarians also examines the poststructuralist theoretical discussion of the meaning of language and signs, particularly within an imperialist context, as the magistrate becomes obsessed with interpreting the meaning of the scars on the body of a young barbarian woman who has been tortured by authorities. Life and Times of Michael K (1983) corresponds thematically to Coetzee's earlier works but includes a new dimension in its focus on the oppression of a single character. Michael K is a slow-witted outcast who searches with his mother for a home during a turbulent period of an unnamed country's civil war. Although Coetzee has denied any similarities, critics frequently compare Michael K with the character K in Franz Kafka's novel The Trial. In Foe (1987) Coetzee returned to an examination of how language contributes to oppression. A retelling of the story of Robinson Crusoe, Coetzee's Foe features a woman who comes to the writer Foe—actually Daniel Defoe—with her story of Crusoe and the native Friday. When writing the story himself, Foe alters it by presenting its characters as idealistic and enterprising rather than indigent and depressed as the woman had originally described. Coetzee thus addresses the notion that written history can itself be a method of oppression because it is controlled by those who write it. Coetzee's next novel, Age of Iron (1990), traces the experiences of Elizabeth Curren, a white South African woman suffering from cancer who writes long letters to her daughter in the United States. Some critics considered this to be Coetzee's most brutal and pessimistic novel because of its detailed explication of the viciousness of apartheid and of the physical deterioration of disease; however, several note that Elizabeth's sentimental musings on childhood and maternal love signify rebirth and human continuity. The Master of Petersburg (1994) is an account of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky's reaction to his stepson's mysterious fictional involvement with a group of political nihilists and subsequent death. As Dostoyevsky returns to Petersburg from his exile in Dresden in order to find the truth about his stepson's death, he becomes entangled in an increasingly totalitarian political system. Coetzee raises questions about the nature of authoritarianism and truth itself within such a system. Coetzee's essay collections—White Writing (1988), Doubling the Point (1992), and Giving Offense (1996)—all contain his work pertaining to theoretical poststructuralism. In Giving Offense Coetzee takes a controversial stance on questions of censorship. Coetzee's memoir, Boyhood (1997), is unusual in its third-person present tense style, which allows Coetzee to take an objective, reportorial, tone when discussing the events of his early life.

Critical Reception

Coetzee is widely considered one of the most important contemporary writers exploring the effects of Western imperialism on native culture. Critics have found his focus on the relationship between authorship and authority to be particularly pertinent in the postcolonial, late twentieth century, when questions have been raised by historians and literary theorists about the so-called ownership of history. Many commentators have praised Coetzee's commitment to giving marginalized people a voice in his fiction rather than telling his stories from the expected points of view. Some critics, however, find Coetzee's novels to be lacking a substantial social or political stance. Rather, they argue that Coetzee's avoidance of definite geographical settings and refusal to advocate revolutionary tactics reflects only the conflicted situation of the white middle and upper classes and, as such, actually reinforces the status quo.

Allan Gardiner (essay date Autumn 1987)

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SOURCE: "J. M. Coetzee's Dusklands: Colonial Encounters of the Robinsonian Kind," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 27, No. 2, Autumn, 1987, pp. 174-84.

[In the following essay, Gardiner explores the ways in which Coetzee's novella "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" resembles Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe in its textual codification of European imperialism.]

Although post-colonial criticism has been primarily concerned with comparisons between the various post-colonial literatures, it has recently turned to establishing crucial differences between particular texts and their European analogues. The works of Cape Town author and scholar J. M. Coetzee have all subversively inscribed Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe with the deliberate aim of rejecting its canonical formulation of the colonial encounter. Coetzee's longstanding interest in Robinson Crusoe is overtly declared in his latest novel, where the connections between his work and "De/Foe's" themselves become the subject of the text. Entitled Foe, it is set on the island of the castaways Friday and Cruso and in the England of the writer Daniel Foe. Coetzee's earlier novels do not signal their engagement with Defoe's text quite so directly, but they have Robinson Crusoe as their "thematic ancestor" in their explorations of colonialism. This paper describes the South African "translation" of Robinson Crusoe that occurs in the first novel, Dusklands, and it is guided by Coetzee's assertion that his aim is to expose historical contrasts, and that his purpose is to criticize.

The title of Dusklands invokes a revealing metaphor traditionally associated with European imperialism. The "dusk" in question is that of the long "day" of empire. The "lands" are Europe's colonies and all places that exist in this symbolic time-frame. The time of empire, unlike concepts of temporality in other real or theoretically possible social arrangements, has a beginning and therefore, by definition, its span is finite. The forces which impose the beginning of the imperial period on each new "unconquered" place simultaneously invoke those that will bring about its demise. In this sense, every moment of empire since the first takes place at dusk. Consequently, moments in colonial history that are distant in time and space have much in common. Although Dusklands comprises two apparently separate narratives, set two hundred years apart, they are episodes in the same story of the playing out of the fatal contradictions within European imperialism.

"The Vietnam Project," set in the United States, is narrated by Eugene Dawn, a propagandist in a government department responsible for psychological warfare. He is employed in a project called "New Dawn" that has intentional similarities to the U.S.'s "hearts and minds" and "pacification" policies. Dawn's contribution to the project is a piece of writing, an analysis of the "mythic" status of the war in Southeast Asia. This report, which appears as the centrepiece of Dawn's narrative, casts the Vietnamese as rebel "sons" of the United States, itself conceived of as a deathless "father." Dawn recommends a terrorist campaign aimed at destroying what he sees as the pre-Cartesian, unalienated community of the Vietnamese, which is the sign of their alliance with a "mother earth" deity. The report is the expression of Dawn's own socially induced psychopathology, and he subsequently becomes "possessed" by his "text-child."

In the second story, "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee," a Boer farmer becomes an explorer, and hence an agent in the van of colonialism. In making the first European contact with the Namaqua tribe, Jacobus experiences deep humiliation, which leads to his insanity and to his massacre of the tribe on a return journey. I have limited my remarks to "The Narrative." My aim is not to show how these stories repeat a pattern, but to study the pattern itself and its relation to Robinson Crusoe.

Robinson Crusoe is characterized by its narrative techniques, which are the foundation of many of the codes of the realist novel, and by the allegorical and metaphorical significations that it gives to motifs of exploration. It is the first English novel that portrays the expansion of European capitalist arrangements into non-European, non-capitalist settings. As powerful tools in the hands of the European side of that encounter, texts such as Robinson Crusoe are themselves part of the colonization process, in that they capture the meeting within European ideology and thereby set the terms in which it will occur in future encounters. These terms reject, by assimilation or exclusion, the difference of the non-European by reacting to its alterity with a complex of processes which Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak has analyzed as "othering." The narrative and the allegory of Robinson Crusoe present the European version of the colonial situation, simultaneously silencing alternative versions by appropriating its terms as absolute or axiomatic.

A comparison of the narrative methods of "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" and Robinson Crusoe (a comparison Coetzee's text deliberately invokes) raises questions of history, truth, authorship and epistemology. The explanation of "The Narrative" given in the "Translator's Preface" by the semi-fictional "J. M. Coetzee" is as follows:

Her relaas van Jacobus Coetzee, Janszoon was first published in 1951 in an edition by my father, the late Dr. S. J. Coetzee, for the Van Plettenberg Society. This volume consisted of the text of the Relaas and an Introduction, which was drawn from a course of lectures on the early explorers of South Africa … The present publication is an integral translation of the Dutch of Jacobus Coetzee's narrative and the Afrikaans of my father's Introduction, which I have taken the liberty of placing after the text in the form of an Afterword. In an Appendix I have added a translation of Coetzee's official 1760 deposition….

So "The Narrative" comprises three accounts of the same journey. The first is in the form of a journal, told in the first person by Jacobus. The commentary of "S. J." is a third person narrative with exaggerated intrusions of the "authorial" consciousness, as in "I hope I have succeeded in conveying something of the reality of this extraordinary man." The last is a translation, apparently unmodified, of the genuine deposition dictated by the historical Jacobus Coetzee to a colonial secretary in 1760, and transcribed in the third person. With its bracketing of a central text by scholarly glosses and original documents, "The Narrative" recalls the format of a typical modern edition of Robinson Crusoe. It mimics the editorial practice of publishing Defoe's text with others inspired by Alexander Selkirk's experiences. Jacobus' official deposition corresponds to the report by Woods Rogers, Selkirk's rescuer (included in the 1983 Penguin) and there are further parallels between the various authors, editors and narrators in "The Narrative" and those in an edition of Robinson Crusoe. By combining objective and fictional discourses, an editor of Robinson Crusoe becomes a de facto collaborator with Defoe in his creation of illusionistic fiction. But where Robinson Crusoe encourages readers to comply in suspending their disbelief in the fictionality of the narrative and to construe the imaginative as the objective, "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" prevents this complicity by strategically inscribed paradoxes.

The official deposition was dictated, not written, by the real Jacobus because he was illiterate, so the first narrative is "unofficial" because it is the result of what "S. J." calls his "positive act of the imagination." He is not merely its editor but its author. That this is so is easily inferred from the statements of "J. M." and "S. J." but only if the reader steps outside of the mode for reading objective discourse. The paradox calls attention to the ways in which colonial literature involves an incest between the texts that record personal experience and those that gloss that experience, and between these texts and their readers.

Another paradox occurs in the treatment of the distinction between the written and the non-written. "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" and Robinson Crusoe are both presented as memoirs, each containing a journal as a text-within-a-text. Robinson Crusoe emphatically presents both the memoir and the journal as written, not spoken or thought, by the narrator. In the framing narrative, the old Crusoe is the writer of his story. He allows himself digressions but retains the linear, chronological structure of rationalist discourse. In the journal he is again a writer, one whose proximity to the events he describes is much greater, such that the descriptions appropriate the authority of empiricism. This narrative strategy which presents the narrating character as the author of the words on the page is another means by which European modes of perception are privileged and their objectivity over-determined in Robinson Crusoe. By contrast, Jacobus the illiterate (or "S. J." his creator) cannot make statements about where and when he writes. Other codes associated with the narrator-as-writer convention are used, but without explicit "lies" about the origin of the words on the page, they cannot consistently support the narrative superstructure. In the absence of an adequate formal boundary between the memoir and the journal, the single consciousness that underlies both of them and that speaks through Jacobus is unmasked. The inscription of Defoe's formal techniques within "The Narrative" exposes the narrative conventions of realism, showing their intentionally equivocal relation to factual discourse and their dependence on the complicity of a reading community that has a vested interest in accepting the validity of textual representations of colonialism, whether they are fictional or not.

As with narrative structure, so too with its treatment of the theme of exploration. "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" takes its cue from Robinson Crusoe and raises questions of the material function of the ideology of colonial literature. "If Defoe hadn't found and used Selkirk's story," says Angus Ross, "he would have found something of the same kind." In the context of slavery-based economics, European fiction is almost compelled to represent a culture hero lost in an alien landscape and contacting the unenslaved Other. Jacobus is a figure "of the same sort" as Selkirk, and Dusklands as a whole is an acknowledgement of the importance of the "explorer story" as a means by which the material realities of colonialism have been converted to literary myth and automatized thought.

The cosmology of Robinson Crusoe is established by the pronouncement on social class by Crusoe's father:

He bid me observe … that the calamities of life were shared among the upper and lower classes of mankind, but that the middle station had the fewest disasters….

Coetzee has commented on how the passive voice in this passage entrenches the proposition that social "stations" are, and always were, universal phenomena and that a purposive agent made them so. Crusoe becomes a special kind of rebel from this cosmological order. His transgression is to become a sailor-merchant, and thereby to enter a lower station than the one chosen for him within the pattern of class and commerce. His punishment, like that of Adam in the Christian allegory that underlies Robinson Crusoe, is to be sent out into "the World." It is this penitent state that Defoe associates with that of an explorer. But the Fall is fortunate because the explorer can contribute to the progress of the divine plan whose vehicle is commerce.

By using this allegory to convert exploration into fiction, Defoe makes exploration a matter of journey, fear and destiny. The presentation of a journey is not an inescapable motif of fiction about colonialism, but it is a mode frequently adopted. (As Chinua Achebe's and Olive Schreiner's fiction shows, however colonialism can be experienced and expressed as a static narrative of staying at home and being visited and annihilated.) The appeal of the journey motif is to a European audience that is predisposed to reading and decoding allegorical journeys. The motif of fear is consistent with these predispositions. Alien territories are seen not only metaphorically but literally as the realm of Satanic forces. But Defoe's presentation of "the World" and the terror that it contains is not a simple transposition of the Christian allegory, for it also incorporates Enlightenment ideas of the individual and his/her relation to others. In addition to its availability, the metaphysical system by which Defoe presents colonial exploration has the advantage of directing attention away from unpleasant facts. For example, when Crusoe makes his first trading voyages, the details of the missions show that they were slaving enterprises. Yet Defoe never gives this information directly, focusing instead on the details of profit and loss (and thereby, on the state of Crusoe's "spiritual development"). A similar occlusion results from the assumption that the economic and social arrangements of Europe were divinely ordained as static structures, altering only in the direction of improvement and increase. This myth elides the fact that a radical social upheaval associated with the plunder and exploitation of South America and Africa was occurring.

For Defoe, the propagandist of a period of expansion and change, humanity's climb back to the unfallen state of the first man was accelerating. The proof that his evolution of humanity was God's plan could be seen in the economic ascendency of bourgeois European culture over those races and classes who had remained in the unregenerate state.

The preamble of "The Narrative" performs the same operations as do the preliminary sequences of Robinson Crusoe. The difference is that Defoe's narrative works through its hidden assumptions, whereas Coetzee's re-invocation of a similar apparatus brings those assumptions, and the moments at which they become socially functional, into full view. "The Narrative" begins with Jacobus' reflections on his conditions of life as a colonist. These reflections form a kind of genesis story that identifies the primal elements of South African colonialism; the roots, so to speak, from which South African society grows.

The first primal element is a system of property that uses human beings as currency or as property itself. A rich man, for instance, is said to own land, cattle, and a "stable full of women." Dutch wives "carry an aura of property with them. They are first of all property themselves." Like Crusoe, however, Jacobus avoids explicit references to race slavery by describing selectively the mercantile practices of which it is a part. In effect, this means that slavery is the subject of the absences in Jacobus' preamble, but it exists in an uneasy balance with a second important element. This is the economic and geographical link that is forged between diverse peoples in a colonial context and which, in Jacobus' view, threatens to unite the whites and the detribalized blacks under the monopolist Company.

Detribalization is an atrocity of capitalist imperialism, but, after it has become a fact, capitalist forces in their early stages can seem to have some liberating potential. The interrelation of racism and capitalism is imperfect enough, in Jacobus' world of eighteenth-century southern Africa, to allow some blacks who follow the rules of capitalism to overcome the secondary forces of racism. At the same time whites may lose their position in a class with more privileges than blacks:

The days are past when Hottentots would come to the back door begging for a crust of bread while we dressed in silver knee-buckles and sold wine to the Company. There are those of our people who live like Hottentots, pulling up their tents when the pasture gives out and following the cattle after new grass. Our children play with the servants' children, and who is to say who copies whom? In hard times how can differences be maintained?

There are two answers available to Jacobus' question. Further expansion by whites offers the chance to repeat the process by which the original colonists escaped the limitations of a rigid class system. By finding new populations that can be conscripted into the lowest position in the European economic hierarchy and by finding new sources of land, wealth, and labour, a new wave of colonizers can transform all these things into property by the deployment of their weapons, chief among which are the gun and a special mode of thought. But until such material differences between the races are established, and by way of making the colonial form of capitalism a servant of racism, a symbolic separation can be enforced by means of the idea of destiny in a Christian framework; which is to say, the theological justification of apartheid. "The one gulf that divides us from the Hottentots," says Jacobus, "is our Christianity. We are Christians, a folk with a destiny."

In Robinson Crusoe the idea of destiny flows into concepts of individualism which in turn involve the conflation of blacks with "nature." Peter Knox-Shaw has noted how closely Defoe ties his story of exploration to the problem of maintaining the boundaries of the self. Crusoe nears the ultimate goal of Protestant history whenever his faith is strongest that everything external to himself exists to satisfy his needs. To show "the World" responding to Crusoe's "ventriloquism," Defoe carefully manipulates his depictions of natural phenomena, or which blacks and animals are indistinguishable examples. Jacobus also moves from the idea of destiny to an association of blacks with animals:

The Bushman is a different creature, a wild animal with an animal's soul … Heartless as baboons they are, and the only way to treat them is like beasts.

A captive escaping the basest slavery becomes, in Jacobus' mind, an animal manifesting its ability to take the stamp of civilization:

The only way of taming a Bushman is to catch him when he is young … not older than seven or eight. Older than that he is too restless.

Between the lines of Jacobus' descriptions of Bushmen it is possible to read an account of a people defending themselves against the genocidal whites, and doing so resourcefully and (despite the cowardice, the chilling ruthlessness and the superior technology of their enemy) effectively. But J. M. Coetzee's wider interest is in the terms of Jacobus' account and their patterns. Jacobus' belief in the animality of blacks leads him into adopting the novelistic codes by which the reader (conceived as a Cartesian subject) is encouraged to identify with the (Cartesian) hero. Thus, he says: "You have perhaps thirty yards to get your shot off" and "If there are two of you it is, of course, easier." And of the rape of native women: "Her response to you is absolutely congruent with your will."

As these quotations suggest, the link between black "animalism" and the affirmation of the white subject's individuality and superiority is violence, and again Robinson Crusoe is the model. As Crusoe oscillates between losing and regaining his moral will, the corresponding events on the level of plot involve violence to blacks. A case in point is Crusoe's lengthy consideration of the morality of murdering, en masse, a group of natives in order to procure a guide to take him off the island, and the consumation of these plans. Crusoe's effectiveness of will benefits from these violent meditations whether or not he acts on them. The fear of others, which plagues Crusoe from the moment of finding the footprint in the sand and which causes his loss of will, is reversed by his knowledge that he has the capacity to turn the lives and deaths of natives to his own purposes. The high moral tone of his deliberations is belied by the exuberant tone of his descriptions of the eventual slaughter. Each death is posed by Defoe with the imaginative care that is lavished on pornographic images, and the sequences are charged with an underlying Hobbesian fantasy of the uninhibited savagery of the isolated self in a "natural" or asocial environment. Earlier in Robinson Crusoe, Crusoe's behaviour towards Moley and Xury, his fellows in enslavement to a Moor, is also characterized by compensatory aggression.

This pattern, in which Crusoe oscillates between the loss of self through the intrusion of otherness and the independence of self through the negation of external phenomena, is formalized as a metaphysical law of exploration in the scenes of Crusoe's fevered delirium and Christian conversion. The conversion is presented as a direct imparting of knowledge to him by God through a vision, so the emphasis is on the absolute truth of the content of the vision. The "proof" is that it is an explanation of life that originates outside individual consciousness. What has been felt becomes the known absolute. Further to validate the vision, Defoe has Crusoe experience it during the time of his journal-keeping so that the objectivity of writing can be doubly invoked. The content of the vision is an interpretation of Crusoe's shipwreck, which, according to the angel of the dream, is a matter of his election by God as His agent. All the phenomena that Crusoe experiences (earthquakes, stormy seas and so on) are staged to prepare his soul for this purpose. That the purpose is to do the groundwork for the advance of European colonialism is left as an inference to be drawn from the subsequent events leading to the "taming" of Friday and establishment of a penal colony to take Crusoe's place on the island.

By the time Crusoe finds the footprint, and when Jacobus meets the Namaqua, their existential need to deny the subjecthood of others and their technological and metaphysical apparatus for doing so have been established. Common to both novels is the exaggerated shock of the first contact, and a response to the shock that involves questions of the nature of being and of perception, and the difference between "savagery" and "civilization." Jacobus' "sojourn" with the Nama leads him also into loss of self-containment and to a delirium in which metaphysical purposes for his "suffering," related to the role of the pioneer, dawn upon him as if from outside his consciousness. But is not "God" Coetzee suggests, but the structures of culture, embodied in the ideology of language and therefore reproduced in miniature in the consciousness of each speaker, that determine the revelations gained introspectively by these explorers. It is not "God's" independent intervention but the material pressures on the agents of colonial domination that trigger the "insights."

The Nama, however, refuse to adopt the role that Jacobus expects of them. Acting out of playfulness and an innocent greediness and curiosity, they turn Jacobus' heroic moment into farce. The true confrontation with radical difference occurs during the "minutes of confusion in which the paths of shamefaced friend, grinning foe and scrambling beast were forever confused." His tranquility gives way to a state of shock, in which he tries to maintain his belief in his manichean separateness from the natives by multiplying his self-delusions. At this point the eighteenth-century Boer suddenly has access to nineteenth-century fictions and twentieth-century jargon. Jacobus prepares himself for the meeting by "tracing in my heart the forking paths of the endless inner adventure … these forking paths across that true wilderness without policy called the land of the Great Namaqua where everything, I was to find, was possible." The four paths or scenarios that he outlines are amusing reductions of the plots of typical imperial adventure stories of the Haggard/Kipling kind. This anachronism is appropriate and suggestive because the fictional response to the moment of first contact is so predictable. It also suggests that this aspect of colonial discourse does not originate as a representation of actual colonial experience, but rather is generated from the (European) public symbolic order. Although the actions of the Nama do not fit into any of the four scenarios, Jacobus nevertheless finds a way in time of interpreting them in terms of his inner adventure.

Jacobus begins his sojourn with the Nama and is confronted with one proof after another of a world that does not conform to his metaphysical scheme. His feeling of God-imitating detachment and godlike superiority is evident only to himself. For the Nama, these concepts lack all meaning: "Perhaps on my horse and with the sun over my right shoulder I looked like a god, a god of the kind they did not yet have." Moreover, the smoke holes in their huts have no religious significance, at least in the binary terms of upper/lower or heavenly/earthly that Jacobus can recognize as religious. Their head-man bears no relation to the patriarchal symbol at the head of the explorer's cosmology. As the Nama continue, not to reject their inferior place within his scheme, but to disregard it completely, the foundations of Jacobus' sense of separateness are undermined. He experiences a "terror" of the "communal life" of the Nama that centres on their huts. Yet it is into one of these huts that Jacobus is swallowed when fever makes him dependent on the tribe's hospitality.

Significantly, it is a hut for menstruating women. The scenes of Jacobus' fever recall the free-associations with which he began his narrative: "Adam Wijnand, a Bastard … his mother was a Hottentot … Adam Wijnand, that woman's son, is a rich man." A powerful black, a half-caste whose very person signals the removal of absolute separateness on the level of race, and whose condition of conception and birth denies the primacy of paternity over maternity; this is the figure which prompts Jacobus to speak, which provides the point of generation of his narrative. As a symbol of the destruction of separateness, Adam Wijnand is functional in a manner similar to a rule of syntax from which many sentences may be generated. The social realities of Jacobus' colonial world continue to thrust such representations of relative, as opposed to rigid, values into Jacobus' story, and his need to deny them becomes the fuel that continues to generate the narrative. The pervasive presence of Robinson Crusoe in Dusklands is an invitation to the reader to see that the novel form itself is driven by this kind of motor; that its very nature and origin is in a textual response to the encounter with other cultures.

It is at this point that Jacobus experiences his Robinsonian vision. His fever brings on a state of mind in which he makes part visionary, part insane speculations on his being, using jargon and concepts that, again, were not available to an eighteenth-century Boer. By this means he maintains his delusions of manichean separateness from the Nama and of the existence of everything outside him as contingent upon his conceptions of it. These speculations are a means of naming the Other as harmless. His dependence on the Nama and the farcical scene of first contact are reconstructed by his speculative story of himself as an explorer, and declared to be unreal in comparison with the larger "reality" of his transcendent power. But to convince himself of his power he must, like Crusoe, meditate psychotically on his gun as he does in the story of hunting Bushmen. The only real superiority that Jacobus possesses is the superior ability to murder. He returns to the myth of Christian destiny to reinforce his delusions, and arrives at the conviction that "the transformation of savage into enigmatic follower" is a thing decreed from above which "we feel as a fated pattern and a condition of life." Significantly, this pattern is "felt" as fated. Dusklands shows how that sense of inevitability Hows from a power-functional mind set, manifested through texts such as Robinson Crusoe, which expresses the fear that others may "have a history in which I shall be a term." Ultimately, the gun can be the only hedge against the fear of equality or inferiority.

The motif of the gun in "The Narrative," then, is used to deconstruct the specific role of violence in Defoe's schema of exploration. In Robinson Crusoe the gun is the tool of the colonist hero, who uses it as an instrument of separation against the threat of the absorbtion of the one into the many. "The Narrative" situates this structure of aggression within a society that is marked everywhere by the exploitation of a majority by a minority and which therefore needs to make a distinction between the individual person and a plenum of humanity. Since Coetzee is dealing with Defoe's creation of a morphology of different kinds of violence, it is misleading to suppose, as some writers have, that he is depicting violence as an historical, universal, "categorical imperative." The link between the two stories in Dusklands is forged as much by the way that they illustrate a decrease in the effectiveness of imperialist tools of aggression over time as by their illustration of the continuity in the operation of those tools. In "The Vietnam Project" the active resistance by the Vietnamese people, even more than that of the Bushmen in "The Narrative," signals a refusal to be negated or captured within the terms of colonialist ideology, just as in history a signal victory was won over the technological weapons of imperialism. Eugene Dawn's mythography, like its thematic ancestor, Defoe's allegory, becomes startingly unconvincing in the late twentieth century.

For Jacobus (and S. J. Coetzee), the explorer myth of violence remains functional. Jacobus links violence and destiny by deciding that his role is not merely the exploration of land but the metaphysical entering and plundering of any interior. He overcomes his fear of being eaten/equal by fetishizing his eye, the instrument of exploration, and imagining its power to "eat" the other instead. Thus he can foil any "representative of that out there which my eye once enfolded and ingested and which now promises to enfold, ingest, and project me through itself as a speck on a field which we may call annihilation or alternatively history." His self-preserving rationalization for his work becomes the rationalization for his sadistic slaughter of the Nama. He wonders: "Are they not perhaps fictions, these lures of interiors for rape" but undercuts that possibility with: "… that the Universe uses to draw out its explorers?" Coetzee presents these sophistries to show how much the materiality of exploration and cultural contact can be and have been denied in favour of an allegory of its "deeper meaning." That it is one of the most pervasive metaphors in the English language is unintentionally illustrated by the publishers of Dusklands, who have printed on its jacket a quotation from a review: "J. M. Coetzee's vision goes to the nerve centre of being. What he finds there…." Such claims invoke those very assimilative metaphors of explorer stories that Coetzee's text attacks for their ideological validation of white minority rule in South Africa.

In spite of the continuing similarities in the nature of European imperialism, the world out of which Defoe wrote may be contrasted with the contemporary world. Defoe's account of the presence of European power in other lands and its role and function there was compatible with the philosophical currents of his time. Now, thanks in large part to the peoples against whom it becomes a weapon, this depiction of an "archetypal" relationship is threatened by the relativity of the truths which anchor it. The confidence of European thought has given way to desperation. Coetzee's "translation" of Robinson Crusoe exploits these contrasts as part of a critical exploration of the colonial encounter, but it also acknowledges the continuing relevance of the theme of isolation, and therefore of the motif of "the island," as the site of this exploration. Writing directly out of his South African experience, Coetzee confronts an intellectual environment that is tied to its stagnant place in colonial history. In their structures and metaphors, the literary expressions of this intellectual milieu frequently contribute to the textual colonization of which Robinson Crusoe is an example. While many liberal South African novels are willing to question the degree to which the culture of the ruling class is any more "civilized" than that of the black majority, even these retain the ethnocentric intellectual baggage that comes with the term "civilization," and hence they also tend to repeat the patterns of fiction that were pioneered by Defoe.

By taking as his subject the representations by which South African colonialism has interpreted itself to itself, Coetzee writes texts that are necessarily allegorical, but like similar post-colonial texts, they are direct engagements with, rather than escapes from history, reflexively "conscious" of their place within textual production, and of the supreme importance of texts in the capture and annihilation of "the others."

Principal Works

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Dusklands (novellas) 1974
In the Heart of the Country (novel) 1977
Waiting for the Barbarians (novel) 1980
Life and Times of Michael K (novel) 1983
Foe (novel) 1987
White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (essays) 1988
Age of Iron (novel) 1990
Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews [edited by David Attwell] (essays and interviews) 1992
The Master of Petersburg (novel) 1994
Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (essays) 1996
Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (memoir) 1997

Rosemary Jane Jolly (essay date April 1989)

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SOURCE: "Territorial Metaphor in Coetzee's 'Waiting for the Barbarians'," in Ariel, Vol. 20, No. 2, April, 1989, pp. 69-79.

[In the following essay, Jolly discusses the physical territory of both geographical locations and of the human body as a metaphor for colonial invasion in Waiting for the Barbarians.]

When J. M. Coetzee's third novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, appeared in 1980 it elicited a number of interesting responses which have to do—whether the reviewers realize this or not—with the implications of the setting of the novel. Leon Whiteson criticizes it for an apparent lack of mimetic accuracy: "The geography is garbled; there is desert and snow, lizards and bears. The story is told in that most awkward tense; the historic present. The dialogue is stiff, the writing has the air of a translation…. Coetzee's bad dreams have not been earned by any truth…. The heart of this novel is not darkness but mush." Irving Howe, in a generally favourable article published in The New York Times Book Review, comments that "one possible loss is bite and pain, the urgency that a specified historical place and time may provide." Finally, in an extremely revealing review of The Life and Times of Michael K. (Coetzee's fourth novel, published in 1983) Nadine Gordimer praises this novel for its depiction of the reality of violence, but criticizes it for its "revulsion" from history, its lack of recognition of the primacy of politics in a scheme of historical determinacy. She goes on to observe that Coetzee

chose allegory for his first few novels. It seemed he did so out of a kind of opposing desire to hold himself clear of events and their daily, grubby, tragic consequences in which, like everyone else living in South Africa, he is up to the neck, and about which he had an inner compulsion to write. So here was allegory as stately fastidiousness; or a state of shock. He seemed able to deal with the horror he saw written on the sun only—if brilliantly—if this were to be projected into another time and plane. His Waiting For the Barbarians was the North Pole to which the agitprop of agonized black writers (and some white ones hitching a lift to the bookmart on the armoured car) was the South Pole: a world to be dealt with lies in between.

I have quoted Gordimer's remarks at such length because, in referring to the indeterminate "time" and "plane" of the novel, she raises not only the question of the setting of Waiting for the Barbarians, but also the larger question of what literature can, or in this case, even should, be expected to do; what kind of territory it undertakes to explore.

The ambiguities of time and place to which Whiteson in particular has shown such aversion are clearly deliberate. In a rare comment on his own work, Coetzee stated that "The setting is not specified for Barbarians, and very specifically is not specified … I just put together a variety of locales and left a lot of things vague with a very definite intention that it shouldn't be pinned down to some specific place." The fact that Coetzee ensures that the Empire remains unnamed, the time unspecific (sunglasses are a new invention, but horses are the means of transportation) and the geography indeterminate, indicates that the setting of the novel is something of a key to the working of the narrative.

The geography of the fiction may not correspond to an identifiable geo-political entity, but its depiction is both detailed and comprehensible. To the north of the settlement the river runs into the lake; there is a road that runs from the settlement to the lake, turning north-west along its coast. South of the lake are marsh-lands and salt flats, and beyond them "a blue-grey line of barren hills." To the north of the lake is the desert. Colonel Joll takes the north-west road to find the nomads; the narrator takes a short cut to the barbarians when he returns the girl, a track that leads off the river road to the east, skirting the lake to the south and then heading off to the north-east, to the valleys of the ranges where the nomads winter. "Two miles due south of the town" are a cluster of dunes, which are stable owing to the vegetation on their surface and the timber ruins which they shroud, ruins that date back to the time before the Empire annexed the western provinces and built the fort. The frontier settlement, for which the narrator is responsible as magistrate of the Empire, is not only the focus of the geographical surroundings: it is also central to the action of the novel. Colonel Joll comes to the settlement from the interior of the Empire, from the Third Bureau, "the most important division of the Civil Guard nowadays"; both Colonel Joll and the narrator make excursions from it into the land of the barbarians. Most importantly, the settlement is the home of the narrator.

To reject the strange geography of the novel, to desire it to be immediately recognizable, is to reject the narrative itself, to diminish the fiction. As Lance Olsen points out, any such reading "implies a refusal on the part of the reader to take the fiction as itself," which in turn implies a desire to "change the fiction into something it cannot or will not be." We, as his readers, have to accept the narrator's landscape. After all, it is the narrator's charts Colonel Joll uses to make his first raid on the barbarians: he is the mapmaker; his descriptions of his surroundings are as meticulous as he can make them. We need to inhabit his narrative.

What is the nature of that narrative? The controlling metaphor is again territorial. Just as his home, the settlement, is situated on the frontier of the Empire, facing the land of the barbarians, so the narrator is positioned on the fringes of the Empire's authority, confronted by those who are subject to it. The narrator is obsessed with discovering the meaning of his situation. He tries to explore what it is to be of the Empire, what is to be of the barbarians. He reflects on Joll after the Colonel's torturing of the boy and his father:

Looking at him [Joll] I wonder how he felt the very first time: did he, invited as an apprentice to twist the pincers or turn the screw or whatever it is they do, shudder even a little to know that at that instant he was trespassing into the forbidden? I find myself wondering too whether he has a private ritual of purification, carried out behind closed doors, to enable him to return and break bread with other men. Does he wash his hands very carefully, perhaps, or change all his clothes; or has the Bureau created new men who can pass without disquiet between the unclean and the clean?

This passage is sprinkled with territorial metaphors. The narrator imagines Joll in the moment of transition, (tres)passing from the one region to another, from the "clean" to the "unclean," from the innocent to the "forbidden." Later, when Warrant Officer Mandel sets him free, the magistrate asks the torturer how he finds it possible to eat after he has "been … working with people." When Mandel turns from him, the narrator appeals to him: "'No listen!' I say. 'Do not misunderstand me, I am not blaming you or accusing you, I am long past that…. I am only trying to understand the zone in which you live. I am trying to imagine how you breathe and eat and live from day to day. But I Cannot!'" (emphasis added).

With the same urgency the narrator tries to understand the barbarians: where they come from, what they are, what they think of the Empire. His fascination for the blind barbarian girl stems from this curiosity: he treats her body as a surface, a map of a surface, a text. He washes her body, finding in the exploration of her features an ecstasy. Often he falls asleep "as if poleaxed," oblivious, and wakes an hour or so later "dizzy, confused, thirsty." These spells are to him like "death," or "enchantment." When he discovers the torture mark at the corner of the girl's eye, he observes: "It has been growing more and more clear to me that until the marks on this girl's body are deciphered and understood I cannot let go of her." He is not unaware of the position in which he places her by treating her in this manner: "The distance between myself and her torturers, I realize, is negligible, I shudder." He wants to know of her people, her family; she offers him little information. Whatever he discovers of her, he does so by examining her, by "reading" her as one would a map. The dream in which he tries to remember her as she was before Joll got hold of her, is a measure, a scale of his progress in exploring her.

Eventually the narrator reaches a certain recognition of the "interior" of the barbarian girl, even if it is only that this "interior" exists:

While I have not ceased to see her as a body maimed, scarred, harmed, she has perhaps by now grown into and become that new deficient body, feeling no more deformed than a cat feels deformed for having claws instead of fingers. I would do well to take these thoughts seriously. More ordinary than I like to think, she may have ways of finding me ordinary too.

Instead of the worshipping of a surface—the denial of substance which the washing ritual portrayed—he gains a sense of the girl in her entirety; her form has an essence which is yet to be discovered. Whereas before, in his dream of the child building a snow-/sandcastle, he could not envision the child's face, he now remembers for the first time the girl's face before its mutilation: she becomes the child of his dream vision. Having come this far, he realizes the need—his need—to take the girl back to barbarian land. It is during this journey, when they reach the bed of the ancient lagoon which lies between the sand dunes and the mountains of the barbarians on the far side, that the narrator finally consummates his relationship with her: "I am with her," he says, "not for whatever raptures she may promise or yield but for other reasons, which remain as obscure to me as ever." The reunion of girl and territory is the turning point of the fiction: the narrator returns, resigned, to the settlement as prisoner—not agent—of the Empire. What precisely has been realized?

In his "Author's Note" to the Faber and Faber edition of The Whole Armour and The Secret Ladder, Wilson Harris identifies Melville's Benito Cereno and Conrad's Heart of Darkness as "prophetic" novels. He discusses the strange juxtapositions in the image of Negro slaves mistaken for "Black Friars" by Captain Delano and in "Kurtz's manifesto of moral beauty … which almost overshadowed the small script at the bottom of the page—'Exterminate all the brutes'" as "expressionist" or "symbolic" devices, pointing to "a transplanted value or faith which had become such a dominant persona that it ceased to be a homogeneous value or enactment of identity and freedom, and turned into an all-consuming bias." We are reminded of the nature of Colonel Joll's quest for truth. When the narrator asks him how he can tell when he is told the truth, Joll replies that "there is a certain tone." The narrator responds:

"The tone of truth! Can you pick up this tone in everyday speech? Can you hear whether I am telling the truth?"

This is the most intimate moment we have yet had, which he [Colonel Joll] brushes off with a little wave of the hand. "No, you misunderstand me. I am speaking only of a special situation now, I am speaking of a situation in which I am probing for the truth, in which I have to exert pressure to find it. First I get lies, you see—this is what happens—first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the truth. That is how you get the truth.

Colonel Joll's process of divining the truth corresponds to the historical process of colonization, to the relationship between conqueror and conquered: his quest is conquest. In his "Author's Note" Harris describes the implications of "a landscape saturated by the traumas of conquest." He is referring to the particular history and geography of Guyana as he represents it in his novels, but again his observations apply to Waiting for the Barbarians, and specifically to the position which Colonel Joll occupies:

A bitter thread or scale runs through Carib and Arawak pre-Columbian vestiges capable now of relating themselves afresh to the value-turned-bias-structures of twentieth-century man. Thus, it would seem, we are involved in a peculiar juxtaposition at the heart of our age—renascent savagery and conquest-ridden civilization.

This juxtaposition is the product of historical consequence: to conquer, to colonize, to turn the "transplanted value" into the "all-consuming bias," requires the use of a complex violence, that violence which the Empire represents and with whose meaning our narrator is so obsessed.

From the beginning the narrator is intrigued by violence and anxious to understand the meaning behind the marks it leaves. He caresses the barbarian girl's broken feet, and observes in detail the wound the torturers have left near her eye: "… I notice in the corner of one eye a greyish puckering as though a caterpillar lay there with its head under her eyelid, grazing…. Between thumb and forefinger I part her eyelids. The caterpillar comes to an end, decapitated, at the pink inner rim of the eyelid. There is no other mark. The eye is whole." He investigates the room where the girl's feet were broken and her eye blinded—the same room where her father was tortured to death. He observes that it is a clean room, marked only by soot on the ceiling above the fireplace and on the wall. He asks her how they blinded her, and she describes to him the instrument they used. Later, once he has returned to the settlement, he reflects on the undeniable desire to violate. He longs for his impression on the barbarian girl to be as great as Colonel Joll's conquest of her is:

Our loving leaves no mark. Whom will that other girl with the blind face remember: me with my silk robe and my dim lights and my perfumes and oils and my unhappy pleasures, or that other cold man with the mask over his eyes who gave the orders and pondered the sounds of her intimate pain? Whose face was the last face she saw plainly on this earth but the face behind the glowing iron? Though I cringe with shame, even here and now, I must ask myself whether, when I lay head to foot with her, fondling and kissing those broken ankles, I was not in my heart of hearts regretting that I could not engrave myself on her as deeply.

In this desire for violence resides the will to bring both poles of Harris's juxtaposition—"renascent savagery" and "conquest-ridden civilization"—together in the act of violence. How far does the narrator come in interpreting t(his) desire? How do we understand the act of it?

The title of Coetzee's novel comes, of course, from Constantin Cavafy's poem "Waiting for the Barbarians," which depicts a decadent Roman Empire awaiting a barbarian conquest which never happens. The border guards report that "there are no barbarians any longer." The narrator concludes: "Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians? / Those people were a kind of solution." The realization that there are no barbarians impresses the problem of the existence of the Empire on the Empire. So in Coetzee's novel. When the narrator explains to the young officer of the new detachment—who thinks that he and his troops have been followed by barbarians en route to the settlement—that the barbarians have no plans to destroy the town, that they know that the town will peter out by itself as the lake-water grows more salty, the officer refuses to believe that the imperial troops will ever leave: "'But we are not going,' the young man says quietly. 'Even if it became necessary to supply the settlement by convoy, we would not go'." Ultimately, of course, the troops do desert the frontier town. The point, however, is not only that without the barbarians the Empire has nothing against which to rally, against which it has to defend its territory; if, in addition, the barbarians are not responsible for the decline of Empire—and we are told by one of the few survivors of Joll's final campaign that "We froze in the mountains! We starved in the desert!… We were not beaten—they [the barbarians] led us out into the desert and then they vanished!" (emphasis added)—who is responsible?

When the narrator is taken into custody on his return to the settlement, he hears of a fire along the river. He surmises that someone has decided that the brush on the river-banks provides too much cover for the barbarians. However, he tells us, the brush is broken by patches of barren land, so someone must be following the fire down the river, rekindling it when it dies out: "They do not care that once the ground is cleared the wind begins to eat at the soil and the desert advances. Thus the expeditionary force against the barbarians prepares for its campaign, ravaging the earth, wasting our patrimony." In addition, the antagonism of the force provokes an attack, allegedly by the barbarians ("No one saw them. They came in the night"), on the irrigation wall, which causes the fields to flood. "How can we win such a war?" the narrator asks. "What is the use of textbook military operations, sweeps and punitive raids into the enemy's heartland when we can be bled to death at home?"

When, also on his return to the settlement, the magistrate is immediately charged with "treasonously consorting with the enemy," he responds to the accusation with the same insight that he uses to evaluate the physical deterioration of his domain: "'We are at peace here,' I say, 'we have no enemies.' There is silence. 'Unless I make a mistake,' I say. 'Unless we are the enemy'." After Colonel Joll has marked the backs of his barbarian prisoners, their hands wired to their faces through their cheeks, with the word "ENEMY" in charcoal, the narrator accuses Joll:

"Those pitiable prisoners you brought in—are they the enemy I must fear? Is that what you say? You are the enemy, Colonel!… You are the enemy, you have made the war, and you have given them all the martyrs they need—starting not now but a year ago when you committed your first filthy barbarities here! History will bear me out!"

The magistrate has come to identify that which is barbarian with the signatures of his own civilization. He has read the signs of violence on the surface, and realizes that, as fellow South African novelist André Brink puts it, "violence denies not only the humanity of the person against which it is directed but also that of the person who practises it."

This reading of the relationship between violator and violated ties Colonel Joll, the barbarian girl and the narrator together just as surely as if Colonel Joll had connected himself to the other two with the wire he uses to subdue his prisoners. In Harris's terms, the juxtaposition of "renascent savagery" and "conquest-ridden civilization" constitute a kind of synthesis. On the surface this "marriage" appears to be "sinister," but it may become a synthesis which is related to the dire need of the twentieth century for new vision—"vision as capacity to resense or rediscover a scale of community":

That scale, I would think, needs to relate itself afresh to the "monsters" which have been constellated in the cradle of a civilisation—projected outwards from the nursery or cradle thus promoting a polarization, the threat of ceaseless conflict and the necessity for a self-defensive apparatus against the world out there.

In some degree, therefore, we need to retrieve or bring those "monsters" back into ourselves as native to the psyche, native to a quest for unity through contrasting elements, through the ceaseless tasks of the creative imagination to digest and liberate contrasting spaces rather than succumb to implacable polarizations.

Such retrieval is vision.

This quest for vision is the quest of the narrator. He moves between Empire and barbarian territory, between present and past, trying desperately to retrieve some sense of original unity in order to liberate his future from history and his territory from conquest. He knows that something from the past needs to be recovered. He digs among the ruins for artifacts that will enlighten him: he never gives up trying to understand the characters on the wooden slips he finds in the bag buried below the floor level of the excavation. When Colonel Joll asks him for the meaning of the slips, the magistrate tells him how to find the signs:

It is recommended that you simply dig at random: perhaps at the very spot where you stand you will come upon scraps, shards, reminders of the dead. Also the air: the air is full of sighs and cries. These are never lost: if you listen carefully, with a sympathetic ear, you can hear them echoing forever within the second sphere.

He also works against the limits imposed on him by the Empire, but just as he never does learn the language of the signs, he does not learn the language of the barbarians from the girl before she leaves him. When he asks her, after her return to the barbarians, to come back with him to the settlement, both stand on the same frontier, each on the fringe of their own territory. But the narrator, as yet, does not understand the depth of his desire for the girl; and she has no way of conceiving it as anything other than that of the conqueror for the conquered. She goes back to her people, but there is one sense in which she stays with the narrator—she continues to appear to him in his dreams, in the vision of her as a child.

Nadine Gordimer's criticism of Waiting for the Barbarians seems to undermine to some degree the value of the fiction in its focus on frontiers. The novel deals metaphorically with the meeting point between two territories. The realm of the novel is both familiar and unfamiliar; it is both South Africa and everywhere else; it is the present trying to redeem the past in anticipation of the future. The fiction is not an "allegory" in Gordimer's sense of the word. In its representation it is true to the violent domain of conquest in the present; but it remains faithful to the future in that its crucial locations are those which suggest the potential for transition—not those which make the fiction a "historical allegory …—a matter of ticking off fictional events against their literal counterparts" (Shrimpton). This fluidity is necessary to dislocate, to "liberate" the reader from claims of temporal and geographic specificity by confronting her/him with the possibility of transition. The narrator himself is unable to make the transition, to make a new time and a new place for himself—when the possibility presents itself in the desert, "things fall apart": thereafter his only access to the possibility of a new vision, a new "territory," is through his dream-visions. But the reader is left with the possibility. The narrator's dream-visions, which indicate his imaginative involvement with the barbarian girl, and less specifically the possibility of a new community, represent the imaginative potential of the reader who is prepared to take a novel such as Coetzee's on its own terms. The relation and distinction or boundary between character/narrator and reader, the material and the visionary, is revealed in the territorial metaphor of the frontier. The language of a fiction of transition, concerned as it is with the potential rather than the representative, is perhaps a far cry from the language of a Gordimer novel; but the attempt to categorize it as an "allegory" may constitute a dismissal of a crucial development in the form of the novel, a denial of a certain kind of frontier which the genre may undertake to explore.

Derek Wright (essay date Summer 1989)

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SOURCE: "Fiction as Foe: The Novels of J. M. Coetzee," in International Fiction Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 113-18.

[In the following essay, Wright examines Coetzee's fiction as representative of a hostile colonial act in itself.]

The settings of J. M. Coetzee's five novels are, at first glance, unusual for a contemporary South-African writer. They are, respectively, the United States, undefined parts of the South-African hinterland of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the frontier of an unnamed country on "the roof of the world," a war-ravaged Cape Town and Karoo of the future, and the fictional-cum-metafictional territory of the Robinson Crusoe fable. In fact, each of the novels is, not surprisingly, a fictional extrapolation from South Africa's current historical crisis. In these fictional projections, however, the very fictional properties of myth, ideology, and history—and finally fiction itself—are themselves targeted as a principal source of hostility to human values in the colonial context.

Coetzee's first experiment in damaging and deranged fictions, Dusklands (1974), couples two megalomaniacal narratives. The first, "The Vietnam Project," is that of Eugene Dawn, a "mythographer" employed by the American military in a Californian research station to explore the potential of radio broadcasting for psychological warfare against Vietnam. The second, "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee," purports to be a translation of an eighteenth-century frontier narrative of a brutal punitive expedition against the Namaqua Bushmen. The first is, by implication, a modern version of the colonial frontier narrative insofar as the American occupation of Vietnam is a continuation of the processes of Western imperialism, and both men are revealed to be paranoid victims of the colonial mentality. Both mythologize their war into the pattern of benign fathers putting down rebellious children who are incapable of taking care of themselves (the American authorities finally discover Dawn, at the peak of his madness, torturing his young son in a hotel room). Both condemn their subjects to death in the name of some higher power, each regarding himself as an instrument of God or a "tool in the hands of history," though for Jacobus the gun is the major instrument and symbol of control, for Eugene the word. Like his historical Afrikaans counterpart, the latter has an exploring temperament: "Had I lived two hundred years ago I would have had a continent to explore, to map, to open to colonization. In that vertiginous freedom I might have expanded to my true potential." Like the Magistrate in Coetzee's third novel, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), he likes to record the customs and decipher the relics of the people he is involved in destroying. To the power of the gun is added that of the pen, camera, and radio-speaker, through which academic writers and media men presume to speak for the obscure, remote people whose right of speech they in fact deny and who, as in the living analogue of contemporary South Africa, are still unable to speak for themselves. Dusklands challenges the idea that the exploring social scientist—the ethnographer and mythographer—can neutralize his stance towards, and distance himself objectively from, the colonized subjects of his exploration. Rather, his own mental fictions are imposed upon them, locking them into a foreign code of consciousness, and Coetzee refuses to exempt the novelist himself from the colonization process. Coetzee situates himself at the edge of Dawn's narrative by giving his own name to the director of the propaganda program, ironically called the "New Life Project," and Jacobus Coetzee's eighteenth-century narrative is supplemented by a critical afterword from an "S. J. Coetzee" and is translated by one "J. M. Coetzee," thus linking the author with his Afrikaans ancestors. Since both of the narrators are mad, it is difficult to distinguish what happens from what they imagine, to mark off what is "real" from what is invented, but the novel does not stay for long even within the elastic bounds of a deranged psychological realism. As Teresa Dovey has observed the self-implicating strategies of Coetzee's fiction, by candidly announcing its fictionality, take self-consciously into account the material circumstances of the book's composition, the conditions for the production of narratives like this, and the processes by which particular modes of narrative and discourse that have been tied up with the colonization process are officially institutionalized and constitutionalized. The very arbitrariness with which the two narratives are conjoined implies that their relation to historical reality is problematical and is not a straightforward matter of representation. Behind Dusklands are the implications that "Realism" is simply a product of one limiting kind of language code, and that, as Stephen Watson has argued, it is not only through violent military conquest that we are colonized but through language itself, through conventional sign systems passing themselves off as "natural" and "universal." To the extent that historical realism is the favored mode of the frontier and colonial narrative, the literary deconstruction of traditional realism is simultaneously a political act of decolonization, and Coetzee attempts both of these in his first novel.

Coetzee's second novel, In the Heart of the Country (1977), is sited in the nightmarish world and murderous fantasies of another "mad" person, Magda, a vaguely nineteenth-century spinster living on a farm out in the veld, "totally outside human society, almost outside humanity." In her fantasy Magda is perpetually killing and burying her father Johannes, one of the mythic fathers of the Afrikaans government who refuses to be got rid of in spite of her imaginative efforts to "fold him away for the night." "If I intend to settle him in this grave there is no way to do so but to pull him in, to climb in first and pull him in after me," she concludes. "But now I think that for some days after my death he will still lie here breathing, waiting for his nourishment." Her desire to be rid of her father, and the regime he represents, springs from her white liberal impulse to communicate with and befriend her slave servants Klein Anna and Hendrick. Magda, as suffering white female, empathizes with the oppressed blacks to the point where she virtually thinks herself black: "From wearing black too long I have grown into a black person." She wears white only at night and black by day, and imagines both her "black" daytime self and her "white" nighttime self as being raped by Hendrick. She is barren and, like the blacks in the scheme of the official colonial fiction, is viewed as sexless by a white paternal authority which considers itself as the supreme embodiment of potency. The father's codes, however, have also entrapped the daughter, who finds her behavior circumscribed by the inherited patterns of dominance and subservience. A female colonial Crusoe, she insists on renaming her "Friday" and, like her father, resorts to the gun when willpower fails and refuses to let the African take charge of his own destiny. But Magda is caught up in fictional codes of a sociolinguistic as well as a historical order, for the nineteenth-century colonial spinster in her historical backwater is, amazingly, familiar with the commonplaces of structural linguistics: "Words alienate. Language is no medium for desire. Desire is rapture, not exchange. It is only by alienating the desired that language masters it." As in Dusklands, the madness/reality frontier is also the site of a debate between postmodernism's and traditional realism's approaches to language, and the novel, by thrusting its heroine and an implied nostalgia for realism into the heart of the postmodernist breakdown, acquires an often painfully reflexive awareness of the contemporary contexts of its composition.

Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee's third novel, is a timeless parable of Empire, set on the frontier of an anonymous country, in the fort of an unnamed imperial power, and focuses on the moral dilemma of a liberal-minded Magistrate who takes the side of the nomadic people occupying the wilderness on the other side of the "barbarous frontier." The dominant enemy-fictions in this novel are the "barbarians" of the title and the "fisherfolk" with whom the undiscriminating imperial power frequently confuses them. The real nomads and hunters behind the labels desire only, it seems, to be left alone in peaceful coexistence with the frontier people on land which they consider theirs to traverse. The imperial power, however, persuades itself into believing that it is under threat and sends out an army to kill or imprison and torture the "barbarians," who respond by destroying crops and leading the garrison into the desert where the soldiers die of starvation and exposure. The military of the "civilized" power, who are of course the real barbarians, then proceeds to inflict a terrible and hideous revenge. The barbarians, who are basically innocent, are really a mental fiction born of colonial paranoia and a political convenience: their invention has become indispensable for the maintenance of a blind, insane power which sucks everything into its vortex and for the antithetical definition of the Empire as a force for "civilization," which presupposes the existence of barbarism. The title is taken from a poem by Cavafy: "And now what will become of us without Barbarians? / Those people were some sort of solution." Civilization cannot exist without an enemy. A compassionate man who always "believed in civilized behaviour," the Magistrate is thrown into jail and tortured for his treasonable kindness to a crippled barbarian woman whom he nurses back to health and then returns to her people. By taking the side of the oppressed, the Magistrate—much more than Magda—effectively becomes one of them and at his eventual release is left stranded between two camps, "a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere." His muddled minority position makes him a common figure in Coetzee's work: the reluctant colonizer who can no longer bear the burden of an arbitrary historical role which condemns him to treat others as things and himself to a state of murderous self-hatred. He tries, the narrator says, "to live outside of history."

What the Magistrate attempts, the protagonist of the next novel, Life and Times of Michael K (1983), does. Michael K, concludes the hospital doctor into whose care he drifts, is "a human soul above and beneath classification." He is "untouched by history … a creature left over from an earlier age." The novel depicts the strange peregrination of Michael, a municipal gardens laborer, from the Cape to the Karoo with the sick body, and then the ashes, of his mother: a pilgrimage which is blocked at every border by army and military police, and which leads to his triple internment as vagrant and suspected guerrilla in prison, camp, and hospital. There is a war, civil or revolutionary, going on in the background of his journey but it remains vague: it is fought, according to the camp commandant, "so that minorities will have a say in their destinies," which probably refers to the ruling white minority keeping their "say." K, who "barely knows there is a war on," is out of it because he is busy existing on his own marginal terms, unresponsive to historical determinants which to him are unreal. In Waiting for the Barbarians the ruling abstraction, the hostile fiction preoccupying the paranoid mind of the oppressor was the barbarian. In Michael K, however, there is a sense in which the prevailing "fiction" is extended beyond the guerrillas—the "friends" Michael is accused of collaborating with by growing them food on his improvised allotment in the Karoo—to take in the whole unreal, insane historical situation of South Africa which has issued in Civil War. The keynote is again sounded by the doctor, who sees Michael not as part of the substantial historical world which he himself believes in but as "scuffled together" from "a handful of dust … into the shape of a rudimentary man." He is a "genuine little man of earth," his fingers hooked and bent, ready "for a life of burrowing, a creature that spends its waking life stooped over the soil, that when at last its time comes digs its own grave and slips quietly in and draws the heavy earth over its head like a blanket and cracks a last smile and turns over and descends into sleep, home at last, while unnoticed as ever somewhere far away the grinding of the wheels of history continues."

Continually lapsing out of and back into consciousness, less a human being than a spirit of ecological endurance, Michael K is a creature not of human history but of earth, his true literary ancestors Lear's "naked unaccommodated man" and those rocklike, purely elemental Wordsworthian presences, the Leech-Gatherer and the Old Cumberland Beggar, rather than Voltaire's Candide (who also "works in the garden"). Disenfranchized from a human existence on the earth's surface, he is directed back towards the earth itself and goes literally underground like an animal, insect, or grub, leaving no trace of himself; he is ploughed back into the soil and, after surviving three dungeon-like incarcerations, rises, as if from the dead, from the element to which he has rooted himself. Earth is a constant touchstone and referent for his existence. He burrows, grubs, plants, and hides in it, he carries his mother's ashes to the part of it from whence she came, and he will take back as food only what he has put into it: his family of sister-melons and brother-pumpkins, the fruit of his real mother, to which he is umbilically connected by an invisible "cord of tenderness." 'It keeps him barely alive and adumbrates his grave, for his desire to grow food is inversely proportionate to his need to consume it: "As he tended the seeds and watched and waited for the earth to bear food, his own need for food grew slighter and slighter … When food comes out of this earth, he told himself, I will recover my appetite, for it will have savor." He plants for posterity, not for the present, and, as Nadine Gordimer has noticed, to keep the earth, not himself, alive. Planting is K's, and the earth's, positive alternative to history as War: "Enough men had gone off to war saying the time for gardening was when the war was over; whereas there must be men to stay behind and keep gardening alive, or at least the idea of gardening; because once that cord was broken, the earth would grow hard and forget her children." Thus K makes his own kind of history: the earth man does not ponder the meaning of his existence but creates and becomes it. For those who live moment by moment there is, as K claims at the close, "time enough for everything": for the tender of earth who transcends the historical, suspended time of war, time is as full at one time as at any other, being ever geared to the fruitful eventfulness of nature. At the end of the book he is bound for earth again, without money for food but with half a packet of seeds to reestablish his connection with his element.

Coetzee does not provide his protagonist with a surname that would particularize him as a Cape Colored but chooses instead to surround him with Kafkaesque trappings—like the "K."s of The Castle and The Trial, he has no permit to be where he is so is moved restlessly on by authority derived from "the Castle," and is made to feel unspecified guilt over an unnamed crime—and the author, remarkably, draws our attention on the first page not to Michael's color but to the harelip which so hampers his speech that he is barely articulate. Of course, everything in K's circumstances insists that he isn't white. Coetzee's silence and apparent color-blindness, Kelly Hewson has argued, immediately betokens a refusal to label him in any way—black, white, or colored—because that is precisely what the dehumanizing classifications of apartheid do, but more important than this is K's representation of something so elemental and irreducible that it is beyond formulation in any of the existing historical codes: he is chthonic man, outside of language and history, as inarticulate as the seeds, plants, and humus of the earth cycle into which he is locked. Equally important, K is allowed only a minimal articulacy precisely because he is black and because it is dangerous for a white author, a composer of self-conscious fictions from the enemy camp, to presume to speak for him: a dilemma which Coetzee resolves in a different way in his most recent and startling novel, Foe (1986).

Commenting on Gordimer's achievements in the mode of critical realism, Coetzee has said, "I would like to think that today the novel is after bigger game" and, during the composition of Michael K, expressed feelings of dissatisfaction with the limitations of traditional form. In Foe, he does away with conventional realism almost altogether, dismantling his own fictions and stripping his fictional practice to the bone. Foe is simultaneously a retelling of the Robinson Crusoe fable, an allegory of South Africa's racial dilemmas, and a meditation on the art of fiction. In this version of the "Cruso" story the hero is a sullen boor without energy, imagination, or desire. Susan Barton, another shipwrecked voyager who is washed up on his island and into his dull celibate existence, is amazed that he has kept no journal of his island life—"Nothing I have forgotten is worth remembering"—and has frittered away his time building, with Friday's help, stone terraces for the planting of nonexistent seeds. Reluctantly rescued, Cruso dies at sea a few days from Bristol, and Susan takes his story and his black servant to one Mr. Foe (the novelist Daniel Defoe). At his quarters she slips into his bed and, in the fashion of the Muse, begets upon him the tale which he later pours forth as "Robinson Crusoe."

Through all this, Friday remains mute (his tongue was cut out, either by slavers or Cruso himself) and all attempts at communication with him come to nothing, principally because they are founded—and therefore founder—on erroneous European cultural assumptions. When Friday plays his flute, Susan can make nothing of the repetitive six-note melody of his African scales, and when she teaches him to write, can make no sense of what he puts to paper. The attempt is abandoned and it is only in the surreal last scene of the book, when a visitor from the future encounters the wraiths of Defoe, Susan, and Friday, that the black slave's mouth is prised open and from it issues "a slow stream, without breath, without interruption … it runs northward and southward to the ends of the earth." As Michael K's harelip is correctable and articulation restorable, so Friday's dumbness, a culturally enforced rather than a physical condition, is remediable. But we do not hear, because Coetzee does not and cannot know, what Friday says. Friday, if he could speak, would speak only in the colonial language of Cruso; and Coetzee, who can speak, is no longer prepared to speak for him, thus abandoning the token narrative and psychological realism of Michael K. Instead, as Helen Tiffin has cogently argued, he has demonstrated the oppressive structures—in this case, colonial narratives—that render blacks voiceless. Coetzee dramatizes the complicity of colonial settler narratives with exploitative politico-historical processes: the enemy is the imperial text through which the white author shuts the racial and cultural otherness of colonized peoples into closed European myth systems and codes of interpretation. It is not (and never was) tenable for such an author to write either about or on behalf of anyone who, like the South-African black, is still denied a voice of his own. In Foe Coetzee candidly abdicates from the fictionalizing process which the earlier novels are either about or participate in. In his deepening and darkening vision, the white fiction, by virtue of its privileged existence in the context of black oppression, is always the "foe," whether its author's name is Defoe or Coetzee.

Further Reading

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Gitzen, Julian. "The Voice of History in the Novels of J. M. Coetzee." Critique XXXV, No. 1 (Fall 1993): 3-15.

Examines the "history-conscious characters" in Coetzee's novels.

Moses, Michael Valdez. "The Mark of Empire: Writing, History, and Torture in Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians" Kenyon Review XV, No. 1 (Winter 1993): 115-27.

Discusses the place of the written word within an imperial context.

Rody, Caroline. "The Mad Colonial Daughter's Revolt: J. M. Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country." South Atlantic Quarterly 93, No. 1 (Winter 1994): 157-80.

Posits the character Magda in In the Heart of the Country as an answer and solution to the problem of disempowered but colonizing white women in postcolonial literature.

Wohlpart, James. "A (Sub)Version of the Language of Power: Narrative and Narrative Technique in J. M. Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country." Critique XXXV, No. 4 (Summer 1994): 219-28.

Proposes a reading of In the Heart of the Country that "engages and subverts the traditional uses of language that encode the ideology of power."


Wood, Philip R. "Aporias of the Postcolonial Subject: Correspondence with J. M. Coetzee." South Atlantic Quarterly 93, No. 1 (Winter 1994): 181-95.

Contains excerpts from a written interview carried on between the author and Coetzee.

G. Scott Bishop (essay date Winter 1990)

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SOURCE: "J. M. Coetzee's Foe: A Culmination and a Solution to a Problem of White Identity," in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 54-7.

[In the following essay, Bishop questions the veracity of the authorial voice in postcolonial literature written in English and pinpoints Foe as a successful example of this questioning in a textual context.]

Ngugi wa Thiong'o, in "The Language of African Literature," argues that African children should be taught African literature in their own African languages to preserve the cultural identity that colonization sought to destroy. A paradoxically similar assertion can be made for students of English literature. If by studying English literature we are studying our cultural identity, then we must also read postcolonial literature written in English. As Michel Foucault, Edward Said, and many feminists including Nina Auerbach, Margaret Homans, Sandra Gilbert, and Susan Gubar have shown, our cultural identity has resulted in our seeing the non-Western, nonwhite, nonmale, non-Christian, non-English-speaking world as other, as deviant. The Western, white Christian world, so confident of its identity, has imposed itself on the world of others, and from that world a new English-language literature is emerging. In contrast to Ngugi's concern that the colonial mind, through the literature of the colonizers, is being "exposed to images of his world as mirrored in the written languages of his colonizers," the colonizer is now, in his or her own language, being exposed to images of the usurper and the usurped world as mirrored in the literature of the colonized, the oppressed. Postcolonial literature shows us the post-colonial world's "way of looking at the world at its place in the making of that world." If it is not our moral duty, it is at least our duty as students of English literature to study postcolonial literature.

J. M. Coetzee's novels offer the privileged, predominantly white world an illuminating if not disconcerting picture of the political and moral entanglements in the complex postcolonial world. Coetzee is an Afrikaner born in Cape Town in 1940. He was educated in South Africa and the United States and is now a professor at the University of Cape Town. He has written five novels: Dusklands (1974), In the Heart of the Country (1977), Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), The Life and Times of Michael K (1983), and Foe (1986). He has won a number of prestigious awards including South Africa's premier literary honor, the CAN prize, as well as the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Booker McConnell Prize.

Coetzee's success is significant, I think, because it can be attributed to our ability, as members of the privileged world, to identify more readily with Coetzee, who is an Afrikaner, a descendant of colonizers, than with black Africans who are writing and publishing alongside Coetzee. Besides his political sympathy for blacks, his work reflects a concern for the whites' precarious position at the top of the social order. In the 9 March 1986 New York Times Magazine Coetzee's article "Tales of Afrikaners" appeared. In it he said, "Many Afrikaners, more moderate than their stereotype, still don't understand that they live on a lip of a volcano." That volcano encompasses South Africa's political realities.

These political realities, which necessarily mediate the conscious voice of any writer in South Africa, direct Coetzee's voice, a voice in conflict with itself. Coetzee reveals the power of language as a political tool, but at the same time he questions the validity of that power. He tells the story of oppression without pretending to speak for the oppressed. As a white man, an Afrikaner, he illustrates and questions his own voice as spokesman for the oppressed. Coetzee's doctoral dissertation, "The English Fiction of Samuel Beckett: An Essay in Stylistic Analysis," explores why Beckett gave up English to write in French. During Coetzee's analysis of Watt he says:

I began this excursus by asking why it is that language is pushed to the foreground in Watt. It now seems clear that when all is called into doubt no assertion can be made; yet the process of doubt, uttered by the doubter, remains on the page. We read, so to speak, a sequence of sentences that have been scored through: they form no statement because they have been cancelled, yet we read them all the same.

I think this Derridian idea of erasure, this process of pushing language to the forefront to record thoughts in "sentences which have been scored through," is an important aspect of Coetzee's own fiction.

Three of Coetzee's novels, Life and Times of Michael K and especially In the Heart of the Country and Foe, in form and content destabilize the reader's sense that any particular telling of events can be trusted. As Denis Donoghue said of Coetzee's books. "There is a certain fictive haze between the events and their local reference." Donoghue argues that it is the "fictive haze" which gives Coetzee's novels "a suggestion of ancestral lore and balladry." As I see it, the "haze" is accomplished through plot and language, but increasingly by a displacement of authorial voice.

All three of the novels to some degree are presented as compilations of texts, letters, and diaries, which tell both a story and the story of that story. The reader is at times forced to read the book as a series of documents which reveal their own credible or incredible stories. In such cases the voice presented in the documents usurps the authorial voice, which becomes little more than that of an editor. The authorial voice is displaced into an abyss. It is as if we were standing on the lip of the volcano listening to the detached voices echoing out of darkness.

Besides the critical self-canceling voice, there is also an aspect of Coetzee's voice that agrees with Derrida's contention that the tradition around which Western thought has had "to organize itself" is that the "order of the signified is never contemporary, is at best subtly discrepant inverse or parallel—discrepant by the time of a breath—from the order of the signifier." Especially in his white female characters, the discrepancy between the signifier, or the Dasein—the Heideggerian notion of particular human existence, the concept of the self—and the signified, the actual self, is an unnerving and unresolved issue. Linguistically, the speaker whose language is the language of oppression is as shackled to the system of oppression as is the oppressed. The displacement of authorial voice is logically tied to this self-alienated speaker and is emotionally tied to what Donoghue expresses when he asserts that "the novels seem to say … that there was a time, in South Africa and elsewhere, when life was agreeable, a matter of local customs and drift of seasons, the productive earth, the beginning and the end." Within that sense of the past there is a sense of longing for a time like that to be restored, and restored for those who no longer wish to be identified as oppressors but who wish to have a tenable identity in a country which is their only home.

I see Magda from In the Heart of the Country and Michael from Life and Times of Michael K as prototypes for Susan Barton and Friday in Coetzee's most recent novel, Foe. In both cases the movement from the earlier to the later personage is toward a character shaped for a more clearly political reason. Susan is a far less sympathetic figure than Magda. Magda is mad not only from loneliness and alienation, but also from her philosophic understanding of her predicament. Magda stands at her window looking out as one of the servants crosses the yard at dusk.

If I am an emblem then I am an emblem. I am incomplete, I am a being with a hole inside me. I signify something, I do not know what, I am dumb, I stare out through a sheet of glass into a darkness that is complete, that lives in itself, bats, bushes, predators and all, that merely do no regard me, that is blind, that does not signify but merely is…. There is no act I know of that will liberate me into the world.

Susan has many of the same problems that Magda has. Besides being, like Magda, an unwitting author in a language which for various reasons she does not trust, Susan also believes, as Magda does, that she should be able to communicate across the racial bar. Both women naïvely believe that women can communicate with blacks more easily than white men can because blacks are more closely related to nature than white men. Blacks are members of that world that "merely is." Susan and Magda's misunderstanding is symptomatic of their whole problem. They have preconceived notions of what blacks are like at the same time that they do not understand their own roles as oppressors. Susan differs from Magda, however, because she is saner and therefore more competent to change her political circumstances. However, she lacks Magda's philosophic insight. Susan tries to free Friday by hanging a written proclamation signed with Cruso's name in her hand around Friday's neck. She is bewildered to find that the proclamation only opens Friday to those who would get the document, and thus Friday. Her naïveté is carried further to her misunderstanding about the truth of stories. Susan truly believes and continues to believe that Daniel Foe, because of his identity as an author, can write stories that tell the truth about experience, that give experience "substance." In a letter to Foe she pleads with him to write the story of the island.

When I reflect on my story I seem to exist only as the one who came, the one who witnessed, the one who longed to be gone: a being without substance, a ghost beside the true body of Cruso. The island was Cruso's (yet by what right? By the law of the islands)…. Return me to my substance Mr. Foe: that is my entreaty. For though my story gives the truth, it doesn't give the substance of the truth.

In short, Susan has a naïve belief that there is a rightful authority, someone who knows the Truth. She is like the Afrikaners Coetzee mentions who "still don't know that they live on the lip of a volcano." She believes there is someone who represents authority just by nature of his identity, and she does not see the volatile silence that authority so poorly speaks for and to.

Whereas Susan is a more moderate figure than her prototype, Magda, Friday is a more extreme version of Michael. The obvious connection between Michael and Friday is clear. Although we do not know if Michael is black, we do know that he is nonwhite. Friday is black. Michael's harelip symbolizes his crippled political voice. Friday's tongue has been cut out by slave traders or by Cruso; we do not know by whom. Just as Friday's physical impairment is more extreme (is indeed horrific), so is Friday, as a symbol of oppression. more extreme than Michael. Michael's bane is the regulations that control his rights to travel and have residence in the country, and those regulations come to him in the form of paperwork, permits, bureaucratic paraphernalia designed to control his life. Friday's freedom is completely entrenched in his inability to use language, and he is impotent against any language. Whereas we learn very little about Michael despite his being the central figure in Life and Times of Michael K, we learn almost nothing about Friday. He is reduced to the barest frame of a man. We know nothing of his past or of his thoughts. He is an unmediated being, and his story is an unmediated story. Still, both Michael and Friday become not only the subject of the interpretation (and therefore the subject of the authority) of other characters in the books, but also the subject of the reader's interpretation. Coetzee puts us, as readers, in the very position he finds so questionable. We see Michael's and Friday's presence as literary and political issues, and we try to interpret the meaning of them as characters; but Coetzee has made Michael and especially Friday resistant to interpretation. That is their nature as figures in the novels: they suggest that the reader should interpret, but they thwart any interpretation. They remain steadfastly silent.

The movement of the characters from their prototypes to their culmination in Susan and Friday shows that Coetzee's concern for political identity becomes increasingly evident throughout the course of his work. Issues of personal identity and political power have been increasingly expressed in issues of language. Susan, Friday, and Foe are a culmination of Coetzee's attempt to tell a story without asserting himself in the novel. He displaces authorial voice for reasons simultaneously political and moral. Recognizing language as the tool of oppression it can be, Coetzee dissipates the voice which could be mistakenly identified as authority. Having dissipated the voice, he calls into question the authority it is mistaken for, and by that very act he suggests the possibility of revolution and the subsequent reestablishment of a valid moral system.

Using the torture room as a metaphor for South Africa, Coetzee says of postrevolutionary South Africa that in such a society

… it will once again be meaningful for the gaze of the author, the gaze of authority and authoritative judgment, to turn upon scenes of torture. When the choice is no longer limited to either looking on in horrified fascination as the blows fall or turning one's eyes away, then the novel can once again take as its province the whole of life.

Coetzee, as a writer, is morally compelled to speak at the same time that he is aware of the suspect nature of representation, authorial voice, and even language. The figures of Magda and Susan deal most directly with the divided identity of the oppressor and the paradoxical nature of authorship. The figures of Michael and Friday illustrate the effectiveness of language as a political tool and deal with the nature of the blacks' unspoken and unmediated story. Foe finally presses the novel to unprecedented limits as it deals with the silence of the blacks' story, the identity of the oppressor, the questionable political power of language, and the nature of authorship and authority. Because the authorial voice has been so thoroughly displaced, Coetzee seems to be trying and self-consciously failing to assert the idea that Roland Barthes discusses in "The Death of the Author": "It is language that speaks, not the author; to write is to read, through preliminary impersonality—which we can at no moment identify with the realistic novelist's castrating 'objectivity'—that point where not 'I' but language, performs." At the same time that language does "perform" so as to usurp any power Susan might have over the purpose of her writing, we find out more about Susan through the text than we do about what happened on the island. Still, even though in Foe we do not recognize Daniel Foe as the "I" of the novel. Susan trusts him as the author of Foe. Coetzee is saying that even though language does function beyond the "I," there is always an implied "I" just beneath the surface of the ink on the page, because writing is an authoritative act. In Foe Daniel Foe and Coetzee are almost the same person. Through his identity as author of Foe Coetzee has brought his own political identity into question.

Since Coetzee has displaced authorial voice and has done so in form as well as in content, we not only see that "when all is called into doubt no assertion can be made," but by reading "a sequence of sentences that have been scored through," we experience the doubt of the doubter. We are made leery of language as a tool for self-expression, because we see it as a tool of oppression. We doubt the ability of language to tell a story because we doubt if it can express identity, and if it cannot express identity, it cannot relate the experience of the speaker. Faced with the form of Foe—a compilation of documents, some within quotation marks—we begin to doubt if the book can properly be called a novel.

Left doubting author and genre, we are entrenched in doubt, and it is that experience which makes Foe so effective. It is a distinctly political novel which forces the reader into the political experience of doubting author, authorial voice, and authority. At the end of Foe, when Cruso's formal robe and wig, when the pen and paper have been handed over to Friday, one can imagine Coetzee scoring through his last words and laying his finger against his own lips. When a reader finishes Foe, she does not long for Coetzee's next novel before she wonders if in Foe Coetzee has not effectively silenced himself.

Derek Cohen (review date Fall 1992)

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SOURCE: Review of White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, in Dalhousie Review, Fall, 1992, pp. 425-27.

[In the following review, Cohen praises White Writing as a valuable addition to the study of post-colonial and post-revolutionary South African culture, although he finds in many of the essays a "rather heavy-handed solemnity of purpose."]

It is not cheering or easy to reconcile the author of some of the most exciting and wrenching fiction of recent years with the careful academic who produced this book of essays [White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa]. Certainly the essays have their value, and they supply criticisms and readings of much neglected and misread South African white writing. But they are somewhat off-puttingly and self-consciously postmodernist, larded with snazzy phrases like "poetics of blood," which sounds good, but ends up meaning what we have always known as racial theory. And yet, while he loves the sound of the new or the neo, he also is amongst the most cautious and careful writers of academic prose one is likely to find, scrupulous almost to a fault. One longs, in reading this book, for some of the vibrations and earthquakes Coetzee can set off in his fiction. His critical tact can also be questionable, as when he writes in an essay on Sarah Gertrude Millin, "It is a mistake to ask whether Millin is for or against the attitudes toward genetic inheritance that make if impossible for Barry to live a normal life with this English wife in South Africa: or at least it is a procedural error to ask the question too soon." We may be forgiven for wondering what this overprecise legalese means, and whether, in art—or life—it is ever a mistake to ask a question.

Nevertheless, despite its rather heavy-handed solemnity of purpose, the book possesses real value for those who wish to understand the culture of the white settlers of South Africa in their historical, political and cultural contexts. White Writing is Coetzee's attempt to give a context to those works of white South Africans that have shaped the white South African—English and Afrikaans—political culture. He is a storehouse of information and knowledge of the works that have shaped white thinking, and, in addition, has a rather ostentatiously capacious familiarity with the nineteenth-century European traditions which informed the sometimes too-receptive and willing white writers of South Africa. He uses his familiarity with the more recent theorists, especially the French, fairly tactfully and always usefully, and manages to supply a kind of postmodernist cast to his mostly critical-historical essays. Though, with his fascination with these writers, the book becomes rather weighty with phrases like "the Discourse of the Cape" that ends up sounding better than it means.

The flagship essay of the book, "Idleness in South Africa" is also, in some ways, the least satisfying. On the one hand it is an audacious and serious attempt to write the history of Cape colonialism around those terms which have invaded and transformed the concept of racism. On the other, and less successfully, Coetzee rather arbitrarily chooses idleness as his touchstone of cultural differentiation when, virtually by his own admission, he might as well have chosen a plethora of other criteria as frequently and characteristically deployed through the literature of his white European examplars. The essay makes the fascinating point that idleness became the identifying mark of racial inferiority of the inhabitants of the Cape, of the non-white people and the Afrikaans settlers alike. The taint of idleness became, to the white minds which constructed it, the index of the inferiority of the peoples whom the dominant culture and political authority determined to oppress. The white conception of black idleness was used to justify oppression of the Hottentots, whose perceived characteristics permeated the white way of thinking, writing about, and seeing them. The Hottentots were perceived from a white perspective as idle, smelly, incestuous, promiscuous, improvident, etc. It is Coetzee's contention that it was their perceived idleness above all that determined for the whites the difference of the Hottentots and smoothed the way to their subjugation and eventual extermination. For me, one of the problems with this interesting argument—and it is a problem one keeps encountering in the essay—is the fact that idleness, by Coetzee's own criteria and references, is merely one of the categories of debility with which the whites branded the Hottentots. Their odoriferousness, for example, or their sexual permissiveness seem to loom as largely in the argument as their idleness, and, one feels, could as convincingly have been documented and levelled against them as their propensity to lie in the sun and do nothing. What is truly fascinating about the essay is the way the author places the white war against the Hottentot people of South Africa in the context of the ferocious European war on the beggars and how notions of the South African indigenous people were imported into the language and culture of European settlers in a characteristic travesty. It is intriguing to see how the idleness of the Boers does not create the same crisis of recognition for the writers on idleness. The question of whether black idleness is prelapsarian innocence or evidence of depravity is tackled when the habit of indolence begins to be noticed amongst the Boers whose idleness is directly proportional to their use of the non-white people for their easy way of life. The crime of capitalism, both early and present, looms large in most of the essays of the book as one of the compelling sources of the evil of racism.

A major contribution to South African English cultural studies made by White Writing is the long overdue inclusion of Afrikaans writing as one of the many shaping phenomena of South African cultures of race and racism. Coetzee's essay on the Afrikaans writer, C. M. van den Heever, truly the D. H. Lawrence of South Africa, with his equally ludicrous blood consciousness, goes a long way to explaining and describing the deep vein of sentimentality in Afrikaans culture and the bond to the land as an almost preconscious feature of that culture. His essay on the outrageous racial writing of the Jewish writer Sarah Gertrude Millin establishes the literary and historical contexts for the ballyhoo that white culture was for too long willing to accept as scientific, with its roots in Zola and the Goncourts. Millin's importation of these Realist theories into the South African context engraved these notions in the granite of High Art. It may be suggested that white South Africa has never recovered.

There are interesting essays on various other themes. All are subversive and radical in the best senses of those words. And though I began with a qualification, by which I stand, the pieces that make up White Writing supply a refreshing and vigorous means of entry to South African culture.

Mike Marais (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: "'Omnipotent Fantasies' of a Solitary Self: J. M. Coetzee's 'The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee'," in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, 1993, pp. 48-65.

[In the following essay, Marais argues "that J. M. Coetzee's novella 'The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee' … suggests as much about the ethnocentricity of early South African travel writing" as does early colonial literature.]

Referring to early colonialist literature in general, Abdul JanMohammed makes the point that "Instead of being an exploration of the racial Other, such literature merely affirms its own ethnocentric assumptions, instead of actually depicting the outer limits of 'civilization', it simply codifies and preserves the structures of its own mentality". In this paper, I shall argue that J. M. Coetzee's novella "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee", which is presented as a travelogue from "the great age of exploration when the White man first made contact with the Native peoples of our interior" (emphasis added), suggests as much about the ethnocentricity of early South African travel writing. Being a profoundly metarepresentational work, it foregrounds those strategies by which Europeans represent to themselves their others. In arguing this case, I shall trace the novella's thematization of the mediation of the contact between the European self and the African other by language and the narrative systems of western culture. I shall also demonstrate the part played by the text's dislocated temporal structure in relating the consequences of this mediation to the contemporary South African reader.

When Jacobus Coetzee leaves "civilization" and ventures forth into the unsettled wilderness, he encounters a world of things, what he refers to as an "undifferentiated plenum" without polity. This world, elsewhere referred to as consisting of "interspersed plena and vacua", is depicted as a void, the antithesis of all human sign-systems. In order to comprehend this chaos of raw African matter, Jacobus Coetzee transforms it into human constructs, a transformation described as follows: "In his way Coetzee rode like a god through a world only partly named, differentiating and bringing into existence". The analogy here between colonization and divine creation ex nihilo suggests that the Africa which Jacobus Coetzee encounters and explores in the course of his expedition has been invented rather than found; instead of exploring a new world, he creates a discursive world on the base of a natural one. The linguistic terms in which this analogy is couched imply that the natural African reality is contingent and can only be rendered accessible to European minds by being settled conceptually through language. In relating the incomprehensible and inexpressible African space to European systems of order, language provides the European mind with purchase on this landscape. It follows, then, that in his account of his travels, Jacobus Coetzee does not represent Africa as much as present it for the first time and constitute it in his European reader's mind as a verbal construct, an artefact.

This act of linguistic and conceptual transformation is not just Empire's hubristic emulation of a divine feat: it forms the basis of an active scheme of mediation and settlement by other, secondary systems of social ordering. So, for example, Jacobus Coetzee, who describes himself as "a hunter, a domesticator of the wilderness, a hero of enumeration", comments on the imperial enterprise as follows:

We cannot count the wild. The wild is one because it is boundless. We can count fig-trees, we can count sheep because the orchard and the farm are bounded. The essence of orchard tree and farm sheep is number. Our commerce with the wild is a tireless enterprise of turning it into orchard and farm. When we cannot fence it and count it we reduce it to number by other means.

In this context, linguistic settlement can be seen as a covert form of colonization, the first step in a process of overt colonization aimed at containing the land, subordinating it to human will and rendering its infinitude finite by reducing it to an assortment of computable acres. Even the introduction of orchard trees and stock animals forms part of this scheme of settlement, since they constitute a means of Europeanizing the land which sustains them. Plantation is thus both an act of enclosure and an act of creation.

The African landscape, then, is perceived in terms of a scheme of social and economic use. This mode of perception is particularly evident in the following description of Jacobus Coetzee's "discovery" of the Orange River:

And so on 24 August Coetzee arrived at the Great River (Gariep, Orange). The sight which greeted him was majestic, the waters flowing broad and strong, the cliffs resounding with their roar … He saw that the banks, clothed in trees (zwartebast, kareehout), might furnish timber for all the wants of colonization … He dreamed a father-dream of rafts laden with produce sailing down to the sea and the waiting schooners.

As this mercantile reverie makes clear, the wilderness is not expressed in terms of its dasein but in terms of the human principles of profit and gain.

At stake here, though, is not simply the conceptual settlement of African territory through language and its mediation by European categories of trade and social use but the extent to which such mediation implies a certain conception of time and history. In being mediated, colonial space which is unordered in the present of observation is transformed and given a "prefigurative order", that is, it is codified in the terms of a Euro-expansionist, capitalist future. Thus it is clear in the examples cited above that for Jacobus Coetzee the future consummation of the colonial project and with it the victory of European order in Africa is always extant in the moment of observation: instead of seeing wilderness, he sees orchards; instead of a river, a channel of trade. The act of seeing, then, projects European hegemony into the future—hence Jacobus Coetzee's boast that his journey implicates the "discovered" world in history: "Every territory through which I march with my gun becomes a territory cast loose from the past and bound to the future". Upon being "bound to the future" in this way, the raw colonial matter, which is contingent and unapproachable on its own terms, becomes part of a larger pattern and process and accordingly gains significance. The colonial habit of perception evinced by Jacobus Coetzee thus narrativizes Africa and implicates it in the European plot of colonial history.

Once narrativized in this fashion, Africa becomes a term in a highly deterministic plot, since the syncopation of time which occurs with the conflation of present and future in the colonial mode of perception prospectively determines the course of history in predicating a fixed, teleological line of development. Since there can be no deviation from this narrative line, all possibility of change is eliminated and history becomes a relatively simple affair, an inexorably advancing narrative which seeks its own end, that is, its telos—the realization of imperial intention in Africa. Any colonial material which challenges this comic ending to the colonial story is consequently elided from the narrative.

Nowhere in the novella does this conception of colonial history emerge more clearly than in Jacobus Coetzee's encounter with the Khoi. Describing himself as a "tool in the hands of history", he makes it very clear that the Khoi threaten the European story in Africa with teleological disorientation and must therefore be removed from it: "If the Hottentots comprise an immense world of delight, it is an impenetrable world, impenetrable to men like men, who must either skirt it, which is to evade our mission, or clear it out of the way". African raw material which cannot be narrativized must thus be annihilated. Not having been absorbed into, and thus given significance by, the pattern of meaning formed by the European design in Africa, the murdered Khoi can be dismissed off-handedly by Jacobus Coetzee as "nonentities swept away on the tide of history". In other words, only a term in a history can be deemed an entity, a "thing that has real existence". The plot of colonial history does not only confer significance, then, but also reality; and since they are bereft of reality or mere insubstantial figments in his eyes, Jacobus Coetzee, agent of European order in Africa, can also assert of the Khoi that "They died the day I cast them out of my head".

So, in order to preserve the telos of the ideal European plot in Africa, Jacobus Coetzee resorts to prospective plotting, a process which culminates in the elision of corrosive material from the tale. The fixation with its own completion which the European plot in Africa manifests here, is foregrounded by the iterative structure of the novella. In the text, Jacobus Coetzee's travelogue is followed by an afterward in which S. J. Coetzee, a historian who is presented as a twentieth-century descendant of Jacobus Coetzee, repeats his ancestor's actions by effacing all rival views from his own account of Jacobus Coetzee's expedition:

The present work ventures to present a more complete and therefore more just view of Jacobus Coetzee. It is a work of piety but also a work of history: a work of piety toward an ancestor and one of the founders of our people, a work which offers the evidence of history to correct certain of the anti-heroic distortions that have been creeping into our conception of the great age of exploration when the White man first made contact with the native peoples of our interior.

By eliminating "anti-heroic distortions" from his record, S. J. Coetzee protects the colonial plot from dissenting histories which challenge its centricity. Where his forebear, the frontiersman, engages in prospective plotting by mapping out future events, S. J. Coetzee, the historiographer, engages in "retrospective plotting" by ordering events that have already occurred. In both cases the ordering process aestheticizes history by rejecting material which does not fall into the ideal pattern of European experience in Africa.

These exercises in retrospective and prospective plotting reduce the dialogic nature of history to a monologic story in which the subject of Empire acts upon and predicates docile colonial objects. The imperial syntax which underpins this story and which installs this binaric relation between the European self and the colonial other is laid bare in the novella by Jacobus Coetzee's following description of his allegorical journey:

I become a spherical reflecting eye moving through the wilderness and ingesting it. Destroyer of the wilderness, I move through the land cutting a devouring path from horizon to horizon. There is nothing from which my eye turns, I am all that I see".

The image of the travelling, disembodied eye and the pun on "eye" and "I" here, suggest that the collocations of subjects, verbs and objects in the text are thematically significant, and that the plot is informed by an imperial syntax in which the subject of the narrative sentences is the explorer, the journey the verb, and African matter the direct object. This imperial grammar is not only confined to the particular story of European reaction to African space which the novella recounts, but also informs a much larger process. After all, the story of Jacobus Coetzee clearly allegorizes the entire colonial project by presenting an explorer-hero as embodiment of European order on a journey of discovery which instead of "discovering" anything merely subsumes raw colonial matter into prior categories and so confirms and celebrates the ability of European cognitive structures to contain African events and objects. Since it contains the seed in which can be detected the outlines of the concluded story, the imperial syntax could be said to constitute the narrative formula which informs the entire colonial effort. If adhered to, this formula regulates colonial history by excluding mordant matter from its plot and by placing those events which it does subsume in an acceptable relation to others, thus making them part of a single, inclusive line of action which leads inexorably to the telos of European success in Africa.

J. M. Coetzee's point here seems to be that colonial representations of Africa and aestheticizations of history are dictated by this imperial grammar of narrative. The iterative structure of the novella, for example, shows that it is the basic formula to which both Jacobus and S. J. Coetzee reduce the infinite variety of Africa. Moreover, the temporal gap of two centuries with which J. M. Coetzee separates the documents of this explorer and historiographer in the novella is calculated to show that this formula has been re-enacted in various permutations over the centuries in European representations of Africa. The novella's shifting temporal perspective therefore focuses the reader's attention on the processes which have mediated these representations. Accordingly, it becomes clear that the imperial syntax and systems of language in general create their referent rather than offer direct access to it. In other words, rather than represent the actual Africa, they systematize it, constitute it in the European's mind as a verbal construct with a specular function, namely to reflect the cognitive framework of his/her own language and culture and thus affirm his/her experience of that culture.

In producing Africa and its indigenous population as Europe's other, the imperial narrative sentence thus enables Europe to imagine itself into being, that is, to secure its own representation in its communal consciousness. This self-constituting function of narrative strategies of representation is parodied throughout the novella, the putative documents of which construct their assumed readers as Europeans. While ostensibly a travelogue from the "great age of exploration", Jacobus Coetzee's account for instance, presupposes the inscription of an encounter between European and African cultures intended for, in Mary Louise Pratt's terms, the "domestic audience of imperialism". Indeed, by opening with a description of the differences between Khoi and colonial societies, it appeals to the reader to align him/herself with the subject of the enunciation: "The one gulf that divides us from the Hottentots is our Christianity. We are Christians, a folk with a destiny. They become Christians too, but their Christianity is an empty word" (emphasis added). While othering the Khoi, this description valorizes the identity contained in the subject position which it inscribes, namely white, European. In this way the text engages the reader, the "domestic subject of Empire", in a ritual of ideological recognition through which his/her apprehension of European superiority and African inferiority is sustained and reinforced.

Although S. J. Coetzee's historical document serves a similar ideological function, its construction of its reader suggests that the European colonialist's conception of selfhood has changed slightly in the two centuries which separate this document from that of Jacobus Coetzee. So while the reader is, in Louis Althusser's sense of the word, "hailed" by the text and created as a subject in the references to the land that "we had inherited" (emphasis added), "our early history" (emphasis added), and our people" as opposed to "the native peoples of our interior" (emphasis added), the identity implicit in the subject position here is not simply white European but, more specifically, white republican Afrikaner. In this regard it is significant that the Afterword is presented as a series of lectures delivered by S. J. Coetzee between 1934 and 1948 and first published in 1951—dates which coincide with that period of Afrikaner nationalism which culminated in the National Party's accession to power in 1948. The suggestion in this parody of foundational historiographical texts is that European colonizers are in the process of imagining themselves as citizens of a southern African republic, in other words, Europe now conceives of itself as being indigenous. At the same time, however, tangled constructions like "the native peoples of our interior" (emphasis added) expose the ironies inherent in this attempt at naturalizing colonial relations and racial hierarchy by insinuating that the "Afrikaner" has possessed the southern African interior by dispossessing the true "natives", and that s/he, even while establishing a purportedly independent South African society and culture, still retains and relies on European-based assumptions of white supremacy, power relations and strategies of self-invention.

Ultimately, then, S. J. Coetzee's document implies that, rather than collapsing during the Afrikaner's attempt to found a decolonized culture and conception of selfhood, the imperial syntax informs this attempt at negotiating new modes of self-understanding and therefore still mediates the dynamics of self-representation in the supposedly post-colonial society. The Afrikaner founding vision thus produces no new self. On the contrary, the colonialist's self-image is bolstered by S. J. Coetzee's aestheticization of history, his invention of a national narrative of origin for the nascent Afrikaner nation. As the repeated appeals to a common language, past, and race in this document show, the reader is invited to become, through identification with the unified subject of the enunciation, part of a coherent narrative which is self-sustaining to the extent that it makes the individual part of some larger set of projects which includes the past and the future. The telos which inscribes this coherent and continuous subjectivity, however, is merely a minor variant of the European expansionist telos of colonial history as a whole.


In focusing on self-sustaining aestheticizations of south African history and on the way in which they routinely re-enact the narcissistic narrative sentence, J. M. Coetzee directs his reader to the repression of another aesthetic, one governed by another syntax. The structural juxtaposition of Jacobus Coetzee's document with that of S. J. Coetzee, for instance, foregrounds the historiographer's elision of the explorer's "sojourn" with the Khoi from his account of the expedition. Upon closer examination, the reader is able to see that S. J. Coetzee's dismissal of this episode as an "historical irrelevance" can be ascribed to the fact that it constitutes a momentary departure from the grammar which informs the rest of Jacobus Coetzee's travelogue. As has already been established, Jacobus Coetzee, the putative author and hero of his account, is for the most part the subject and his journey the verb of the imperial sentences which form the document. That section of the report which recounts his "sojourn" with the Khoi, however, constitutes a hiatus in which the journey is suspended and the subject loses control over the world of objects which surrounds it and which it hopes to order. Ignored by both the villagers and his servants, Jacobus Coetzee spends his time convalescing from illness in a hut reserved for menstruating women. This passive position inverts the highly active, heroic role he assumes in the various scenarios he imagines upon first meeting the Khoi:

Tranquilly I traced in my heart the forking paths of the endless inner adventure: the order to follow, the inner debate (resist? submit?), underlings rolling their eyeballs, words of moderation, calm, swift march, the hidden defile, the encampment, the graybeard chieftain, the curious throng, words of greeting, firm tones, Peace! Tobacco!, demonstration of firearms, murmurs of awe, gifts, the vengeful wizard, the feast, glut, nightfall, murder foiled, dawn, farewell, trundling wheels.

This scenario and the ones which follow it are easily recognizable as standard variations on the formulaic plot which characterizes frontier writing, a plot in which the imperial syntax clearly manifests itself. Jacobus Coetzee thus positions himself in relation to the Khoi according to expectations created by European colonial discourse. In this regard it is significant that the entire encounter between explorer and native is described in aesthetic rather than existential terms, a description which constructs a reflexive analogy between the colonial encounter and the literary encounter of reader and text: just as the reader's approach to the text is conditioned by the codes and conventions of the literary intertext, so too is the colonizer's contact with the native conditioned by the corpus of colonial discourse. Given this mediation, no direct contact takes place when Jacobus Coetzee meets the Great Namaqua. Instead of the actual Khoi, he encounters the verbal construct constituted in his mind by colonial discourse, a construct which occludes them. It is therefore quite obvious that he expects his meeting with the Khoi to ritualistically re-enact the classic plot of European expansionism.

In marked contrast to this expectation, however, Jacobus Coetzee is reduced by this encounter to a figure of endurance rather than one of achievement, a process which starts when the Khoi do not adopt the position of submissive colonial objects. Rather than confirming the expectations contained in the various interaction he imagines, they act contrarily to them and therefore undermine them. Thus, when he addresses the Namaqua "as befitted negotiations with possibly unfriendly powers", they merely become bored and drift "out of [his] firm but friendly line of vision"; when he anticipates an attack, he finds that they display "no organized antagonism"; when he thinks that they probably regard him as a god and pictures himself as "an equestrian statue", he finds that they call him "Long-Nose"; and, instead of the "greybeard chieftain" of his expectations, he finds that the Khoi have "only perfunctory reverence for authority" and can only show him a dying man quite incapable of according him the ceremonious welcome that he expects. Finally, the epic flight which he envisages in one of his scenarios, becomes an abject scramble in which he is debased to a caricature of the intrepid "tamer of the wild" that he imagines himself to be: "Held in position by Klawer I evacuated myself heroically over the tailgate". The incongruous use of the adverb "heroically" in this context advertises Jacobus Coetzee's transformation from active agency and hero of the report to passive nonentity.

This disjunction between the treatment he expects from the Khoi and that which he actually receives is a measure of the extent to which Jacobus Coetzee's encounter with the Khoi differs from the ideal plot of European success in Africa, from the ritualistic celebration of the victory of western order over African space. Instead of confirming the heroic themes that it sets out to affirm, his journey threatens the colonial plot with teleological disorientation. Not, surprisingly, then, S. J. Pretorious, despite the fact that Jacobus Coetzee's eventual annihilation of the Khoi village reasserts the imperial syntax and thus constitutes a return to the original design of European intentions in Africa, deems it necessary not only to exorcize this evidence of radical discontinuity in the coherent colonial plot, but to rewrite the record in such a way that it reproduces the imperial syntax:

On the fifth [day] he emerged upon a flat and grassy plain, the land of the Great Namaqua. He parleyed with their leaders, assuring them that his only intention was to hunt elephants and reminding them that he came under the protection of the Governor. Pacified by this intelligence they allowed him to pass.

Thus rewritten, this episode becomes syntactically identical to the formulaic plot which generates Jacobus Coetzee's expectations in his encounter with the Khoi. So, through the historian's intervention and artifice, that which did not match and promote the ideal plot in fact, is made to do so in fiction.

Although the original pattern of the colonial narrative is reasserted following Jacobus Coetzee's encounter with the Khoi, this momentary lapse from its imperial syntax is enough to foreground a dissonance between the contingent space of the African wilderness and the imported schema of European order. For a moment, the resistance to reification of the Khoi, whom Jacobus Coetzee refers to as being "representative of that out there", transforms the plot of history from one that represents Africa as a realm of imperial success to one that speaks of an-other Africa which blocks artificial, European designs and which denaturalizes the seemingly seamless connection between the verbal construct "Africa" constituted by colonial discourse and its referent. The consequence of this frustration of European intention is that the appearance of totality produced by the system of language and the teleology of colonial history disintegrates, discovering that which has been misrepresented and repressed, namely the unconfined world in which the Khoi live. Jacobus Coetzee describes this complex plural reality as "an immense world of delight" without polity: "What evidence was there, indeed, that they had a way of life of any coherence? I had lived in their midst and I had seen no government, no laws, no religion, no arts". It is only after he fails to comprehend them narratively, fails to "find a place for them in [his] history", that Jacobus Coetzee is able to see and describe the Namaqua in this way. Since it is unmediated by the schemes of European order, this is his first contact with the actual Khoi and thus his first real discovery.

The consequence of discovering this world of unconfined Dionysian flux is the exposure of the artificiality of the Apollonian forms of order which repress and seek to contain it. Once demystified in this way, the European plot in Africa collapses. And since Jacobus Coetzee's sense of self depends on the subject position which he occupies in this plot, its failure reduces him to a "pallid symbol", an unrealized nonentity. Ultimately, then, the Khoi's passive resistance to being reduced to malleable objects in a foreign plot decentres the subject of the imperial narrative sentence, discovering it as a construction of a textualized world.

Thus denarrativized, the explorer who requires a temporal world for the realization of his dreams of empire, one in which he can set teloi and commit himself to a certain continuity over time, is forced to occupy a wholly uncharacteristic, passive and inert position in a seemingly timeless realm completely antithetical to western conceptions of selfhood and history. In the context of such temporal deprivation, Jacobus Coetzee's desperate longing to be killed by the Khoi could be read as a desire for renarrativization. Thus he indulges in the following fantasies in which he is a term in a Khoi history:

I would gladly have expired in battle, stabbed to the heart, surrounded by mounds of fallen foes. I would have acceded to dying of fevers, wasted in body but on fire to the end with omnipotent fantasies. I might even have consented to die at the sacrificial stake … I might, yes, I might have enjoyed it, I might have entered into the spirit of the thing, given myself to the ritual, become the sacrifice, and died with a feeling of having belonged to a satisfying aesthetic whole, if feelings are any longer possible at the end of such aesthetic wholes as these.

Apart from pointing to the irony of having a character in a narrative seek narrativization, the self-reflexive references in this passage indicate that a coherent identity is rooted in narrative continuity. Thus Jacobus Coetzee comes to see that that which he initially feared, namely that the Khoi "have a history in which [he will] be a term", is far preferable to being treated as a mere "irrelevance". His desire to be taken "more seriously" is therefore underpinned by the hope that, as a term in their history, he would recuperate a sense of identity.

Since such an interpolation in a Khoi "history" would lead to a radical restructuring of his identity, Jacobus Coetzee's apparent willingness to submit to an alterior syntax initially suggests a readiness to rethink old imperial forms. Indeed, his fantasies of narrativization by the Khoi initially seem to involve a reversal of roles in which the Khoi adopt the subject position and reduce him to an object of antagonistic verbs in their plot of history. Ultimately, though, these "omnipotent fantasies" point to a desire to reassert the subject-object cognition of the imperial syntax. In this regard, it is significant that Jacobus Coetzee is the author and therefore actual subject of what he presents as Khoi plots. Thus, although he depicts the Khoi as subjects who reduce him to an object, the role he constructs for them in these narratives eventually affirms rather than challenges his culturally-conferred sense of self. The reason for this, of course, is that he represents not the actual Khoi, but reproduces their image in colonial discourse. This emerges when it is considered that their projection in these fantasies of an alternative plot is no different from that in the various scenarios he imagines upon first meeting them. In other words, it is the standard representation of the colonial native as barbarous other that occurs in frontier writing, a representation which negates the native but allows the colonizer to position himself in opposition to it and thus affirm his experience of his own culture, his sense of European superiority. Ultimately, then, that which is presented as a Khoi history proves to be just another aestheticization of Africa from the European point of view.

Since the Khoi eventually oust rather than narrativize him, it goes without saying that the content of Jacobus Coetzee's omnipotent fantasies is ironic. Furthermore, these fantasies are also ironic in shape for, as Jacobus Coetzee realizes, the Khoi live in a world to which a narrative form is entirely inappropriate: "To these people to whom life was nothing but a sequence of accidents had I not been simply another accident?" This world does not recognize the oppositions, such as that between subject and object, from which history erects itself, and therefore treats European man seeking his telos as an irrelevance. The Khoi's resistance to Jacobus Coetzee's imperial endeavours is therefore not premised on adopting an oppositional position, as his omnipotent fantasies suggest. The corollary is that they do not see him as an object and this, in turn, suggests that their structures of perception are informed by an alterior grammar, one entirely different to the imperial syntax. In this regard, J. M. Coetzee's description of a middle-voice practice which situates itself between the active and the passive voice is of interest. According to Coetzee, middle-voice practice does not construct the sharp divisions "between subject and verb, verb and object, subject and object" that transitive and active voice syntax does. The importance of this difference is that the blurring of these divisions prevents the self from assuming the subject position necessary to predicate the other. This distinction between a syntax based on a clearly differentiated subject and object and one based on their interconnectedness also emerges in the novella when Jacobus Coetzee, in an attempt to define himself in opposition to the Khoi, does so by singing the following ditty: "Hottentot, Hottentot, / I am not a Hottentot". He tells his reader that he chooses Dutch as the medium for this exercise in self-affirmation because "It was neater in Dutch than in Nama, which still lived in the flowering-time of inflexion". Since it erects divisions between subject verb and object, the syntactical structure of the European language accommodates notions of cultural superiority and inferiority more readily than does the highly inflected structure of Nama.

If Jacobus Coetzee's encounter with a syntax and structure of perception appropriate to Africa, such as that of the Namaqua, were to culminate in a rejection of the imperial syntax, Africa would become a site of regeneration; instead of being filled with the recognizable forms of European understanding by the European mind, it would prompt a decolonization of that mind, a restructuring of its cognitive character and so induce a new epistemology, a new way of seeing, understanding and imagining. Following his expulsion by the Khoi, it at first seems that Jacobus Coetzee will accept the rhetorical challenge of devising an alterior syntax. Alone in an open, limitless world vastly disproportionate to himself, he realizes that his self is fading; "In a life without rules I could explode to the four corners of the universe". Indeed, his stance in relation to colonial matter indicates that the divisions between subject, verb and object are collapsing and that he is dissolving into the wilderness:

I was alone … Here I was, free to initiate myself into the desert. I yodelled, I growled, I hissed, I roared, I screamed, I clucked, I whistled …

However, the very existence of his travelogue, in presupposing his agoraphobic retreat to European society and re affirmation of its social orders, indicates that rather than

set[ting] out down a new path [and] implicat[ing] [him]self in a new life … the life of the white Bushman that had been hinting itself to [him],

he suffers a failure of the imagination. So while the metafictional play at this stage of this novella suggests that Jacobus Coetzee, in a world "without rules", a tabula rasa, becomes an author of sorts: "I played [my games] against an indifferent universe, inventing rules as I went", the nature of these "games" and "rules" shows that rather than being an auctor, in the sense of an originator who devises a new aesthetic and identity, he is an author in the demystified post-structuralist sense, one whose choice is dictated by the closures of the form of narrative history and who is consequently not a creator but a function of discourse. This becomes apparent when he itemizes as "games" four possible endings for the plot of his journey of discovery. It soon becomes clear that these "games" are all designed to restore his sense of identity by once again making him part of a narrative and therefore enabling him, in his own words, "to translate [him]self soberly across the told tale". As he puts it, "In each game the challenge was to undergo the history and victory was mine if I survived it".

The content of the third section of Jacobus Coetzee's narrative, that is, the genocide of the Namaqua tribe, indicates that he eventually chooses the second of the four possible endings to the plot of his journey, namely "to call up an expeditionary force and return in triumph to punish [his] depredators and recover [his] property". Furthermore, the success of this endeavour to recuperate his self narratively is suggested by the stylistic features of this section. Grammatically speaking, the difference between it and the previous section dealing with his "sojourn" with the Namaqua could hardly be more marked. While his presence as an agent in the first section is virtually effaced and he becomes a receptor rather than initiator in a static account in which passive constructions abound, in the second he constructs himself as the hero of an epic account in which he reduces the Khoi to the object of aggressive verbs. Indeed, the following citation invites the reader to read the genocide of the Khoi tribe as an epic battle in which Jacobus Coetzee is the hero: "WE DESCENDED on their camp at dawn, the hour recommended by the classic writers on warfare". This section thus clearly constitutes a syntactical transformation of the previous one, it rewrites Jacobus Coetzee's encounter with the Namaqua according to the dictates of the imperial syntax. In so doing, it reconstitutes him as a subject and eliminates all "anti-heroic distortions" from the account.

This reassertion of the imperial idiom obviously means that Africa's potential for becoming a site of regeneration which could stimulate the dialogic ideal of a re-negotiation of western conceptions of culture and identity is repressed by the monologic colonial plot. Accordingly, Africa remains a site of conquest and the critical historical juncture at which its unconfined and complex plural reality presents itself is relegated to a minor episode in the eventual success of European intention. It is, of course, precisely through this occlusion of the actual Khoi and construction of them as his barbarous other, that the imperial syntax reconstitutes Jacobus Coetzee as a subject. As the following passage makes clear, the image of the Khoi as a fiendish, indigenous horde enables him to re-imagine his self into being:

Through [the Khois'] death I, who after they had expelled me had wandered the desert like a pallid symbol, again asserted my reality. No more than any other man do I enjoy killing; but I have taken it upon myself to be the one to pull the trigger, performing this sacrifice for myself and my countrymen, who exist, and committing upon the dark folk the murders we have all wished. (emphasis added)

The fact that Jacobus Coetzee should ultimately account for his choice in terms of a reassertion not only of his own identity, but also that of his "countrymen" indicates that he exercized the imperially correct option. Any deviation from the predetermined plot of his journey would undermine not simply his own enterprise but the entire European plot in Africa as well. And when an old plot fails, the identity of its postulated community is lost or, in terms of Jacobus Coetzee's assertion of his reality and that of his countrymen, unrealized.


The point of the novella is not only that Jacobus Coetzee's failure of the imagination before the void of colonial space determines his identity and that of his countrymen in the present, but also that it attempts to determine that of future white South Africans since it constitutes an act of prospective plotting which strives to ensure the realization in future history of the original design of the colonial plot of history. By rehabilitating the imperial syntax, he entrenches a single, inclusive, converging action which cuts through the centuries and leads to the present. The suggestion here that Jacobus Coetzee's actions may provide the narrative germ or blueprint for the twentieth-century South African reader's times and identity and that he, in a sense, "authors" the reader challenges the latter's ontological reality. In a metaleptic reversal, the reader is confronted with the thought that s/he may be a character in the narrative of Jacobus Coetzee, a product of his "father dream" and "omnipotent fantasies".

The novella's temporal and genealogical structure contributes to this metaleptic effect. For the most part the text consists of a succession of documents purportedly written by members of the Coetzee family over a period of two centuries. The fact that these characters all share the same name does not simply signify a familial affinity, it also indicates that the corporate identity which Jacobus Coetzee restored by reinstating the colonial plot has remained stable and intact over the centuries. The name "Coetzee" thus comes to signify the white, European identity inscribed in colonial history. Indeed, Dorian Haarhof, in referring to the recurrence of this name in the text, contends that "These Coetzees constitute the family frontier lineage of white South Africa incorporating space and zone over three hundred years of colonisation". Significantly, in this regard, Jacobus Coetzee is referred to by S. J. Coetzee as "one of the founders of our people". The question which the genealogical structure of the novella poses for the white South African reader in the late twentieth century is therefore whether his/her identity forms part of the genealogical line established by Jacobus Coetzee, that is, whether s/he is a character inscribed in the plot of white conquest.

In a final metaleptic manoeuvre calculated to implicate the ever-shifting present of reading, J. M. Coetzee allows the reader to assume that the date of the Translator's Preface which frames all the other documents is also the date of publication of the novella, that is, 1974. This period in South African history was distinguished by the rise of the Black consciousness movement, a movement which, as Stephen Biko's following words show, was intensely aware of the extent to which discursive practices inform oppression: "attention has to be paid to our history if we as blacks want to aid each other in our coming into consciousness. We have to rewrite our history and produce in it the heroes that formed the core of our resistance to the white invaders". The fact that this novella, which emphasizes the importance of narrative continuity to the national plot, should ostensibly both originate and conclude in the early 1970's, a period which constituted the emergence of a threat of discontinuity to that plot, should be deemed significant. In intimating a departure from the ideal plot of colonial history, it suggests that this plot may be a truncated tale, a tale which, given its obsession with its own completion, is therefore ironic in form. Ultimately, however, the novella, in an ateleological gesture, leaves it to the reader to determine the outcome of this dislocation of the telos of the colonial plot. In so doing, it positions him/her as the author of history—his/her actions or lack thereof in the arena of history will decide whether this deviation from the original design of the European plot in Africa constitutes its ultimate perversion and collapse or whether it is simply another minor episode in the eventual success of white intention. With regard to the white South African reader, the novella thus places him/her in a position which is analogous to that of Jacobus Coetzee, that is, s/he is prompted into making a choice which will help determine the future course of history. If this parallel between Jacobus Coetzee and the white reader were to hold and s/he were to re-enact Jacobus Coetzee's failure of the imagination by rehabilitating the monologic plot of colonial history, s/he would answer the question posed by the novella's structure by becoming part of its genealogy. Like Jacobus and S. J. Coetzee, s/he would be an author (in the post-structuralist sense) engaged in the preservation of the colonial plot, an interchangeable "tool in the hands of history". And since history plays a constitutive role in the text, this authoring of history, if successful, would provide an ending for the novella, an ending which would continue its iterative structure, its seemingly endless replication and therefore validation of the imperial syntax.

Another ending, however, is possible, one to which the course of the South African national narrative over the nineteen years since 1974 has tended. In a manner of speaking, then the rest is history. Rather than being a momentary lapse in the teleological momentum of the white plot, the trends of the early 'seventies led to Africa's sustained obstruction of the apartheid State's unreal designs. So, for example, they were followed by the Soweto uprising of 1976–78 which initiated a period of low intensity guerilla warfare in South Africa in the 'seventies and 'eighties. The State's response to this period of teleological disorientation was, of course, to attempt through physical and verbal exorcism to recuperate the telos of white history. Thus, in successive states of emergency, black political organizations were banned, their leaders detained, tortured and in many cases killed. A concerted effort was made to stifle black expression in general by banning the work of black writers, by restricting their publishers, by closing down newspapers directed at a black audience, and by silencing the media in general—restricting in particular their coverage of political unrest in the black townships. In effect, then, these material realities of apartheid point to a discursive intent, that is, to delete competing stories from the coherently single plot of the national narrative.

These other tales, however, have proved inerasable and, following the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the African National Congress and Pan-Africanist Congress in 1990, the potential for a vastly different national plot has become evident. In responding to the novella's ending from the perspective of 1993, one can therefore say that white history is indeed a truncated tale, an unfulfilled design, for the present is clearly a time of interregnum in which the old plot is dying and a new one is struggling to be born. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the contours of a better and alternative tale can be detected, a failure of the imagination is still possible. After all, an interregnum is, by definition, an open period with numerous aesthetic possibilities. Confronted with a large, diverse and complex order in which competing views abound, it remains for the contemporary South African reader and his/her compatriots to originate an aesthetic which represents the multiplicity of centres in southern African experience instead of replicating yet another exclusionary scheme of cultural dominance. In other words, a truly different nationhood and identity have yet to be imagined. And that is another journey, a difficult one along which alter Africa still awaits discovery.

Mark D. Hawthorne (essay date Spring and Fall 1993)

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SOURCE: "A Storyteller without Words: J. M. Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K," in Commonwealth: Novel in English, Vol. 6, Nos. 1 and 2, Spring and Fall, 1993, pp. 121-32.

[In the following essay, Hawthorne examines the meaning of Michael K's silence in Life and Times of Michael K.]

While many critics have examined J. M. Coetzee's Foe (1986) for its intertextuality, treatment of women's issues, and use of fiction theory, few have examined his Life & Times Of Michael K. Those who have looked at this equally interesting novel have discussed Coetzee's use of myth and history or analyzed his use of starvation and his definition of the heroic or the mythic. While such studies help to clarify Coetzee's place in the development of the novel and in the development of the South African novel in particular, none has looked at what I believe is one of its central themes, the dilemma of the storyteller who distrusts the very words that he must use because social disintegration has resulted in semiotic systems that he neither understands nor, when he comprehends, accepts. In short, not dealing specifically with the making of fiction, Michael K examines some of the same kind of issues that Coetzee explored three years later in Foe.

In Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) Coetzee used straightforward first-person narration; he polished this sort of narration in Age of Iron (1990), where first-person narration takes the shape of a letter that Mrs. Curren, the narrator, writes over many months to her daughter in America. Waiting for the Barbarians lacks an immediate audience, the complexity of the narration arising from character portrayal, not narrative technique, but in Age of Iron Coetzee ironically understates the action, forcing the reader to explore the implied value systems of the mother and daughter in order to determine why Mrs. Curren includes certain events and to ask when Mrs. Curren has, indeed, been straight-forward and when she writes knowing that her words will be read by her daughter after her death. In the first two sections of Foe, Coetzee also used an epistolary technique although, as Gallagher has observed, the use of quotation marks seems to indicate a spoken voice, thus developing the writer-reader irony later implicit in Age of Iron, but Coetzee changed to third-person narration in the third section, giving the appearance of narrative simplicity that we find in Waiting for the Barbarians, a narrative simplicity sharply contrasted by the strange final section where he seems to have used interior monolog. Michael K, written between Barbarians and Foe, shares the latter's narrative complexity and may be read as a metafiction (Attwell) without weakening its "naturalistic" or "realistic" directness (Pinner).

Coetzee divides the narration between chapters told by an unspecified third-person narrator, who describes K with dispassionate, often clinical objectivity, and a middle chapter, related by an anonymous medical officer in Kenilworth, a rehabilitation camp. The K described by the narrator, while simple, seems to be functionally literate: for example, stuck by the news item on the Khamieskroon killer, he "stuck the page with the story on the refrigerator door" (emphasis mine). He figures how to keep the wheels of his cart from wobbling off the axle and knows to release water from the pump so that it will neither dry up the borehole nor reveal his presence to others. Scrupulously honest, this K apparently has no great difficulty either assessing the value of money when he shops or finding Prince Albert, the Visagie farm, or—on his final trip—the Côte d' Azur. This narration is not simplistic or mere "free indirect speech" (Dovey): it sometimes slips from third person to first person as if the distance between narrator and character were tenuous, and K's actions sometimes seem to originate from a much simpler person than the one suggested by the narrator's first-person accounts of his thinking.

In contrast, the K described by the medical officer is slow witted, maybe even seriously retarded, a mental condition physically symbolized by his hare-lip. As unable and, sometimes, unwilling to speak as Beckett's Watt, he frequently does not answer when directly addressed and consistently creates the appearance that he is an "idiot" or, at least, "a person of feeble mind who drifted by chance into a war zone and didn't have the sense to get out." Confronting a person free from the confusions forced on him by the war and desperate to fit him into his own preconceived categories, the medical officer finally abstracts K into an icon of the primitive innocent morally superior to the educated but corrupt bureaucrats who control South Africa. From the view of the medical officer, K is like the filthy, ignorant, and drunken Vercueil, who fascinates Mrs. Curren as she dies of cancer, or like Friday, whom Susan Barton believes might hold the secret of exactly what happened on the island before she arrived. In all three cases, the character who does not or cannot speak for himself most significantly influences the articulate narrator.

The structure of Michael K is strikingly similar to that of Beckett's Watt, a novel that Coetzee intimately knows as he has illustrated both through his dissertation and through several scholarly articles. In both novels, the first and last sections are narrated in third person by an unnamed narrator (who in Watt may be Sam) who shifts between external objectivity and a direct relation of the character's thinking. In both, the middle section is told in first person by a character who attempts to unlock the titular character's silence and to speak for him. In both, the titular character has a story to tell but is unable to articulate, and in both, the authors force the reader to harmonize, or at least to balance between, the character as described by the third-person and the first-person narrators.

The double focus builds a character who lacks spoken verbal skills but seems to have well-developed, or at least competent, internal verbal and mechanical skills. Even the medical officer's view of K suggests that his verbal deficiency may, indeed, be his hare-lip in that two different medical men claim that it can be corrected if he wants. Nonetheless, Coetzee forces on his readers the conflicting images of a thirty-year-old mentally deficient child in a man's body who seems to answer the confusion of modern life by ignoring it and a man mechanically competent but so distrustful of language that he inadvertently (and probably unconsciously) cultivates the appearance of a child. Further, K's thoughts, especially after his escape from Jakkalsdrif, seem to mature as he loses interest in his body, as if, contrary to usual physiological experience, he becomes more mentally alert as his body starves. Like Kafka's Hunger Artist, who might figure as a major subtext, K's freedom from the ordinary demands of the flesh sets him apart; however, K, who never starves himself with the conscious intent of the Hunger Artist, has found the food that he truly wants in the melons and pumpkins.

The narrator clinically describes the inner man; the medical officer passionately describes the outward appearance. The narrator, as it were, invents K, constructing a product that causes the reader occasional uneasiness when the distance between the two seems to fluctuate, the narrator sometimes seeming to know everything that K feels and thinks and other times seeming to know only the externals of K's actions. In contrast, the medical officer—and the reader who learns with him—discovers K, a shocking process that disrupts any formulate that he/she might have generated as ways of coming to terms with K and finally tries to turn him into an allegory of the unattainable in modern life. In the final part of Michael K, Coetzee brings the reader, who has already been shocked by the abrupt transition from one view point to the other, back to the third-person narration, but the medical officer's interpretation of K colors whatever the reader might think of the character. While putting K in the larger framework of social disorder, the return to the narrator's voice again shocks the reader. Now the medical officer's conclusions seem facile, a depersonalization that inadvertently obscures the real K behind his intellectually satisfying abstractions. To abstract K either as "less a human being than a spirit of ecological endurance" or as an emblem of "a poor working-man's mind and soul" seems to limit him; the attempt, like that of the medical officer, is to make him fit into a rational scheme that disregards his humanity.

In the first part of the narrator's account K is fully defined by his mother and his schooling at Huis Norenius. At Huis Norenius, the "godforsaken institution" that he thinks of as his father, he learned to be a gardener, to follow rules, and silently to endure hunger. Before his mother's death, he had someone to tell him what to do. Anna decides to go to Prince Albert and tells him to quit his job although he makes the cart, talks his mother into moving into the Buhrmann's apartment, and finally decides to leave Cape Town when the permits do not arrive.

After his mother's death, however, he becomes inarticulate, unable to understand the "code" in the language of the people at the hospital; he neither understands euphemisms for death nor knows how to act or speak when there is no familial authority to command his actions. The death of Anna is to K what the diagnosis of cancer is to Mrs. Curren in Age of Iron: in each case, the force that causes or motivates change in the main character comes outside, fully beyond the character's control. Suddenly K has no one to think for him but does not know how to respond to direct questions. For example, when one nurse gives him the parcels containing the ashes of his mother and some clothes and toiletries, he challenges her with "how do I know?" and receiving no answer opens the larger parcel and asks why they gave him the clothes. The nurse's lack of any direct answer confuses him.

While he takes his mother's ashes to Prince Albert, whoever meets him tries to limit him or to regulate him to a socially accepted niche by labeling him. K consistently refuses to fit into these limiting labels. When arrested after arriving in Prince Albert, he has no paper—in other words, no labels—and is too sick to speak to the police; therefore, the police creates labels for him: "Michael Visagie—CM—40—NFA—Unemployed," a mixture of half-truths and suppositions that seem to satisfy their need for clearly defined labels. Later, the medical officer, at first a man who needs to force his experiences into clear categories to understand them, also tries to reduce K to a series of labels:

There is a new patient in the ward, a little old man who collapsed during physical training and was brought in with a very low respiration and heartbeat. There is every evidence of prolonged malnutrition: cracks in his skin, sores on his hands and feet, bleeding gums. His joints protrude, he weighs less then forty kilos.

As the medical officer later realizes, these observations do little except fit K's physical appearance into categories that preclude his having to face with what K might represent. Even after he begins to discard such labels, he refuses to accept that the patient is named "Michael," not "Michaels," a form of the name that lets the medical officer speak about K while maintaining distance while still ignoring his actual name.

In the first and last chapters K repeatedly questions the meanings of labels and, by his actions, rejects them. Though simple, he deconstructs the semiotic systems of an oppressive society: by not understanding how the power elite uses words, he cuts through the pretenses of that world with simple-minded directness. For example, in describing K's exchange with the soldier who steals the purses that contain Anna's savings, the narrator relates the incident by first showing K's initial confusion:

K licked his lips. "That's not my money," he said thickly. "That's my mother's money, that she worked for." It was not true: his mother was dead, she had no need for money. Nevertheless. There was a silence. "What do you think the war is for?" K said. "For taking other people's money?"

"What do you think the war is for," said the soldier, parodying the movements of K's mouth. "Thief. Watch it. You could be lying in the bushes with flies all over you. Don't you tell me about war."

K's "silence" begins as a moment of philosophical confusion: if the purse is Anna's, then it is not K's; furthermore, either Anna did not clarify to him that he was to inherit the purse after her death, or he is incapable of understanding an abstract concept like "inheritance." Because he cannot resolve this philosophical dilemma, he briefly experiences semantic stutter that shifts the basis of the exchange: war should not be an excuse for oppressing civilians, i.e., taking their savings.

Unknowingly, K has cut to the core of the exchange; the soldier defends himself by mocking and then threatening, returning to the label he originally used to justify his forcing K to open the suitcase. The soldier labels him "thief" even while robbing him, thus ironically reversing the word and effectively silencing him. The exchange ends with the soldier's giving K a ten-rand note from the purse and telling him to buy himself an ice cream; in other words, obviously knowing that he is wrong and that his victim has pinpointed the nature of his crime, the soldier tries to soften its effect.

K acquiesces without further argument, but as soon as he is free, he evaluates the encounter: "It did not seem to him that he had been a coward."

In a closely following episode, the narrator shows K's measuring his own action of taking vegetables from a well-cultivated garden: "It is God's earth, he thought, I am not a thief." Having moved through the first exchange with its confusion, K reinterprets the label, making it define, not limit: because a thief takes the possessions of another person, the soldier is a thief; because K takes vegetables from a garden and gardens belong to God, K is not a thief. The simplistic logic frees K from the label, though he still fears the retribution of the gardeners; it lets K sift through the accusation and redefine the label that the soldier used to limit him.

The interrogation at Kenilworth moves through a similar pattern. Noel demands that K tell "the whole truth" about his friends from the mountains although they are not his friends and he knows nothing about their activities. Not understanding, K "crouched perceptibly, clutching the blanket about his throat," a defensive posture that indicates his confusion. The medical officer, who uses K's correct name, tries to get through to him by adding, "Come on, my friend!" That he would use the same word as Noel but with patently different connotation confuses K, who again sinks into linguistic silence until the medical officer pushes him in a new direction:

"Come on, Michaels," I said, "we haven't got all day, there's a war on!"

At last he spoke: "I am not in the war."

As with the soldier, he seems to experience a moment of semantic stuttering before he sharply changes the topic, but after the medical officer angrily replies to his response, he simply adds, "I am not clever with words." K cannot speak because he will not lie; the medical officer cannot understand him because he does not realize that his use of words is confusing and untrue.

To give the police the report that they expect, the medical officer and Noel fabricate the story that the police want to hear, using language as that K does not understand. From the untruth of concocting a story for K, however, the medical officer has learned that he cannot limit K with the usual labels; the section ends with his thinking, "No papers, no money, no friends, no sense of who you are. The obscurest of the obscure, so obscure as to be a prodigy." As in the case of the label "thief," the condition of war makes the definer inaccurate: the medical officer, who first limits K as a "prisoner" along with the police, later redefines "prisoner" to describe himself and his situation at the rehabilitation camp.

This process of redefinition colors all three sections of Michael K. Sometimes K contrasts the received signification of words such as "freedom" and the actions of the people who use such words. At Jakkalsdrif, a work camp patrolled by the "Free Corps," he is told that he is free, but the guard tells him that, if he tries to leave at any time other than on a work party, he will be shot. After saboteurs destroy the town's cultural history museum, he does not comprehend the police captain's label that Jakkalsdrif is a "nest of criminals" and that the Free Corps guards are "monkeys" to be caged; after all, "nest" signifies something comfortable, a haven against disorder, and "Free Corps guard" signifies someone in power, not a person who needs to be caged and guarded. Other times the narrator indicates that K reflects on words by logically deducing they can have different meanings for different people; thus he determines that the police captain's label "parasite" is truthful only because he can force his opinion on others.

The "unimaginable bureaucracy" forces all its citizens into preconceived limiting definitions. Typically identifying people by impersonal labels, it places all people into the same categories that the police imposed on K—name (and family), sex, ethnic origin (place of birth, race, and place of childhood), age, political and religious affiliations, employment, moral or legal record. Thus Coetzee identifies the mainstream society of South Africa, (or, for that matter, of any modern bureaucracy) with the camps, places that identify people and mold them into socially acceptable patterns. As K clearly realizes by the end of the novel, there are camps for anyone who fails to fulfill society's image of what constitutes a good citizen. Thus Jakkalsdrif was built so that the "good" citizens of Prince Albert could not see it because they do not want to admit that the homeless and unemployed exist, and Kenilworth is to "effect a change in men's souls," turning social misfits into productive conformists. Like reflections of the greater society outside the barbed wire, the camps have rules and regulations; in Jakkalsdrif, for example, K is expected to follow these rules, but before Robert takes him under wing, no one has explained just what the rules might be. He is a non-conformist, not because he is a rebel with a mission but because he escapes other people's definition of who he is and what he should do by not resisting. If he resisted, he would become "man who resists" and thus fit into a socially limiting label. As it is, the only labels that the medical officer can finally use to identify him define or describe him such as "escape artist" or "gardener."

In the first chapter Coetzee suggests that the fictional Cape Town of the "near future" still has a functioning infrastructure. K has a job with Parks and Gardens and rides a bus to Somerset Hospital to get his mother. The bureaucracy functions however much it dehumanizes. The police quickly respond to the sniper however brutally they might attack innocent bystanders. Guards prevent looting and protect the property of those who have been displaced, however negligent they might be in overlooking K and his mother. With water and electricity K and his mother make the Burhrmanns' apartment into a comfortable hiding place. Apparently the mail is still delivered, though none comes for K.

By the last chapter, however, merely a year or so later, the infrastructure seems to have failed. Though K seems to hear the distant "tinkle of an ice-cream vendor's bell," traffic is not moving and a burned out, stripped car blocks the road. Broken glass and garbage litter lawns, and no water runs in the public lavatory. Instead of a bureaucracy, police, or soldiers, K meets derelicts. In this part of Michael K language itself has become as disorganized and empty as the war-torn city. The people whom K meets have lost the remnants of civilized behavior: the stranger and his two "sisters" sharply contrast Robert's attempt to maintain law and order for his family in Jakkalsdrif and the medical officer's original belief that somehow law and order needed to be preserved.

In his language as well as in his actions, the stranger is a man of many labels, none of them truthful. He introduces himself as having "plenty of sisters … [a] big family" though it is more probable that he is a pimp; he gets his "sister" to tell K where he lives, though he is only a squatter; he calls K "Mister Treefeller," the name on the overalls that he took from Kenilworth; and he refers to K as "brother," though he tries to rob him during the night. Even basic labels such as "thief" have no meaning: after the stranger takes K's seeds during the night, K only asks, "Can I have my packet?"

But in this social and linguistic chaos, K finally finds a label that he can apply to himself and fully accept:

It excited him, he found, to say, recklessly, the truth, the truth about me. "I am a gardener," he said again, aloud…. I am more like an earthworm, he thought. Which is also a kind of gardener. Or a mole, also a gardener, that does not tell stories because it lives in silence.

Whenever K refers to himself with an image, he uses similes. Uncertain about words either because they seem foreign to him as in the case when the nurse "sounded as if she were reading the words from a card" or because they "Would not come" to him, K avoids metaphors because they more directly infringe on his self-identity. The narrator, seemingly uncertain himself how far to push K's growing self-awareness in chapter one, also describes K in terms of similes such as "chewing quickly as a rabbit." It is as if both the narrator and K distrust the language when words that may describe can also seem to categorize or contain. Thus the reader finds that K is like "a termite boring its way through a rock" or an "ant that does not know where its hole is," but both insects hardly describe him because both are usually female identified with hives or communities (at least in the twentieth century). His later image of himself—"lam like a woman whose children have left the house"—humanizes the notion of a mother (analogous to the female insect) now separated from the home (analogous to the incest's hive). That K thinks of himself with such sexual ambiguity parallels his refusal to fall into socially acceptable labels; he does not identify the tags whereby his society can classify and thus easily dismiss him.

In contrast, the medical officer, who begins with a direct limiting description—"a little old man"—quickly discovers that usual labels are inappropriate: "Though he looks like an old man, he claims to be only thirty-two." Moving from clinical description to poetic trope, the medical officer vacillates between comfortable labels whereby he can limit K and poetic describers that give him insight without confining:

He is like a stone, a pebble, that, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time, is now suddenly picked up and tossed randomly from hand to hand. A hard little stone, barely aware of its own surroundings enveloped in itself and its interior life. He passes through these institutions and camps and hospitals and God knows what else like a stone. Through the intestines of the war. An unbearing, unborn creature.

As reluctant to use similes as the narrator is reluctant to use metaphors, the medical officers dilemma is that K's very existence makes him question himself, a process that finally makes him vulnerable to the war and to his own insignificance and inability to act.

Though the medical officer at first dismissed him as an "idiot," a "simpleton," or a "clown," Michael K is a storyteller who cannot find the right words because, in his opinion, his story is too important to muddle and because he distrusts the very medium that he must use to communicate it. When he first tries to tell his story at Jakkalsdrif, he falls into silence while he thinks, "Now I must speak about the ashes,… so as to be complete, so as to have told the whole story," but before he can translate his feelings into words, his audience has drifted away. Later, during the interrogation at Kenilworth, he has an audience, eager to hear his story, but to tell the story that the medical officer expects would be dishonest. His problem in telling his story, however, does not rest solely with his audience:

Always, when he tried to explain himself to himself, there remained a gap. a hole, a darkness before which his understanding balked, into which it was useless to put words. The words were eaten up, the gap remained. His was always a story with a hole in it: a wrong story, always wrong.

Unwilling or unable to falsify or to accept limiting labels. K confuses himself and stammers over his words.

When the medical officer tries to get him to tell his story, he cannot initially understand K's abrupt shifts in logic and reference:

"Where is your mother now?" I asked. "She makes the plants grow," he replied, evading my eyes. "You mean she has passed away?" I said (pushing up the daisies?). He shook his head. "They burned her," he said. "Her hair was burning round her head like a halo."

He deduces that K is the pathetic result of bad education, a convenient diagnosis that with a less sensitive man might have let him dismiss the patient as an incurable. It is precisely this interpretation that he foists on Noel to justify the fabrication of a story for the Prince Albert police: "there is nothing there, no story of the slightest interest to rational people." Only after K has escaped from Kenilworth and a new shipment of prisoners threatens to overwhelm the facilities, does the medical officer come to see that "Michaels means something, and the meaning he has is not private" to him, for

if Michaels himself were no more than what he seems to be … a skin-and-bones man with a crumpled lip …, then I would have every justification for … putting a bullet through my head.

In his final imaginative pursuit of a conversation with K, he still attempts to reduce him to an object that he can understand and by understanding rationalize, even though he seems aware that his attempts to "allegorize" will ultimately fail.

Obsessed with discovering K's purpose partly because he is himself disillusioned by the war and believing that society must have rational or, at least, orderly grounds, he attempts to force K into teleological constructs that speak to his confusion; in other words, he consistently romanticizes K's story. But when he imagines "following" K, because he wants him to answer his final question, the children, who accepted K throughout the narrator's story, intercept and prevent his getting an answer. The medical officer, who has an inkling into K's nature, cannot divorce himself from his belief in his own rationality and purpose. The reader, who has briefly identified with the medical officer intellectually and verbally, is left with no certainty; there is no clue from K or the narrator to help either the medical officer or the reader categorize him.

Throughout, K thinks about telling his story. At Jakkalsdrif he tries but finds that "he could not, or could not yet." At Kenilworth he obviously talked with the medical officer, who thus knew many of the parts of his history, but Coetzee only shows K's full telling of his own story in the final section. For the stranger and his two women on Signal Hill, he sums up his life in seven "paltry" sentences:

I was three months in the camp at Kenilworth, till last night…. I was gardener once, for the Council. That was a long time ago. Then I had to leave and take my mother into the country, for her health. My mother used to work at Sea Point, she had a room there, we passed it on the way…. She dies in Stellenbosch, on the way up-country…. I didn't always get enough to eat.

As in his attempts to speak to the soldier, the people at Jakkalsdrif, or the medical officer, words confuse and silence him; the attempt to tell his story nauseates him, breaking him out in a cold sweat. The narrator adds that K either thought "his story was paltry, not worth the telling" or "he simply did not know how to tell a story, how to keep interest alive." Distrustful of language and, in his own simplicity, caught in "the self-relexive process of meaning-making which highlights the continuous deconstruction of established meaning." K is reduced to silence. Whether the narrator is, indeed, echoing K's thoughts at this moment or guessing what K actually thought, the moment quickly passes with K's leaving his story untold. In the end, he chooses silence over articulation: the telling of his story would have falsified it.

In his final analysis he reconciles himself by thinking, "I was mute and stupid in the beginning, I will be mute and stupid at the end." Unbounded by any of the camps and, therefore, free, he has escaped from all limiters. To talk about him—even for him to talk about his own history—is to force him into those labels that he has managed to evade. Words have failed him, but, at the same time, words have been his salvation, for without words he can return to Sea Point without having been categorized into a pawn for the government or into an intellectual abstraction by the medical officer. He has learned, and perhaps the narrator has learned as well, that "there is time enough for everything." Though K is apparently close to death at the end of the novel, the last word of the novel is "live," as if K will, indeed, have the time that both the medical officer and the narrator lack.

Ironically, K's story has been told. The narrator and the medical man, from their different perspectives, each of which limits K by transforming him into a verbal rather than ontological experience, have transformed him into their "stories." Like Susan Barton, only K knows the truth of his experiences; unlike Susan, he is almost as inarticulate as Friday, who literally has no tongue. Foe rewrites Susan's story, falsifying it though there is still a strange truth in the published tale of a man's survival on an island visited only by cannibals; without the narrator and the medical man, maybe "[i]t would have been better if his mother has quietly suffocated him when she saw what he was, and put him in the trash can." These storytellers save K from that oblivion though he does not tell his story himself.

Rita Barnard (essay date Winter 1994)

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SOURCE: "Dream Topographies: J. M. Coetzee and the South African Pastoral," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 93, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 33-58.

[In the following essay, Barnard examines the significance of place in Coetzee's novels and critical essays, arguing that his settings are not dystopian, as has been suggested by some critics, but rather "atopian," embodying a feeling of constant displacement.]

In his recent edition of essays by and interviews with J. M. Coetzee, David Attwell notes that Coetzee's return to South Africa in 1976, and his second novel, In the Heart of the Country, marked the emergence of a new concern with place in his work. This concern has, in fact, been an enduring one for Coetzee: his criticism and fiction have been profoundly affected by an interest in such geographically or topographically defined genres as the exploration narrative and the pastoral, as well as in such politically significant spaces as the imperial border, the labor camp, and the torture chamber. Even the titles of his first two novels, Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country, suggest this fascination, referring as they do to strangely elusive and yet symbolically resonant places. It is possible that the structuralist and therefore synchronic orientation of Coetzee's academic training as a linguist might have something to do with his interest in spatial organization; but, as Attwell's observation suggests, this interest also seems to have the experiential and personal dimension of a skeptically and rigorously examined attachment to the South African landscape: Coetzee once remarked, after all, that people can be in love with only one landscape in their lifetime.

Coetzee's increasing discomfort in recent years with the dominance of the discourse of history (or, more exactly, a Marxian historicism) in South African academic circles may also, in part, be connected to a concern with the spatial. I say "in part" since, in a polemical essay like "The Novel Today," it is clear that Coetzee's impatience with the all-"swallowing" tendency of historical master-narratives comes from his sense of himself specifically as a novelist: a sense that in times of political pressure the novel becomes reduced to a mere supplement to or illustration of the discourse of the historical "real." Even so, it seems worth noting that there have been other contemporary social theorists interested in the critical analysis of space who, like Coetzee, have challenged the explanatory privilege of historicism. The geographer Edward Soja, for one, has polemicized vigorously against the marginalization of the spatial by the historical discourse of Western Marxism and has posited that, in contemporary forms of capitalism, spatial relations have become as mystified as the commodity form once seemed to Marx—and thus require renewed attention. This argument urges us to consider, for instance, the degree to which the erasure of the conditions of labor in today's world depends on the geography of late capitalism: the fact that the impoverished workers who produce our glossy commodities live far out of sight, in Mexico, in the Philippines, or in a South African township, and that their invisibility perpetuates the illusion of historical progress in the economic centers. I think that we can say, without falling into a new trap of "swallowing up" Coetzee's novels in the discourse of a critical geography, that this line of thought resonates with certain moments in his writing, both academic and fictional: he is concerned with how people inhabit, how they imagine, and how they represent the physical terrain that surrounds them.

The literary possibilities of a critical geography are suggested in an intriguing passage by John Berger (which Soja cites in his opening chapter):

Prophecy now involves a geographical rather than historical projection; it is space and not time that hides consequences from us. To prophesy today it is only necessary to know men [and women] as they are throughout the whole world in all their inequality. Any contemporary narrative which ignores the urgency of this dimension is incomplete and acquires the oversimplified character of a fable.

The notion that it is space that hides inequalities from us, in particular, calls to mind Coetzee's comments on the political geography of South Africa:

If people are starving, let them starve far away in the bush, where their thin bodies will not be a reproach. If they have no work, if they migrate to the cities, let there be roadblocks, let there be curfews, let there be laws against vagrancy, begging, and squatting, and let offenders be locked away so that no one has to hear or see them. If the black townships are in flames, let cameras be banned from them…. Certainly there are many lands where prisons are used as dumping-places for people who smell wrong and look unsightly and do not have the decency to hide themselves away. In South Africa the law sees to it as far as it can that not only such people but also the prisons in which they are held become invisible.

These ideas have significant implications for those who strive to understand (and change) the inequality of South African men and women. Apartheid, as Coetzee so clearly understands, operates from day to day as a means of distributing people in space and, in the process, of controlling the way they see the world. The system perpetuates itself by decreeing that certain spaces be invisible: homelands, prisons, torture chambers, and black cities are deliberately hidden, removed from view. The beneficiaries of apartheid are, after all, not particularly sadistic; they (we) would simply rather not see the "consequences" of which Berger speaks. The ideal—and in some sense actual—social topography for those in power would be the one described by a vagrant in Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K: a workers' camp placed hundreds of miles away, "in the middle of the Koup" or some such arid waste, from which they could "come on tiptoe in the middle of the night like fairies and do their work, dig their gardens, wash their pots, and be gone in the morning leaving everything nice and clean."

I would suggest that in moments like these his writing offers us something of that demystifying "geographical projection" or even "prophecy" (though Coetzee would certainly balk at this term) of which Berger speaks. In such instances, Coetzee renders visible the places that the system would rather keep out of sight and mind. Elsewhere, his examination of the spatial seems more literary, as in his implicit critique of the reiterative codes that have shaped descriptions of South African landscapes: the descriptive catalogue, for instance, in which "the Karoo has been done to death in a century of writing and overwriting (drab bushes, stunted trees, heat-stunned flats, shrilling of cicadas, and so forth)." Perhaps most importantly, he forces us to examine our automatic responses to "place" (for example, white South Africans' passionate and often proclaimed love of the country's vast landscapes): to ask what political and imaginative failure such a passion might conceal.

The notion of place has not been completely ignored by South African literary critics: Stephen Gray, for one, has suggested that the notion of a "sense of place" could be used as a crude but serviceable means of mapping the successive phases of a South African (and a more generally postcolonial) literary historiography. In the first phase, the colony offers what Richard Rive has called a "Scenic Special": the exotic appeal of a distant place. Its landscape is presented to readers in the centers of power as different, a novel entertainment for the armchair traveler back "home." It offers a kind of verbal safari, entirely Eurocentric in its assumptions. Although its historical origins (as Gray points out) lie in the Renaissance, this kind of literature remains enormously influential: it is still evident in writers like Lawrence Durrell, in TV documentaries, and, I would add, in such profitable exports as Jamie Uys's film The Gods Must Be Crazy. (The Disney film A Far-Off Place, based on the work of Laurens van der Post, is perhaps the genre's most recent avatar.)

The second phase is more distinctively and assertively "colonial" and emerges with such exceptional figures as Olive Schreiner. (Miles Franklin, the author of My Brilliant Career, would be her Australian counterpart.) In such isolated and singular texts as Schreiner's Story of an African Farm, "phase two" literature reacts to the cultural tourism of the first phase by asserting an inescapable rootedness in the landscape and the emotional horizon of the colony; in Schreiner's case that setting is, of course, the vast and stony desert of the Great Karoo, which has become (perhaps because of her novel) the archetypal South African landscape. It is ironic, as Gray points out, that this literature was received in the metropolitan center (where Schreiner had to find her readers) as indistinct from "phase one" writing: The Story of an African Farm was largely seen as bringing an entertainingly novel and fresh "sense of place" to English literature, and Schreiner's critique, from her forbidding marginal vantage point in the South African desert, of the aridity of European ideas and values was readily overlooked.

In its third phase South African writing becomes, for Gray, much less vulnerable to such Eurocentric misreading, since it is associated not only with a full-fledged sense of national identity, but with the emergence of a cultural nexus that supports a national literature: a publishing industry, a community of local readers and critics, and a self-referring use of language, norms, and values. Place remains, or so the argument goes, a defining feature, but it is no longer—as it was with "phase two" writers—a cultural battlefield on which the rights to an indigenous identity must be fought. It becomes, in Gray's view, more of a shared and felt milieu, a familiar backdrop from which writers as different as Athol Fugard, for instance, writing from his home in the Eastern Cape, or Sipho Sepamla, writing from the vantage point of the explosive Soweto scene, can stage their distinct literary projects.

There are clearly a number of theoretical problems with this outline. It is, for instance, open to the objection that it defines place as the "single variable" that generates the distinctiveness of South African writing: "The elements of plot, character, action, use of dialogue, rhythm, and all the other techniques of making literature, remain the same" as in the great tradition of the British canon. This pre-supposition surely minimizes the thematic and stylistic inventiveness of postcolonial writing and ignores the effects of political determinants on literary forms and genres. But the most important weakness vexing Gray's schema is the fact that he relies on an all too empirically conceived notion of "place" (which is used interchangeably with "setting"); the implicit notion of artistic representation, consequently, is straightforwardly mimetic and bears the implication that South African literature must represent the South African land. It is no accident, then, that Gray makes no reference to the work of J. M. Coetzee: the first part of Dusklands and Waiting for the Barbarians (Foe had not yet appeared by then) are not set in South Africa at all. But the exclusion is also symptomatic: Gray's historiographic schema could not accommodate Coetzee's treatment of place, which in effect swallows up and explodes all of its categories. Coetzee's work, as Stephen Watson has observed, seems to "float free of time and place, even in the act of alluding to a time and place which is specifically South African." What is at stake for him is not place or landscape as an object of mimesis, but the discursive and generic and political codes that inform our understanding and knowledge of place. There is a deliberate analytical unsettledness in Coetzee, which deconstructs, rather than assimilates to, any South African literary tradition, or any South African "sense of place."

This tendency is emphasized by Teresa Dovey (the author of the first full-length study of Coetzee's novels) when she deftly selects, as one of the keywords of her study, Roland Barthes's notion of "atopia": drifting habitation. The word evokes, in appropriately spatial (or perhaps antispatial) terms, the deconstructive and "writerly" quality of Coetzee's texts: his formal shiftiness, the fact that his novels, like hermit crabs, inhabit, but only to abandon, the shells of various fictional genres, such as the narrative of exploration, the pastoral, and so forth. "Atopia," in short, identifies Coetzee's project as one of displacement. It is a refusal to settle in a space that is conventionally and ideologically given, a critical gesture which Dovey explains (in the Lacanian terminology she privileges) as "a constant deferral of the position available to the subject in language." While I shall eventually take issue with Dovey's readings, the idea of "atopia" provides a useful rubric under which we may briefly consider one way that Coetzee problematizes the notion of a "sense of place": the metafictional aspects of his novelistic topographies.

The idea of "drifting habitation" is perhaps most applicable to In the Heart of the Country and is most readily illustrated in those instances where the text seems to offer a scenic description. This is, of course, a novel whose problematic temporality strikes us immediately: we are never allowed to be certain about when the events take place (the narrator is never sure if she is in a time of donkey carts or bicycles or airplanes), nor are we sure what "really happens"—the sequence and effects of events are always in doubt. The same is true about the novel's ostensible setting—despite the realistic details of stone, the whitewashed homestead, the gravelly yard, the chickens, the dust, and the gleaming copperware. The title itself initiates a kind of ironic instability: it appears to allude to a symbolically resonant location, but the narrative, with its rapid succession of often self-cancelling segments, seems really to have nothing at its "heart." The text continually reminds us that the farm is entirely fictive, that there is, properly speaking, no "setting," no "stone desert," but only "stony monologue." Magda, the narrator of this monologue, repeatedly, and regretfully, insists that the panorama before her depends entirely upon her consciousness, her words:

Seated here I hold the goats and stones, the entire farm and even its environs, as far as I know them, suspended in this cool, alienating medium of mine, exchanging them item by item for my word-counters. A hot gust lifts and drops a flap of ochre dust. The landscape recomposes itself and settles.

Yet it would also be incorrect—and too safe—to think of this consciousness as in any way settled or "central"; Magda thinks of herself as a void, a hole, and frequently seems on the verge of dissolving into a complete insubstantiality: "a ghost or a vapour," she muses, "floating at the intersection of a certain latitude and a certain longitude," an intersection that remains a purely hypothetical location. The farm is not just set in the proverbial "middle of nowhere" (such remoteness would accord with the realist notion of the vastness of the Karoo range): it is nowhere, "on the road from no A to no B in the world, if such a fate is topologically possible"; it is configured almost as a kind of antispace: "a turbulence, a vortex, a black hole," a swallowing up of any presence.

Considering all this, what seems curious is the extent to which the novel remains so visual in its effect, how much it remains concerned with description. Even the highly self-reflexive passage cited above seems just for a moment, when a gust of wind raising the dust appears to disturb the "suspended" verbal landscape, to flirt with a more conventional realism. And there are certainly moments when the narrative offers, albeit ironically, a conventional South African "sense of place"—a rural "scenic special" of sorts. We might think, for instance, of the evocation of the impoverished settlement, Armoede, where the servant, Hendrik, goes to fetch his bride. The description is offered in the form of a list, the slightly weary tone of which emphasizes the familiarity and typicality of the details (once again the reader who knows the code, or so the very form suggests, can extend the catalogue): "the bleak windswept hill, the iron shanties with hessian in the doorways, the chickens, doomed, scratching in the dust, the cold snot-nosed children toiling back from the dam with buckets of water, the same chickens scattering now before the donkey-cart." But despite the vividness of detail, the context does not permit this scene of "local color" to attain a lasting mimetic effect. The narrator merely imagines this scene, admitting that she has never been to Armoede. (Indeed, she "seem[s] never to have been anywhere": a confession that explains the curiously improvisational quality of even her descriptions of her own home—her ignorance, for instance, of whether or not she happens to have any neighbors.) The place name "Armoede" also seems to work in a complicated and contradictory way, debunking, as it were, its own suggestion of referentiality, its own South Africanness. To anyone familiar with the country, the name Armoede (Poverty) could seem "realistically" typical, calling to mind any number of those curiously morbid place names that dot the South African map: Weenen (Weeping), Lydenburg (Town of Suffering), Put-Sonder-Water (Waterless Well), or Misgund (Begrudged). But this reality effect is undercut, one feels, by the all too perfect, too allegorical, match between the name and the scene; the appellation seems to bear the mark of the literary, or at least to draw attention to the linguistic label: it is all, as Magda laments, a matter of "names, names, names."

In the absence of any resistance to this process of naming, and of the linguistic reciprocity of which Magda dreams, all becomes solipsistic, improvisational: the landscape is a figment of Magda's narratorial consciousness, her "speculative … geography," one might say; but her consciousness seems equally determined by this fictive, composed land. Her "speculative bias," her radical, though somehow insubstantial freedom, has its origin, Magda tells us, in the vast distances of the land into which she must stare. "I make it all up in order that it shall make me up": such are the unstable, shifting operations, the "lapidary paradoxes," that make up this fiction.

It is easy to see why this novel in particular has provided grounds for the Lacanian reading offered by Dovey: her association of the narrating self with the hermit crab, scuttling from shell to shell, or code to code, or signifier to signifier, is in many ways compelling and accurate. But it seems to me that in the matter of genre, which is central to Dovey's understanding of Coetzee's "fiction-as-criticism," the purely deconstructive reading reveals certain limitations. It is true, of course, that a generic instability and self-consciousness is perhaps the most telling characteristic of self-reflexive fiction. Coetzee himself notes that what clearly distinguishes the postmodern text from the realist novels of, say, Defoe or Hardy, is that Moll Flanders and Jude never pause to ponder what kind of text they seem to be inhabiting. And In the Heart of the Country is no exception: Magda is constantly questioning what kind of action or event might justify her insubstantial presence in the elusive heart of that country: not Greek tragedy, despite the imagined axe-murder and the surrounding "theatre of stone"; nor gothic romance, despite her brief fantasy of waiting for "a castle [to] crumble into a tarn"; nor even the colonial idyll, with its dreary possibilities of marriage to a neighbor's second son or dalliance with an itinerant schoolmaster. Yet the seductions of the more lyric aspects of the pastoral are ever present in the novel and are, I think, not so easily dismissed. When Magda asserts that she would not be herself if she did not "feel the seductions of the cool stone house, the comfortable old ways, the antique feudal language," it is still possible to take the remark as just another momentary, self-cancelling speculation. But by the end of the novel, the tone seems to have shifted. The monologue concludes on a note which suggests that Coetzee's fictional strategies are perhaps not fully explained by an "atopian" reading. This lyrical finale, however self-consciously announced as "closing plangencies," expresses a desire that seems rather more specific, rather more local than the universal linguistic condition of desire and deferral that is figured for Dovey by the hermit crab:

There are poems, I am sure, about the heart that aches for Verlore Vlakte, about the melancholy of the sunset over the koppies, the sheep beginning to huddle against the first evening chill, the faraway boom of the windmill, the first chirrup of the first cricket, the last twitterings of the birds in the thorn-trees, the stones of the farmhouse wall still holding the sun's warmth, the kitchen lamp glowing steady. They are poems I could write myself. It takes generations of life in the cities to drive that nostalgia for country ways from the heart. I will never live it down, nor do I want to. I am corrupted to the bone with the beauty of this forsaken world…. I have chosen at every moment my own destiny, which is to die here in the petrified garden, behind locked gates, near my father's bones, in a space echoing with hymns I could have written but did not because (I thought) it was too easy.

As Peter Strauss has argued, those nostalgic poems on Verlore Vlakte (Lost Valley), which are remembered but not parodied in these lyrical lines, preserve a certain pastoral possibility, which the reader is allowed—barely—to discern, but in which the narrative voice never fully indulges. While it would be reductive to ascribe the passion of these lines to the author, there is surely in the passage a kind of unison—or at least a kind of homology—between narrator and author. (And I shall resist speculating on an intriguing comment in the final interview of Doubling the Point, where Coetzee notes, in describing the person he was as an adolescent, that "for a variety of reasons" he ceased visiting the family farm, "the place on earth he has defined, imagined, constructed, as his place of origin") In the same way that Magda has up to this point scrupulously resisted, and still resists, the pastoral possibility, Coetzee's work resists the easy option of creating a fictional dwelling place, a fictional utopia—"thatheady expansion into the as-if," as Magda calls it. Coetzee's work in general suggests a reluctant abnegation of certain artistic forms, a gesture that is also evident in his uncharacteristically revealing comments (again, in Doubling the Point) on the situation of the contemporary author. He speaks of "the pathos—in a humdrum sense of the word—of our position: like children shut in the playroom, the room of textual play, looking out wistfully through the bars at the enticing world of the grownups, one that we have been instructed to think of as the mere phantasmal world of realism but that we stubbornly can't help thinking of as the real." Coetzee is, in short, anything but enamored of the antimimetic and deconstructive techniques that he himself deploys: he speaks of the "impasse" of "anti-illusionism" while recognizing—almost regretfully—the necessity for such techniques. In the history of the novel, he argues, metafiction is a "marking of time." It is surely no coincidence that this condition of marking time, of waiting, is the same morbid condition so often associated with white South Africans, living in the uncertain age of what Nadine Gordimer (following Gramsci) has called the "interregnum." It seems to me, therefore, that we must, while acknowledging the paradoxical nature of such a move, situate and localize his atopian strategies; we must also recognize not only a historical but an ethical impulse behind Coetzee's anti-illusionism. For it is specifically as a white South African that Coetzee feels he must refrain from the pastoral, and it is as a novelist writing within a certain troubling historical configuration that he must avoid producing what he calls, in an essay on Beckett, "the daydream gratification of fiction."

The problem with Teresa Dovey's determinedly deconstructive reading of Coetzee's work is that it is not balanced by a consciousness of the contingency and historicity of cultural forms. Most notably, there is no sense that the Western psychoanalytic and deconstructive theories she deploys may themselves be destabilized, slipping into different nuances and creating different meanings and allegiances when they are invoked in different contexts, deployed at some remove from their original source. This critique has been suggested in general terms by David Attwell, who notes that in Dovey's discussion of In the Heart of the Country the Hegelian master/slave dialectic is entirely stripped of its historical-political aspect, that is, of the implication that such goals as freedom and self-realization are attainable only in a just society. The problem becomes even clearer if one looks closely at some of Dovey's curiously reductive readings of passages from Coetzee's work. A characteristic instance occurs when she glosses a key moment in Life & Times of Michael K, a passage in which the starving Michael K meditates on the minimal and ahistorical way he would like to live on the land—refusing to be a settler:

I am not building a house out here by the dam to pass on to other generations. What I make ought to be careless, makeshift, a shelter to be abandoned without a tugging at the heartstrings…. The worst mistake, he told himself, would be to try to found a new house, a rival line, on his small beginnings out at the dam.

Dovey's reading of this rather touching passage renders it almost mechanically self-referential. Michael K's improvised dwelling place becomes nothing but an allegory for the operations of this novel: "This text in particular [i.e., Life & Times of Michael K] must not be too closely bound to Coetzee's own meanings; he must be able to abandon it, without a tugging at the heartstrings, to the successive meanings which each new reading will generate." For all its apparent openness, this is precisely the kind of comment that makes one hesitate to offer a more specific interpretation. But even if we take K's invisible, traceless, self-erasing mode of living on the land as a figure for a mode of writing, we must remember that K himself (not the quickest mind around) sadly recognizes that it is the context of war, the times of Michael K, if you will, that demands this strategy:

What a pity that to live in times like these a man must be ready to live like a beast. A man who wants to live cannot live in a house with lights in the window. He must live in a hole and hide by day. A man must live so that he leaves no trace of his living. That is what it has come to.

"Drifting habitation" as a literary strategy must likewise be seen as a historical condition.

A similar point can be made in relation to Dovey's reading of another important meditation in Michael K, when, after a vicious assault on the Jakkalsdrif labor camp, K ponders the relationship between parasite and host:

Parasite was the word the police captain had used: the camp at Jakkalsdrif, a nest of parasites hanging from the neat sunlit town, eating its substance, giving no nourishment back. Yet to K lying idle in his bed, thinking without passion (What is it to me, after all? he thought), it was no longer obvious which was host and which parasite, camp or town…. What if the hosts were far out-numbered by the parasites, the parasites of idleness and the other secret parasites in the army and the police force and the schools and factories and offices, the parasites of the heart? Could the parasites then still be called parasites? Parasites too had flesh and substance; parasites too could be preyed upon. Perhaps in truth whether the camp was declared a parasite on the town or the town a parasite on the camp depended on no more than on who made his voice heard loudest.

Dovey relates this passage, as we could surely have predicted, to J. Hillis Miller's argument in "The Critic as Host": "[T]he term 'parasite,'" she ventures, "comes to signify as a locus of substitution, and refers to the way in which Coetzee's novel, which is parasitic in relation to the previous texts which it deconstructs, will in turn become the host to successive parasitic readings." While it is certainly possible to understand the relationship of host and parasite in terms of acts of reading and interpretation (acts that are thematized in section 2 of the novel, where the medical officer creates rather than "reads" the story of Michael K), I find myself wanting to insist that the atopian reading, the punning etymology which turns the "parasite" into a (dare I say mere?) "locus of substitution," misses something. It universalizes, and in so doing flattens out the operations of a text that seems to ask questions with urgent ethical implications for South Africa in particular: Who eats whom? Who lives off whom? Who lives in the town and who in the camp? Who lives in the city and who in Soweto? In other words, the host/parasite opposition carries a certain local potency: the atopian slippage, the "endlessness of textuality," as Attwell puts it, is halted by "the brute facticity of power." And that power manifests itself in a certain socially and materially constructed topography.

I would like, then, to move from the keyword "atopia" to the phrase "dream topography": an idea that can enable us to give the ethical and political dimensions of Coetzee's novels their due, without recourse to any kind of naive empiricism. The term emerges from Coetzee's discussion of the South African pastoral in White Writing, where the notion of genre becomes not so much a metafictional strategy—a temporary home for the writerly hermit crab—but a kind of social dreamwork, expressing desires and maintaining silences that are profoundly political in origin. The idea of the generic and ideological topography offers us a spatial concept that is more stable and historical than "drifting habitation": not a "sense of place," but a sense of discursive and cultural maps.

The essays in White Writing are mainly concerned with two rival "dream topographies," both of which are aspects of the pastoral: they are the maps and the ideological blueprints that this genre has projected on the land. Both of these projections are sketched out in Coetzee's 1977 review of Ross Devenish and Athol Fugard's film, The Guest (the plot of which is based on an incident in the life of the Afrikaans poet Eugène Marais—an almost life-long morphine addict—who is sent to go cold turkey on a Transvaal farm). To the dismay of the well-meaning director, Coetzee observed that the film's representations of the white man's relation to the land were patched together from flattering myths designed—however unconsciously—to keep certain unresolvable inconsistencies from view. The Afrikaner family is presented via a visually seductive mise-en-scène of "whitewashed walls,… dark verticals of doors and windowframes," a dinner table in the glow of lamplight: interiors reminiscent, or so Coetzee claims, "of the classic Dutch painters," settings that gleam "with Rembrandt browns and golds." The compelling visual image, he points out, suggests that the Meyers are "not rootless colonials" but, simultaneously, "rude children of the African earth and heirs to a venerable European tradition." The limited contexts in which we see the family also make it difficult to raise certain troubling questions about the running of this African farm. Coetzee spells out some of these: "If the Meyers run a cattle farm, why do they never talk about cattle?… Where do the African farm laborers who materialize out of nowhere for a single fifteen-second sequence live? How do the Meyer men spend their time when they are not eating?" The film confines itself to the terrain permitted by the ideological horSizons of the South African pastoral, within which the Meyers and their farm, Steenkampskraal, stand as emblems of simplicity and permanence. As far as the film's presentation of the poet goes, Coetzee argues, another myth applies: that of the Genius in Africa, the man for whom consciousness is pain, and for whom the African landscape is "a murderous mother-goddess," silently rejecting the alienated poet-supplicant who tragically adores her stony bosom. This glamorously dystopian relationship with the land is no less ideologically fraught than the rough-hewn arcadia of the (non-genius) Boers. The essay raises for the first time an idea that will become a major theme of White Writing: that is, to the majority in South Africa, for whom "Africa is a mother who has nourished them and their forebears for millions of years," this stoic lyricism would make no sense at all. "South Africa, mother of pain, can have meaning only to people who can find it meaningful to ascribe their 'pain' ('alienation' is here a better word) to the failure of Africa to love them enough." An apparently aesthetic preoccupation with the land can mask a resistance to thinking about South Africa in social terms.

In White Writing, the two ideological positions discovered earlier, in The Guest, are described in more elaborate and more generally (generically) applicable terms. Coetzee maps out the first "dream topography" as follows: "[A] network of boundaries crisscrossing the surface of the land, marking off thousands of farms, each a separate kingdom ruled over by a benign patriarch with, beneath him, a pyramid of contented and industrious children, grandchildren, and serfs," In this map of the land, the farm—the soil—characteristically becomes a kind of wife to the father and sons who all merge into a single mythic husband/man. With the notable exception of the English writer Pauline Smith, it is fair to identify this "dream topography" with the more nostalgic and romantic aspects of the Afrikaner volkskultuur. It is the mythic space not only of novelists like Van Bruggen or Van den Heever (whom Coetzee discusses), but also of countless movies, stories from popular magazines like Huisgenoot, and old soaps from Springbok Radio. I can recall such titles as Uit Juffrou se Dagboek (From the Schoolmistress's Diary), Die Du Ploois van Soetmelksvlei (The Du Ploois of Sweetmilk Valley), or Die Geheim van Nantes (The Secret of Nantes)—"Nantes" and "Soetmelksvlei" are, to an Afrikaans speaker, immediately recognizable toponyms: the names of family farms. While Coetzee does not mention these subliterary examples of the genre in White Writing, they confirm its thoroughly ideological status. Key to Coetzee's approach, however, is the understanding that this topography is a mode of writing, that it is not only of a literary or a mass-cultural sort, but also of a material one: the furrows of the plow, in this social text, assume the character of a signature, a deed of ownership, a title to the land. The pastoral activities of digging, building, fence-making—even the construction of those Cape Dutch houses in the classic shape of the letter H—are acts of ideological inscription.

The second and rival "dream topography" is South Africa

as a vast, empty, silent space, older than man, older than the dinosaurs whose bones lie bedded in its rocks, and destined to be vast, empty, and unchanged long after man has passed from its face. Under such a conception of Africa—"Africa, oldest of the continents"—the task of the human imagination is to conceive not a social order capable of domesticating the landscape, but any kind of relation at all that consciousness can have with it.

This stoic and defeatist lyricism—this poetry of empty space—originates with the antipastoral of Schreiner's Story of an African Farm and is continued by a succession of English-language poets (Sidney Clouts stands, for Coetzee, at the end of this line). Although the key trope here is absence, silence, the failure of language, it is again imperative that this naturalistic topography of desolation should also be apprehended as writing: it does not inscribe the land, as in the Afrikaans pastoral, with the obvious signatures of culture and cultivation, but rather projects a kind of blankness onto the land. In that blankness—the same blankness that Marlow discovers on the map of Africa in Heart of Darkness, that imposed emptiness which so fascinated him as a boy—Coetzee reads a certain "historical will to see as silent and empty, a land that has been, if not full of human figures, not empty of them either; that is arid and inflexible, perhaps, but not inhospitable to human life, and certainly not uninhabited." Erasure is also an act of writing—and not simply its binary opposite. Indeed, the message of silence that the lone poet encounters in the empty landscape bears an uncomfortable resemblance, or so Coetzee concludes, to the "writing" of those official historiographers who claimed that the land settled by the Voortrekker pioneers in the nineteenth century was open, empty, and unpeopled.

The critical point is that in both dream topographies the black man, whether as the farmer of an earlier age, or the agricultural worker, or even just as human presence, is obscured. As in his review of The Guest, Coetzee's analysis in White Writing leads to a series of profoundly uncomfortable questions—questions that strike at the heart of the South African political system and that these apparently pacific ideological landscapes are designed to avoid. Does the poet's inevitable failure to hear the language of the stones "stand for, or stand in the place of, another failure, by no means inevitable: a failure to imagine a peopled landscape,… to conceive a society in South Africa in which there is a place for the self?" Or even more pointedly: "Was there no time before the time of the forefathers, and whose was the land then? Do white hands truly pick the fruit, reap the grain, milk the cows, shear the sheep in these bucolic retreats? Who truly creates wealth?" White Writing illuminates the crucial, embarrassing blindness implicit in the white man's dream about the land: its necessary "blindness to the colour black." It also reveals a characteristic and consistent critical procedure: an effort on Coetzee's part not to read the "writing," but to ask what it occludes, and to find the truth not in the utterance, but in the evasions and omissions. It is a method of demystification, of revealing the textual and cultural unconscious.

The themes and methods of White Writing are also evident in Coetzee's fiction. Life & Times of Michael K, for instance, is at least in part a meditation on the ideological function of the pastoral and an example of the critical strategy of subverting the dominant—of listening to silences. That there should be connections between these two texts is hardly surprising since the novel was written concurrently with some of the essays in White Writing. Even the lines from Ovid's Metamorphoses that serve as the epigraph to White Writing indicate certain overlapping concerns. They symbolically capture the conditions that beset the life of Michael K, the gardener, and that have historically beset South Africa, the troubled garden colony. (The settlement at the Cape of Good Hope was originally intended as a garden and a supply station for the ships of the Dutch East India Company.)

Pressing his lips to foreign soil, greeting the unfamiliar mountains and plains, Cadmus gave thanks…. Descending from above, Pallas told him to plow and sow the earth with the serpent's teeth, which would grow into a future nation.

From the beginning, the epigraph suggests, the settler's pastoral efforts have been productive of, and indeed synonymous with, war and strife. The context in which K finds himself likewise conflates the ideas of gardening and war, or at least forces them into an uncomfortable oxymoronic embrace: in the novel people dig to plant mines, or march in prison camps with spades over their shoulders.

Michael K sets out with a desire to escape the war and capture a pastoral dream: "a whitewashed cottage in the broad veld with smoke curling from its chimney." But his experience soon teaches him that the land is mapped and gridlocked in such a way that the pastoral fantasy, let alone an idyllic rural life, is proscribed for a person who is officially classed as "coloured": "CM-40-NFA-UnempIoyed." He can live freely in this terrain only by being simultaneously a trespasser and an escapee. Coetzee's use of a black protagonist is essential to the novel's demystificatory operations. The perspective of one like K allows Coetzee to reveal the dystopian dimensions of the Afrikaner's dream topography of beloved farms and fences—those enclosures by which the Visagies of the novel (like the real-life Van der Merwes, Bothas, Coetzees, Malherbes, and Bamards) have staked out their "miles and miles of silence … to bequeath … to their children and grandchildren in perpetuity." The novel's allegorical strategies represent this landscape in a photographic negative, showing its exact homology with the Foucauldian "carceral archipelago." K's South Africa is a place where one can only dream of "forgotten comers and angles and corridors between the fences, land that belonged to no one yet." What one actually experiences, however, is a proliferation of "camps":

camps for children whose parents run away, camps for people who kick and foam at the mouth, camps for people with big heads and people with little heads, camps for people with no visible means of support, camps for people chased off the land, camps for people they find living in storm-water drains.

For those outside, and, indeed, for those inside the landed clans, the map of the Afrikaner's pastoral merges with the map of a vast prison comprising innumerable cells—a society in which everybody is either fenced in or guarding a gate. The scandalous force of this image can be grasped only if one recalls the repeated and utterly conventional association of the vast South African landscape with notions of freedom, a commonplace of innumerable patriotic songs, such as "Die Lied van Jong Suid-Afrika" (The Song of Young South Africa):

     Die hoogland is ons woning, die land van son en veld,
     Waar woeste vryheidswinde waai oor graf van menig held,
     Die ruimtes het ons siel gevoed, ons kan geen slawe wees,
     Want vryer as die arendsvlug is die vlugte van ons gees.

     (The highland is our dwelling place, the land of sun and veld,
     Where wild winds of freedom blow over the graves of many heroes.

     The open space has fed our souls, we cannot ever be slaves,
     For freer than the eagle's flight are the flights of our spirit.)

One of Magda's more profound insights from In the Heart of the Country comes to mind here: one can be imprisoned just as readily in a large place "as in a small." And, as Coetzee points out in his Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, liberty "comes in a package" with equality and fraternity; and in a land without that fraternity, it is therefore inevitable that a "literature of vastness" should carry undertones—the undertones that Coetzee turns into the dominant tones of this novel—of "feelings of entrapment, entrapment in infinitudes."

In the light of this discussion, it seems all the more significant that we should discover in Coetzee's fictional meditations on the South African pastoral the one scene which must, above all, remain hidden if the Afrikaner's dream topography is to be sustained (sustained, that is, in its mythical virtue). This scene appears in Magda's "speculative history"—or "speculative geography":

Hendrik's [the servant's] forebears in the olden days crisscrossed the desert with their flocks and their chattels, heading from A to B or from X to Y, sniffing for water, abandoning stragglers, making forced marches. Then one day fences began to go up … men on horseback rode up and from shadowed faces issued invitations to stop and settle that might also have been orders and might have been threats, one does not know, and so one became a herdsman, and one's children after one, and one's women took in washing.

The erased presence of those earlier nomads represents a challenge to the birthright of the "Boer." The lines remind us vividly that the history of agricultural enclosure, as Raymond Williams demonstrates so well in The Country and the City, is not just a history of settlement, but one of displacement: the first herder-farmers became temporary sojourners, or, like Robert in Life & Times of Michael K, persons of "no fixed abode." This displacement is the secret historical precondition of the Afrikaner's idyllic map of rural homesteading: the old tracings "from A to B" are the submerged and erased text that challenges the settlers' elaborately inscribed title to the land.

The logic of the pastoral topography imposed on this originary scene requires that the black man's inscriptive acts of digging and plowing should leave no trace—should be legally and culturally invisible. This idea is, I would argue, played upon throughout Life & Times of Michael K, It is perhaps most powerfully and frighteningly expressed in a passage where K imagines that all the dispossessed might be sent off to dig precisely in order to erase themselves: to scoop out a mass grave into which they can then be thrown, by means of which their presence becomes not just obscured, but permanently deleted.

The brilliance of Michael K's own strategy is that he finds a way to reclaim displacement, invisibility, tracklessness as a form of freedom. He turns the social condition prescribed for him—to work the land without owning it, without having a story—into something else, something to be desired. The significance of his solution is prefigured in a memory he retains from his school days:

One of the teachers used to make the class sit with their hands on their heads, their lips pressed tightly together and their eyes closed, while he patrolled the rows with his long ruler. In time, to K, the posture grew to lose its meaning as punishment and became an avenue of reverie.

K's mode of fanning rewrites (despite and because of its invisibility) the rules of the game of the South African pastoral. He keeps alive "the idea of gardening" almost by its negation: the idea of plenty through starvation, the idea of self-affirmation in self-erasure, the idea of rural dwelling and settlement in "drifting habitation."

The same can be said of Coetzee's artistic practice. The capacity for changing the rules of the game is precisely what he values most in a work of art. One might say, moreover, that he too proceeds by negation and, if need be, invisibly. This connection with K is delicately suggested, I think, in one of the interviews from Doubling the Point, where Attwell and Coetzee discuss a quotation from Rilke which Coetzee had cited in a 1974 essay on Nabokov: "It is our task to imprint this provisional, perishable earth so deeply. so patiently and passionately in ourselves that its reality shall arise in us again invisibly. We are the bees of the invisible." The impulse here is strikingly lyrical; but Coetzee responds to it cautiously, commenting on the nostalgic qualities of Nabokov's desire for the past, and observing that one must look at the past with a cruel enough eye to see what made that joy and that innocence possible. The observation clearly applies not just to the past, but also to the pastoral, and to the poetry of empty space that celebrates South Africa's vast landscapes. Coetzee's position in this regard is, one might say, dialectical. As he has indicated both in White Writing and in his Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, it is no longer possible to love the land in unreflective "sincerity": white South Africans have claimed all too often that they love the mountains, the earth, the trees and flowers—all those things that cannot return love. This kind of poetry can no longer be written. And yet it seems that one must, secretly and invisibly, continue to "imprint" the "provisional, perishable earth" in oneself, in the manner suggested by Rilke, so that, as Michael K says in one of his naively wise meditations, the thread that binds man to the earth should not be entirely broken.

It is appropriate, then, that such critics as Neil Lazarus and (at times) David Attwell should have associated Coetzee's work not so much with that of other postmodern fabulists as with the modernist critical theory of Theodor Adorno; Coetzee's works, in the words of Adorno's essay on commitment, "point to a practice from which they abstain: the creation of a just life." This connection raises the following question: If Coetzee's fiction is in the main antipastoral and dystopian, then isn't our task as critics (following his own example) to read dialectically, to subvert the dominant, to discover in his work the Utopian possibility, the pastoral impulse which cannot be written directly? One of the most remarkable and virtuosic passages in White Writing suggests that this approach is exactly what is called for. Here, Coetzee seems to address his fellow critics directly: "Our craft," he says, "is all in reading the other: gaps, inverses, undersides; the veiled; the dark, the buried, the feminine; alterities." But then he poses the following question: "Is it a version of utopianism (or pastoralism) to look forward (or backward) to the day when the truth will be (or was) what is said, not what is not said, when we will hear (or heard) music as sound upon silence, not silence between sounds?" These surprisingly wistful lines in many ways resemble the lyrical conclusion to In the Heart of the Country; one detects, in both instances, a regretful, minimalist lyricism, a yearning to come right out and sing "the beauty of this forsaken world." But we should not underestimate the cautiousness of Coetzee's language—a language that is, as Strauss puts it, "forever on guard against itself." The White Writing passage admits only in the form of a rhetorical question to a desire for the pastoral (utopian) possibility and indicates a strong awareness of the untimeliness, indeed the scandalousness, of this desire. It asserts, in a way that certainly does recall Adorno, the necessarily negative stance of the contemporary work of art, the refusal of easy "daydream gratification," so that the Utopian impulse may be preserved for a later, less bleak time.

It is therefore not only possible, but necessary, to read the outlines of this Utopian desire in Coetzee's fiction and in his criticism. Like the Magistrate of Waiting for the Barbarians, who in a dream urges the barbarian girl to put people in the empty city she builds out of snow, Coetzee's texts ask, especially in their silences, for a landscape full of people, a society of reciprocity and fraternity. A more explicit moment can be found in the essay "Into the Dark Chamber," where Coetzee notes that Rosa Burger (in Gordimer's novel Burger's Daughter) "suffers and waits for … a time when humanity will be restored across the face of society, and therefore when all human acts, including the flogging of an animal, will be returned to the ambit of moral judgment." In such a space and in such a time, Coetzee notes, the novel would once again be able to "take as its province the whole of life," and only under such circumstances could the ultimately dystopian, the ultimately secretive space of the torture chamber, "be accorded a place in the design." We could easily extend this logic and say that at such a place and in such a time the novel could again invoke, not ironically but lyrically, the "country ways" of the pastoral: the "whole of life," which, after all, includes digging, includes planting, includes the cultivation of one's garden.

Patrick McGrath (review date 20 November 1994)

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SOURCE: "To Be Conscious Is to Suffer," in New York Times Book Review, November 29, 1994, p. 9.

[In the following review, McGrath finds The Master of Petersburg "dense and difficult, a novel that frustrates at every turn," but a worthy addition to Coetzee's canon.]

A ferociously bleak sense of human isolation has characterized the work of the South African writer J. M. Coetzee. In each of his novels he has created figures who stand starkly silhouetted against a vast, harsh landscape and an equally harsh political system; they are belittled and dehumanized by both. His prime concern has been with survival, spiritual and physical, the scraping of meaning and sustenance from the most hostile of environments. There is no comfort to be had from this experience; for Mr. Coetzee's characters, to be conscious is to suffer.

That theme is Dostoyevskian, and in his strong, strange seventh novel, The Master of Petersburg, Mr. Coetzee has gone directly to the source. He has imagined Dostoyevsky returning to St. Petersburg from Dresden after the death of a stepson, Pavel. It is Mr. Coetzee's grimmest book yet, and suggests a new degree of darkness in an outlook that has yet to find much to celebrate in the human condition. The backdrop that here casts its brooding shadow over the characters is of course Russia. And like the South Africa that has provided the setting of most of his novels, this is a Russia poised on the brink of upheaval.

In a sense, Mr. Coetzee has written of Russia before. Waiting for the Barbarians, a novel published in 1980, is set in a garrison town on the border of a nameless empire apparently threatened by barbarian incursions from the north. It has a definite Central Asian feeling, with the distinct suggestion of Mongol hordes massing for pillage. The relevance of this political allegory to apartheid-era South Africa, and the increasingly vicious response of a doomed regime to what it perceives as the enemy at its gates, is clear at once. But what gives the story its universality is the inspired simplicity of the central image, that of a border region between the known and the unknown, and the associated human tendency to demonize what we do not know and then attack the demons.

The Master of Petersburg is an obscure book by comparison, its plot labyrinthine, its tone relentlessly melancholy. Much of the difference can be attributed to the protagonists. The narrator of Waiting for the Barbarians, a district magistrate, is a man of humane and self-indulgent disposition who bobs like a cork on his sea of troubles and gives the book its zest and flavor. Mr. Coetzee has never written another character like the magistrate, and this is a pity. Certainly as a companion, as a narrator, the magistrate is better company than the depressive Dostoyevsky who tramps and glooms through the pages of The Master of Petersburg. The magistrate is a bon viveur, a fat man who frankly enjoys his food and wine and sex, and for him the so-called barbarians pose no threat because he understands the threat to be illusory. Stoically, he endures torture and humiliation for his heretical sympathies.

The position of Mr. Coetzee's Dostoyevsky is by contrast one of tortuous complexity. Adrift in the perilous political currents of late-czarist St. Petersburg, he is compromised in the eyes of the authorities by his stepson's having been a member of a revolutionary gang led by a sinister character called Nechayev. (Sergei Nechayev was in fact a revolutionary who fascinated Dostoyevsky, and it might be noted that Nechayev was the maiden name of Dostoyevsky's mother.) It is because of this connection that the great writer runs into difficulties with a police investigator called Maximov, himself a most Dostoyevskian character. Maximov tells him that among his stepson's papers he has found a list of people to be assassinated as a prelude to a general uprising leading to the overthrow of the state.

The weary, aging Dostoyevsky of these pages has as little appetite for revolutionary violence as he does for the status quo; this political apathy earns the disdain of Nechayev himself, who soon makes an appearance, and other former accomplices of Pavel. In these scenes the political dimension of generational strife emerges strongly, as the caution and conservation of maturity are derided by the fierce insurrectionary fervor of youth. It seems that for Mr. Coetzee everything must be defined anew in a totalitarian society on the point of disintegration. The fissures that divide the powerful from the powerless make all human connections tenuous and difficult, particularly the parent-child relationship.

This is an idea he has explored before. In his novel Life & Times of Michael K, which won Britain's Booker Prize in 1983, it is the attempt of Michael K to take his ailing mother home to die that brings him into conflict with the police state. Unlike either the magistrate or Dostoyevsky, however, Michael K has nothing with which to combat the forces ranged against him, and so withdraws utterly from society and scratches a living from a patch of earth on a deserted farm.

Then in Age of Iron, published in 1990, an old white woman dying of cancer in a comfortable suburb of Cape Town finds her maternal sympathies aroused by her black housekeeper's son when she sees him brutalized by the police. Surrogate parenthood gradually opens her eyes to the vicious realities of the apartheid state; ironically, it is to her daughter, who has long since fled to America, that she pours out her thoughts in writing. Her real children, she begins to see, are the black youths being murdered by the security forces under her nose. The personal and the political are most elegantly conflated in this novel.

But for poor Dostoyevsky, engaged in a futile attempt to be reconciled with his stepson, or the ghost of his stepson, nothing can ever be so simple. He stays in the room Pavel rented from a widow called Anna Sergeyevna, who lives next door with her young daughter. Anna comes to him in the night, and together they do "fiery, dangerous work," with the child asleep in the next room. However, when the wily Nechayev, on the run from the police and dressed as a woman to escape detection, comes to the apartment and asks Anna's daughter for money, and despite Dostoyevsky's objections gets it, it seems that everyone and everything in the writer's world is conspiring against him. Nechayev takes him to a cellar and there, after a lengthy argument, shows him a printing press and demands that he write for the revolutionaries. Dostoyevsky realizes he has fallen into a trap: "Pavel's death was merely the bait to lure him from Dresden to Petersburg. He has been the quarry all the time."

At this point we seem to have reached some sort of narrative junction, for all the elements of the story are brought together in this dramatic revelation. For the first time we detect the shape of the plot, in both senses of the word: it is a plot that turns on Dostoyevsky's identity as a writer. Mr. Coetzee, a professor of literature at the University of Cape Town and the author of extensive literary criticism, including a book of essays called White Writing, has consistently returned in his fiction to the linkage of language and power, the idea that those without voices cease to signify, figuratively and literally. His most explicit expression of the theme is the novel Foe, published in 1987, where he reimagines the writing of Robinson Crusoe, and in the process creates a woman who brings the story to Daniel Defoe and so is its "true author." She, not alone among Mr. Coetzee's characters, loses her voice in history, and thus her identity.

The act of writing, and written work in the form of diaries and stories, play a central role in The Master of Petersburg. Writing, for Mr. Coetzee's Dostoyevsky, is not so much a tool of power, however, as a means of identification with his dead stepson, and that identification a means in turn to his own salvation. It is this complex chain of ideas that Mr. Coetzee pursues in the last chapters of the book, veering sharply from the implications of Nechayev's trap, and thus from any clear narrative resolution. So the book's momentum is dependent finally on idea rather than incident, with the significance of events contingent on one's grasp of Dostoyevsky's complex frame of beliefs.

All of which makes The Master of Petersburg dense and difficult, a novel that frustrates at every turn. But despite that difficulty, the figure who emerges from these pages, the master himself, in his tortured unhappiness, his terror of the next epileptic seizure, his restless sexuality and his desperate gambling with God, will seize any imagination still susceptible to the complicated passions of the Slav soul. He will reveal himself as a profound man in the throes of a furious struggle to wring meaning and redemption from the death of a son.

Joseph Frank (review date 16 October 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of The Master of Petersburg, in New Republic, Vol. 213, No. 16, October 16, 1995, pp. 53-57.

[In the following review, Frank contends that The Master of Petersburg is an "enigmatic and rather puzzling book" and that Coetzee is one of the most important contemporary English-language writers.]

J. M. Coetzee is a subtle and complex writer whose works invariably contain more than appears on their seemingly pellucid surfaces. He made his reputation with novels that focused on the psychological tension created in the white South African psyche by the social and human anomalies of apartheid. But his special gift is to raise this particular conflict, through a certain starkness of treatment and careful choice of detail, into a parable of the master/slave relationship in all colonial circumstances, in all unjust structures of power. In addition to such works, Coetzee also produced a strange little book called Foe, which was essentially a rewriting of Robinson Crusoe by a female narrator washed ashore on the island of the original Crusoe, who sees many things not contained in the first version, and who unsuccessfully struggles to persuade Defoe to convey her version of events after she returns to England accompanied by the silent Friday, whose thoughts and feelings she tries to fathom.

Such a work reminds us that Coetzee, who teaches literature at the University of Capetown, is a professional linguist and literary scholar as well as a novelist. He sometimes prefers to express his ideas by means of literary pastiche as well as through his highly stylized treatment of contemporary South African life; and his new book is another contribution to this genre of pastiche. The Master of Petersburg draws not on the beginnings of the English novel but on the mid-nineteenth-century Russian novel, in particular on a number of Dostoevsky's creations, great and small. The central figure of the novel is Dostoevsky himself. Another important protagonist is the revolutionary Sergey Nechaev, whom Dostoevsky portrayed, though with no attempt at literal exactitude, in The Devils, and so it might be thought that The Devils is Coetzee's most important source; but he has culled from many places for his own purposes.

Coetzee's story begins in 1869, when Dostoevsky began the writing of The Devils and was living in Dresden with his second wife, afraid to return to Russia because he might be thrown into debtors' prison. In the novel, though, he returns to St. Petersburg with a false passport because he is notified that his stepson. Pavel Isaev, has died. Dostoevsky did have a stepson, the child of his first wife, whom he brought up as his son, and who was a rather feckless though by no means delinquent young man. Pavel, or Pasha, held a number of clerical jobs until his death in 1900. Coetzee thus plays fast and loose with the historical record by killing off Pavel Isaev in 1869; and this raises a more general problem about the book.

Other events that are simply recorded in Coetzee's novel, such as Dostoevsky's adulterous affair in St. Petersburg, or his supposedly catching a glimpse of Nechaev and Bakunin together at a meeting of the League for Peace and Freedom in Geneva, have no basis in fact. Coetzee is a novelist, of course, and he has the novelist's right to play with history. Still, it is regrettable that he did not include a warning to his readers, many of whom will be unfamiliar with the details of Dostoevsky's biography, not to take his fiction as fact. Many will no doubt do so. for the same reason that, as Dostoevsky complained, people thought he had murdered his wife because this was the crime imputed to the narrator of House of the Dead.

The fictional Dostoevsky thus arrived in St. Petersburg to gather up Pasha's effects and to look into the causes of his death. Coetzee's opening pages, rather than reminiscent of The Devils, recall the atmosphere of Dostoevsky's little-known early story "The Landlady," which is somewhat atypical of his work and written in a garishly Romantic style in imitation of Gogol's Ukrainian tales.

Coetzee's Dostoevsky moves into the rooming house in which Pasha lived, and soon enters into a passionate love affair with the enigmatic landlady, much like the young intellectual Ordynov in Dostoevsky's story. And though Coetzee's tonality is a good bit more subdued, his fictional Dostoevsky drifts through the action in much the same semi-hypnotic fashion as Ordynov drifts through "The Landlady," which some critics have taken to be (mistakenly, in my view) a dream-like hallucination of the main character. The Master of Petersburg is written in a very similar register, and Coetzee makes no attempt to provide any realistic psychological motivation for his figures and their actions. Rather than a novel, one might use a musical analogy and call Coetzee's book a poetic fantasia on Dostoevskian themes; it should be read as such a work, and not approached with more conventional expectations as a work of fiction.

The fictional Dostoevsky is portrayed as obsessed by Pasha's death (like so many other Coetzee characters in the grip of different obsessions), and in some obscure way refusing to surrender him to the oblivion of the grave. Motifs from Dostoevsky's work are interwoven with the character's attempt to cope with the sensation of loss produced by Pasha's death, which he feels as really his own. "I am the one who is dead, he thinks; or rather. I died but my death failed to arrive." Just as Prince Myshkin is haunted by the thought of what a condemned man feels in the few moments before the fall of the guillotine, so Dostoevsky here cannot bear … the thought that, for the last fraction of the last instant of his fall, [Pavel jumped, or was pushed, from a height] Pavel knew that nothing could save him, that he was dead. He wants to believe Pavel was protected from that certainty … [but] he wants to believe in order to etherize himself against the knowledge that Pavel, falling, knew everything. By thinking such a thought, Dostoevsky imagines that he is identifying himself completely with Pavel, who is "thinking in him, he thinking … in Pavel. The thought keeps Pavel alive suspended in this fall."

When he goes to pick up Pavel's confiscated papers at the police station, Dostoevsky is informed of Pavel's connection with the Nechaev conspiracy, an underground revolutionary group which murdered one of their members for suspected treason. Readers will think of Raskolnikov's visits to a similar police station, and Coetzee teases them (and amuses himself) by allowing his fictitious Dostoevsky to clarify an obscure sense of having once been in an exactly similar situation. "Somewhere to the side falls the nagging shadow of a memory: surely he has been here before, in this very anteroom or one like it, and had an attack or a fainting fit!" Yes, indeed! He had been here before as Raskolnikov, summoned to pay an IOU and fainting when he hears talk of the murder he has just committed.

Pasha's papers contain a list of people condemned to execution by Nechaev's revolutionary group, "The People's Vengeance"; and the councillor Maximov, who physically resembles the magistrate in Crime and Punishment ("a bald man with the tubby figure of a peasant woman"), suggests that perhaps Pavel's death, rather than an accident or suicide, was a murder by the Nechaev group. Dostoevsky expresses horror and then revulsion at Pasha's links with Nechaev but at the same time sees the revolutionary as the embodiment of a much larger force. What moves Nechaev and accounts for his uncanny influence is not "ideas" (the historical Dostoevsky would have contested this formulation), but "a spirit, and Nechaev himself is not its embodiment but its host; or rather, he is under possession by it." For all his historically accurate hatred of Nechaev, Dostoevsky is finally stirred to protest by Maximov's scornfully detached reading of an awkwardly romantic story written by Pasha, which contains a note of social protest by including the murder of a lecherous landowner about to rape a young peasant girl.

Dostoevsky instinctively springs to Pasha's defense against Maximov's amused contempt, and his tirade broaches what will soon become an important thematic motif. For Dostoevsky accuses Maximov of suppressing his enjoyment of everything that, as an upholder of the law, he presumably wishes to combat and destroy. Of the murdered landowner, Dostoevsky says: "[D]o you suffer with him, or do you secretly exult behind the arm that swings the axe? You don't answer? Let me tell you then: reading is being the arm and being the axe and being the skull; reading is giving yourself up, not holding yourself at a distance and jeering."

As for Maximov's pretense of merely enforcing the law: "Do you not truly want to chop off his [Nechaev's] head and stamp your feet in his blood?"

Literature here, for Coetzee's Dostoevsky, involves a total imaginative participation with all the figures of the story, not only with the victim but also with the murderer revenging an injustice; and Maximov has no right to feel morally superior to the ruthless revolutionary he is pursuing. The fictional Dostoevsky in this way reveals both his view of literature as a surrender to every facet of good and evil projected in a text, and his own capacity to transcend his hatred of Nechaev by viewing Maximov as equally guilty of reveling in bloodshed. One suspects here the influence of Mikhail Bakhtin's suggestive (but somewhat exaggerated) view that the source of Dostoevsky's greatness as a writer is precisely this ability to identify with all his characters to an equal degree, and to allow them unlimited freedom to express their own point of view.

The theme that dominates Coetzee's early chapters—Dostoevsky's desire somehow to keep Pavel alive in memory and his guilty despair at his failure as a father—becomes quite tedious after a while, and less and less artistically persuasive. Luckily, it is taken up and fused with the Nechaev theme, which is far more interesting. Nechaev's group finally contacts Dostoevsky, first through a roly-poly female emissary and then through a transvestite Nechaev, incongruously clad and carefully powdered but with hairs sprouting on his chin. Nechaev insists that the police killed Pavel, and appeals to Dostoevsky, as an ex-revolutionary, to take up the struggle again on the side of his murdered son. Nechaev's passionate plea makes Dostoevsky think of "Christ in his wrath…. The Christ of the Old Testament, the Christ who scourged the usurers out of the temple." But he replies to Nechaev's accusation that "all you can do is mumble and shake your head and cry," with a telling retort. "Is it the voice of the people you obey, or just your own voice, a little disguised so that you need not recognize it?"

The fictional Dostoevsky becomes more and more involved with Nechaev, whom he describes in terms used by the historical Dostoevsky for Stavrogin. "He is a sensualist. He is an extremist of the senses. He wants to live in a body at the limits of sensation, at the limits of bodily knowledge." Nechaev takes him to the decrepit tower in Petersburg from which Pavel fell (or was thrown), and they climb it in a storm-tossed night with "the roofs of St. Petersburg glinting in the rain, the row of tiny lamps along the quayside." Nechaev accuses Dostoevsky of having neglected Pasha, unerringly touching the sorest spot of his conscience ("We were his family when he had no family"); and as the two men shriek in the howling wind while they clamber above the city Coetzee craftily anticipates the reader's reaction to the staginess of this effects. "In fact the whole scene—two men on a moonlit platform high above the streets struggling against the elements, shouting over the wind, denouncing each other—is false, melodramatic": these words are supposed to transcribe Dostoevsky's reaction to what he is experiencing.

The final chapters in which Nechaev and Dostoevsky verbally cross swords constitute the ideological climax of the book, and set "the spirit of justice" against what might be called the spirit of freedom. What will happen, Dostoevsky asks, "once the tempest of the people's vengeance has done its work and everyone has been levelled? Will you still be free to be whom you wish? Will each of us be free to be whom we wish, at last?" Dostoevsky invokes Shigalov's theory of equality praised by Peter Verkhovensky in the The Devils ("if another Copernicus were to arise he should have his eyes gouged out"); but Nechaev replies with an apocalyptic image of total destruction, as a prelude to a perpetual regeneration, which radicalizes even the historical Nechaev and his mentor Bakunin.

The future, for Nechaev, is a revolution "when everything is reinvented, everything erased and reborn: law, morality, the family, everything." The "old way of thinking" will be abolished and (anticipating Mao) "the peasants will be the teachers and the professors will be the students…. Everyone will be reborn with a new heart." When Dostoevsky mentions God, Nechaev rapturously replies that "God will be envious … [and] the angels will stand around us in circles singing their hosannas." Even more, the souls of the dead, the soul of Pavel Isaev, will arise and walk the earth again. Imitating the Christ of the "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor," Dostoevsky embraces Nechaev, "breathing the sour smell of his carbuncular flesh, sobbing, laughing, he kisses him on the left cheek and on the right." Still, in a last feeble effort to resist being swept away, he threatens Nechaev with eternal damnation. But Nechaev charges him with ignorance of theology and invokes the apocryphal legend of the Mother of God who, making "a pilgrimage to hell to plead for the damned," refuses to desist until all have been forgiven (the historical Dostoevsky uses this legend in The Brothers Karamazov).

Finally, at the end of Coetzee's book, street fighting between the students and police has broken out, fires are burning, and "a cloud of smoke hangs over the city." (Coetzee may have been thinking of, and magnifying, what occurred in St. Petersburg in 1862.) Dostoevsky feels that he has been defeated by Nechaev, that he "has lost because, in this debate, he does not believe himself." He leafs through Pavel's papers, and we are met for the first time by Dostoevsky's self-awareness as a writer. For what Pavel (or his master Nechaev, as well as the landlady) did not understand is that "I pay too … I pay and I sell: that is my life. Sell my life, sell the lives of those around me…. Sell you, sell your daughter [Matryona], sell all those I love…. A life without honour; treachery without limit; confession without end." All this has led to a terrifying awareness of his own uncertainty, which requires him, if he is to continue to create, "to put aside all that he himself is, all he has become, down to his very features, and become as a babe again."

By the end of the book, in the chapter significantly called "Stavrogin," Coetzee seems to equate Dostoevsky as a writer—or writing in general—with the efforts of this Byronic dandy transformed into metaphysical rebel to wipe out the boundaries of good and evil. Dostoevsky does not appear as a writer at all until this last chapter, but finally he sits down to compose in Pavel's room, determined to "refuse the chloroform of terror or unconsciousness," and instead, "to live in Russia and hear the voices of Russia murmuring within him. To hold it all within him: Russia, Pavel, death." No longer merely the victim of epilepsy or madness, he willfully becomes their vehicle: "not to emerge from the fall unscathed … to wrestle with the whistling darkness, to absorb it, to make it his medium; to turn the falling into a flying, even if a flying as slow and old and clumsy as a turtle." But he also feels, as he unpacks his writing-case, that he is engaging in an act of betrayal.

What Dostoevsky writes, in the empty pages in Pavel's notebook, is a re-constitution of Pavel's life in the landlady's apartment, garnished with details taken from Stavrogin's confession, the suppressed chapter of The Devils published only after Dostoevsky's death, which recounts his seduction and violation of a young girl. What he has written is "an assault upon the innocence of a child. It is an act for which he can expect no forgiveness," and is in effect a temptation of God. "Now God must speak, now God dare no longer remain silent." He imagines himself standing outside his own soul, "somewhere he stands and watches while he and God circle each other." Writing thus involves the loss of one's soul, it is a challenge to God, and he feels again that "he has betrayed everyone; nor does he see that his betrayal could go deeper." The book ends with the action unresolved; we do not know how or why Pavel died, or whether the fictional Dostoevsky returns to Dresden. And Dostoevsky is left only with a sense of complete emptiness and dispossession, his mouth filled with the bitter taste of gall. "They pay him lots of money for writing books, said the child [Matryona], repeating the dead child [Pavel]. What they failed to say was that he had to give up his soul in return."

This is an enigmatic and rather puzzling book whose aim is difficult to unravel. Clearly Coetzee is not attempting, like a historical novelist, to convey any sort of historically correct image of Dostoevsky's life in 1869; he prefers to make use of his writer's liberties and to invent his own details. He makes only a very perfunctory stab at filling in the St. Petersburg background, and the effect that he creates is more somnambulistic than realistic. What, then, is he trying to do?

Coetzee, one must remember, is a South African writer, and it may be that he felt himself to be living (until very recently) in a society even more repressive than that of Russia in the nineteenth century, and poised like Russia on the edge of a revolutionary upheaval. Dostoevsky is the greatest novelist of modern revolutionary crisis, of the clash of values that such a crisis involves. It is not difficult to understand why Coetzee, who has used the pastiche of Foe to dramatize the issues of feminism and multiculturalism, should use Dostoevsky in the same way to express the dilemmas racking his own society. Coetzee may well have lived the clash between the spirit of justice and the spirit of freedom with all the intensity of Dostoevsky.

But there is also, as we have seen, the problem of writing and the writer, which Coetzee presents so poignantly; and here perhaps he is obliquely taking into account his own personal situation in South African literature. There has never been any ambiguity about his unswerving hostility to the abominations of apartheid, now happily a thing of the past; but he has been harshly criticized in his homeland because his novels did not attack these evils in any overt, socially propagandistic manner. A typical charge, made in 1982, accused him of giving "privileged attention to the predicament of a liberally petty bourgeois intelligentsia." Even the publication, a year later, of his intensely moving Life and Times of Michael K, whose central character is black or a person of color vainly seeking to lead a normal, peaceful life, did not put an end to such brickbats. In 1986, another critic attributed Coetzee's increasing international fame "to the muddled pathos of the position of the white South Africans," which gives such fiction as his its worldwide appeal. Coetzee himself has commented somewhat sadly on the difference in his status at home and abroad.

The Master of Petersburg, then, may be an implicit act of self-defense, a defense of the writer's obligation in an explosive revolutionary period to participate creatively in all sides of the human bedlam, even at the cost of personal self-abandonment. Such an obligation seems to stir Dostoevsky when he rewards Nechaev with the kiss of Christian forgiveness, while being left himself only with a tragic sense of loss and self-betrayal. Is this novel more a self-revelation than may appear at first sight? We can only speculate. One thing, though, can be stated unequivocally: Coetzee is an intriguing and ingenious writer.

T. Kai Norris Easton (essay date December 1995)

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SOURCE: "Text and Hinterland: J. M. Coetzee and the South African Novel," in Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 21, No. 4, December, 1995, pp. 585-99.

[In the following essay, Easton suggests that Coetzee places his novels in settings other than South Africa in order to symbolically emphasize himself as a "regional" writer, highlighting as he does the feelings of displacement of most South Africans.]

There is a certain paradox in placing a writer in a national or regional context, especially a writer like J. M. Coetzee who has distanced himself from such a reading. However, as much as his novels and scholarly criticism range well beyond a South African terrain, they also track this course—at times—quite deliberately. Think only of 'The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee' in the second half of Dusklands or his collection of essays, White Writing. This article will explore the ambivalent space of Coetzee's fiction with particular reference to Life & Times of Michael K and Age of Iron. His novels retreat and roam; like Michael K, they root themselves 'nowhere'. But the South African base is there—in the Cape, from which his stories emigrate. As such, Coetzee's oeuvre might be seen as a series of 'travelling texts' which reinscribes, by dislocation, a South African topography. Indeed, Coetzec's work carries a double tendency towards the South African landscape: one which is concurrently removed and engaged. If it draws heavily from a European tradition, it also drifts in and out of a local one. The question I wish to pose is this: Is there a way to discuss Coetzee's narratives as 'South African' without reducing his novels to a reading of the 'nation'? Or to phrase it differently, can his novels be read as 'national' texts precisely for their fragmented South Africanness—a 'nationality' which presupposes diversity and a mingling of cultures and forms? The discussion which follows makes use of a dispersal of spatial terms. They are not, in any way, meant to contain Coetzee's fiction in a South African context, nor to imply that his fiction is self-containing. Rather, it will be argued that—perhaps against all intentions—his novels offer a new kind of mapmaking which opens up the space of South African fiction.


J. M. Coetzee's fiction-writing career spans two decades and seven novels. Since the publication of Dusklands in 1974 to The Master of Petersburg, released last year, Coetzee has consistently written against the grain, purposefully evasive of commitment to any particular mode of discourse—be it academic, political, intellectual, or literary. Instead, his fiction has crossed boundaries, twisting and bending South Africa's literary frontiers. He has parodied the explorer narrative, the farm novel (or plaasroman) and the traveller's tale, interrogating in his fiction, as well as in his criticism, colonial and apartheid mythologies of land and settlement, possession and ownership.

What is significant is the way in which Coetzee's textual practices and literary landscapes are constantly on the move. His most recent work, for example, published in the year of apartheid's collapse, is set in the late years of tsarist Russia.

That Coetzee steers clear of a South African setting at the height of its most historic political reforms is not surprising, considering that while his sixth novel, Age of Iron, gave us a realist locale—Cape Town in the 1980s—Foe, as its predecessor, had taken on Daniel Defoe's eighteenth-century England and Robinson Crusoe's island. In terms of the South African literary debate, then, where exactly do the novels of J. M. Coetzee fit in?

The Times Literary Supplement marked South Africa's first all-race elections with a special issue focussing, as one might expect, on the anticipated changes to come, on the new politics and the new literature. On the latter, Elleke Boehmer wrote, 'What South African fiction could use more of is narrative structure that embraces choice or, if you will, stories that juggle generic options'. A decade earlier, Njabulo S. Ndebele had called for writers to be 'storytellers, not just casemakers'.

Many others have echoed Ndehele's words. Bessie Head tried to imagine worlds beyond, writing in Tales of Tenderness and Power: 'Possibly too, southern Africa might one day become the home of the storyteller and dreamer…'. It was Albie Sachs, however, in his revolutionary 'Preparing Ourselves for Freedom' address to the ANC in 1989, who made the debate popular—or, at least, controversial—in his proposal that writers should refrain from saying, 'Culture is a weapon of the struggle' for a minimum period of five years. More recently he tells Christopher Hope in a BBC Radio 3 programme, 'There are things to celebrate now, as well as to decry'. But there are writers on the other side of the debate, like Mongane Wally Serote and Keorapetse Kgositsile, who argue that a direct engagement with South African realities is absolutely crucial. The writer and critic 'must be steeped in reality', says Kgositsile, for this is the 'point of departure for any hardnosed imaginative search or exploration'.

How then to decide what aesthetic criteria should be, what the level of relevance? How do realism and postmodernism accommodate a changing society—and is either mode more suitable than the other? In a 'new' South Africa, after so many years of apartheid, of banning and censorship, the question is whether now isn't the time, as Ian Steadman says, to move into 'new terrain'. But if this new terrain is to embrace all cultures, can writing be subject to prescription, can there be a single form and a single view? J. M. Coetzee rejects the notion that there is a certain role the writer should play. 'The alternative which he would have us consider is "whether there might not be a whole spectrum of valid literature open to Africa"'. Within this debate, then, Coetzee would seem to occupy a more inclusive middle ground. In terms of his own work, however, he would have a closer affinity with the first group of writers. A remarkable craftsman, Coetzee is careful and deliberate in his writing, candid and provocative in his interview responses. What we see is a very self-conscious, highly allusive, and playful approach to language and literature—playful in irony and understatement, his dry humour subtly pervading his texts and commentary—but there is an utter seriousness and attentiveness there as well. As Debra Castillo notes in an article on Dusklands:

Thus this game theorist clearly, casually, and brutally articulates the underlying theoretical debate about the role of fiction in South African reality and suggestively positions the novel within that debate.

Not everyone, however, is enamoured with Coetzee's style or technique. A writing which tends towards the metafictional and the non-specific, his 'aesthetics of ambiguity' has disgruntled some critics, who see his work as overrun with 'strategies' and 'gaming'. James Booth applauds Paul Rich's article, 'Apartheid and the Decline of Civilization Idea' for its 'definitive debunking of Coetzee's self-indulgent and grossly overrated book' (i.e. Waiting for the Barbarians). In his view Coetzee has 'absolutely no conception of any positive values outside his own "civilisation"'.

Is Coetzee caught up in his own 'civilisation'—is he too removed from civilisation at large? In an interview with the author, Richard Begam asks a question regarding the state of the novel today: 'The effect—so the argument goes—is a literature which has cut itself off from a general reading public, a literature which is of interest only to the academic'. Both Begam's question and Coetzee's answer are given in general terms; Coetzee's response, though not directly related to his own work, is interesting for its implications. His words are typically provisional:

I suppose that … writers ought to be wary and ask themselves every now and again whether they are not cutting themselves off from real human concerns. But, when we look around who are in fact the writers who have lost themselves in narcissism? Few that I can name. And to take the point one step further, I think it is possible to ask oneself that very question and come back with a perfectly serious answer: yes, I may indeed be cutting myself off, at least from today's readers: nevertheless, what I am engaged in doing is more important than maintaining that contact.

The engagement Coetzee is describing here may sound, on the surface, elitist, but at the basis of it seems to be a moral code. The suggestion is for a more lasting type of relevance, for something more substantial, for something which goes beyond the immediate present. Mazisi Kunene's maxim might apply: one should write, he says, 'as though reporting to somebody who will be here in a thousand years from now…'. David Attwell positions Coetzee's work as an attempt to project a 'post-humanist, reconstructed ethics'. Indeed, there is an ethical underpinning to Coetzee's work, and an arguably conscious effort not to follow 'established' codes of liberalism and fiction; he chooses instead to cross or redefine the boundaries, maintaining, at the same time, the distance of doubt. Bessie Head once asked, 'If one is a part of it, through being born there, how does one communicate with the horrible?'. The answer given by Coetzee's character, Mrs Curren in Age of Iron, suggests the near impossibility of that communication: 'To speak of this', she says, 'you would need the tongue of a god'—or, perhaps, the missing tongue of Friday in Foe.

Each of Coetzee's novels, through its play on land, language, and identity, interrogates—to use Susan Barton's term in Foe—the 'father-born' epistemologies of history, geography, and categorisation. In the Foucauldian sense, the question is, 'What rules, for instance, allow the construction of a map, model, or classificatory system?'. And as Said reminds us in Orientalism:

We must take seriously Vico's great observation that men make their own history, that what they can know is what they have made, and extend it to geography: as both geographical and cultural entities—to say nothing of historical entities….

'Rival Topographies'

As Coetzee's discussion in White Writing delineates, the white South African literary landscape consisted of two rival 'dream topographies': one which was 'a network of boundaries crisscrossing the surface of the land, marking off thousands of farms, each a separate kingdom ruled over by a benign patriarch …'; the other which portrayed South Africa 'as a vast, empty, silent space…. The imperial-born myth of the 'unsettled' land is thus the origin of a literature which is just as empty: white pastoral inscribes itself on the colonial South African imagination, but exhibits only a superficial topography—an economic one where black labour is but a 'shadowy presence' to the settlers' farms.

Evoked through the genre of the Afrikaans plaasroman (and to a lesser extent its English counterpart, the farm novel), the literature of white pastoral, with its idealised rural order and insularity, gave rise to nationalist sentiment. Published in 1883, Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm was perhaps the first work of fiction in white South African literature to reject the pastoral. She initiates a more sceptical vision of white settlement in South Africa, putting the terrain, a 'merciless' and 'monstrous' one, at the centre of her narrative.

A century after Schreiner's story was published, South African literature showed signs of a different kind of settlement. Writers were struggling not against colonial modes such as the white pastoral, but against the modes imposed on the imagination under an increasingly brutal system of apartheid. As Coetzee described it in his 1987 Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, South African literature was 'a literature in bondage'; it was 'exactly the kind of literature you would expect people to write from a prison'. In an article published the same year, Neil Lazarus called it an 'obsessional literature…. It tracks relentlessly and more or less pitilessly over the ever more restricted terrain to which, by virtue of its situation, it is condemned'.

What we keep seeing, in historical and literary representations of South Africa, are boundaries, in effect, that confine geographies, people, fiction. At the time of this speech, as an author of five novels, J. M. Coetzee had fully established himself as a writer. Of these five novels, the first two, Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country, can be seen 'as deliberate revisions of two of the most common South African genres: the travel narrative and the farm novel'. His fourth novel, Life & Times of Michael K, roams around the southwestern Cape—from Cape Town to the Karoo and back again, while his sixth novel, Age of Iron, is set in a Cape Town suburb in riot-ridden late 1980s South Africa.

The third, fifth, and seventh novels situate themselves elsewhere: Waiting for the Barbarians is an invented, non-specific landscape (a remote frontier 'oasis' of Empire); Foe's location moves from an unnamed island to Bristol and London and other bits of England in between; and The Master of Petersburg travels back in time to Dostoevsky's nineteenth-century Russia.

Despite Coetzee's obvious engagement with ideas, theories, and literatures of the West, as well as his reluctance to take on the label of a 'South African novelist', the influence of the country is clearly there: it is enough so that Attwell actually refers to him as a 'regional writer'. Certainly, in the Jerusalem address, Coetzee is speaking for himself as well as other South African writers: 'How we long to quit a world of pathological attachments and abstract forces, of anger and violence', he says, 'and take up residence in a world where a living play of feelings and ideas is possible …

In a different address at the 1987 Weekly Mail book festival, Coetzee's response was less one of lament, more a certain kind of call to literary action. In this speech, he proposed the freedom of the novel, the novel to 'rival history':

… a novel that operates in terms of its own procedures and issues in its own conclusions, not one that operates in terms of the procedures of history … a novel that evolves its own paradigms and myths … perhaps going so far as to show up the mythic status of history—in other words, demythologising history.

'Cape Inscription'—Coetzee's Altered Geographies

The Cape of Good Hope was one of the few places in Africa where Northern Europeans had access to the continental interior. It was a magnet both for settlers and for explorers eager to make their mark.

Coetzee's demythologising tackles history and its colonial mappings, most notably in the region of the Cape. On 'writing' the Cape, the following example from Paul Carter's excellent study, The Road to Botany Bay, makes for an interesting comparison.

In 1801, the name 'Cape Inscription' was given to a spot on the north-west coast of Australia by a Captain Emmanuel Hamelin, who found on this particular piece of earth a pewter plate. On the plate were inscriptions of two explorers, both Dutch, who had 'discovered' this Cape on separate excursions. Hamelin's name for this bit of coast is surprisingly apt, linking as it does with the act he is performing. As Carter writes, '… Such a name … belongs firmly to the history of travelling … It suggests a kind of history which is neither static nor mindlessly mobile, but which incorporates both possibilities'.

Carter creates his own use for the name 'Cape Inscription', saying it is emblematic of the approach he took in writing his book. His discussion of Captain Cook's naming process observes a similar notion, describing the names Cook offered as 'means, not of settling, but of travelling on'. Carter has hit on a crucial question: Is there a way to 'write' the Cape (or any place) without replicating a colonial 'script of possession'? And, if so, what is behind the writing?

J. M. Coetzee's reinscription of the Cape reveals a cartography closer to Carter's. As Rita Barnard writes:

What is at stake for him is not place or landscape as an object of mimesis, but the discursive and generic and political codes that inform our understanding and knowledge of place. There is a deliberate analytical unsettledness in Coetzee, which deconstructs, rather than assimilates to, any South African literary tradition, or any South African 'sense of place'.

Two of Coetzee's novels are set in Cape Town itself. But while Age of Iron situates itself definitively there, Life & Times of Michael K resists complete enclosure. One striking geographical detail is omitted from this text: the name of the country itself. As such, it might be read, to use Attwell's term for Waiting for the Barbarians, as a 'pivotal' one in Coetzee's corpus: its ambiguous space and shifting narrative, not to mention the elusiveness of Michael K himself, are in many ways representative of Coetzee's narrative practice as a whole. Coetzee places himself geographically, but only provisionally—although consider his comments below:

I do believe that people can only be in love with one landscape in their lifetime. One can appreciate and enjoy many geographies, but there is only one that one feels in one's bones. And I certainly know from experience that I don't respond to Europe or the United States in the same way as I do to South Africa. And I would probably feel a certain sense of artificial background construction if I were to write a fiction set in another environment.

This statement made by Coetzee in a 1984 interview holds up Susan VanZanten Gallagher's theory—perhaps South Africa influences Coetzee's fiction more than he (otherwise) admits. For what is it except a certain kind of 'artificial background construction' in his third novel Waiting for the Barbarians? And what does this say for his response to Tony Morphet regarding the geography of Michael K? When asked whether the 'highly specified' location of this novel was an attempt for a 'more direct and immediate conversation with South African readers' or, indeed, 'part of another strategy', Coetzee replied:

The geography is, I fear, less trustworthy than you imagine—not because I deliberately set about altering the reality of Sea Point or Prince Albert but because I don't have much interest in, or can't seriously engage myself with, the kind of realism that takes pride in copying the 'real' world. The option was, of course, open to me to invent a world out of place and time and situate the action there, as I did in Waiting for the Barbarians; but that side of Waiting for the Barbarians was an immense labor, and what would have been the point, this time round?

It is very appropriate that Coetzee invents his imperial landscape in Waiting for the Barbarians, for it represents both the artificial (i.e. imaginary) war that the 'barbarians' are engaged in and the artificial possession by Empire of their land. Rosemary Jolly, in her article, 'Territorial Metaphor', demonstrates the central place that the setting has both in Coetzee's purpose for the book and in critics' reception of it, including this comment by Leon Whiteson:

The geography is garbled; there is desert and snow, lizards and bears. The story is told in that most awkward tense; the historic present. The dialogue is stiff, the writing has the air of translation…. Coetzee's bad dreams have not been earned by any truth…. The heart of this novel is not darkness but mush.

Whiteson's idea of a novel involves a geography as superficial as that marked by settler colonialism: a geography of sameness rather than variety, of the identical rather than the diversified. Coetzee's fiction puts this uniform space into question. In so doing, his maps do not duplicate what is already there—but neither are they as patchy as Whiteson seems to indicate. As Jolly notes, 'The geography of his fiction may not correspond to an identifiable geographical political entity, but its depiction is both detailed and comprehensible'. In a comment Coetzee himself makes to David Attwell more recently, he acknowledges that 'Barbarians is more accommodating toward nature description' than either of his first two novels: 'But of course what is "described" in Barbarians is a landscape I have never seen; whereas I know the landscape of the other two books, to say nothing of Michael K, all too well'.

Life & Times of Michael K

Life & Times of Michael K, his fourth novel and winner of the 1983 Booker Prize, is indeed more familiar terrain for Coetzee; it is set in what is not only a recognisable South Africa, but returns to his home region—Cape Town and the Karoo. But the Cape Coetzee comes back to is no longer the site of imperial narratives, as in the 'Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee' in Dusklands, where the archetypal hunter-explorer treks through the wilderness, naming it and claiming it as he goes along; nor is it the numbered entries of the 'locked diary' of Magda, the lonely spinster and reluctant 'daughter of the colonies' in In the Heart of the Country, who lives out a stultifying existence in the aridity of this desert. In each of his first two novels we have protagonists who are left on a surface, exterior Cape landscape. But in Life & Times of Michael K, the main character is neither trying to explore nor settle, mock nor imitate the pastoral. Michael K's relationship is one of affinity with the stony ground; he is virtually 'lodged within the landscape' as he burrows himself into the soil.

From Waiting for the Barbarians, the 'Other' has moved into the forefront: K is the primary focus of the thoughts of two separate voices: one unnamed 'limited omniscient' narrator; the other, in part 2 of the novel, by the medical officer at Kenilworth. In this dual address to K's story, what comes across is a resistance to the fabrication and objectification of the 'Other'. Unlike the 'Hottentots' in Jacobus Coetzee's narrative, or the servants Hendrik and 'Klein-Anna' in Magda's diary, Michael K is hardly in the background. Even within these 'Other' narratives, K is self-defined; and his assertiveness comes through in his frequent escapes, in his suggestive silences, in his crafting and cleverness, in his unyielding to any type of colonisation, either mental or physical.

Sea Point is the site with which the novel begins and ends. The narrative travels full circle, following Michael K on a journey to take his ill mother, by the wheelbarrow cart of his own invention, from Cape Town to the rural home of her childhood in the Karoo. The structure of the book consists of three parts, the first and third of which are told in style indirect libre. Part 1 comprises the bulk of the story with the life and times thus far of Michael K, a gardener for the municipal parks, and his mother Anna K, as they try to escape to the country.

The flat desert Karoo over which K travels is cut through by the 'national road'. Like Jacobus Coetzee's 'devouring path' in Dusklands, the road is the symbol of the state's occupation and defence line during war-time; it is full of roadblocks and checkpoints—barriers which prevent Michael and his mother, who do not have the required permit, from travelling beyond Cape Town on their first expedition to Prince Albert. K imagines there must be less controlled spaces: '… next time we'll go by the back roads. They can't block every road out'. K's travels are not unencumbered, but the possibility is posed: has the mapping out of national roads and blockades left any areas unoccupied? Have they crisscrossed the entire country or are there areas yet uncontained, unclaimed—areas not yet 'parcelled and possessed'?

On his second expedition, K does manage to counter the bureaucratic barriers, travelling without a permit and getting as far as Stellenbosch, but he later refers to it as a 'place of ill-luck', for it is where his mother dies in hospital. From here, K's devotion will be to his mother earth: he will continue the journey to Prince Albert and occupy himself in a new garden, beginning with the cultivation of his mother's ashes at what he thinks is the farm of her birthplace. 'Now I am here, he thought, Or at least I am somewhere'.

The war landscape, if not explicitly descriptive, is more pronounced in this novel than in Waiting for the Barbarians. The epigraph from Heraclitus immediately defines the opposition: the war in Michael K has been constructed by the 'founding fathers'—the founding colonisers:

     War is the father of all and kind of all.
     Some he shows as gods, others as men.
     Some he makes slaves, and other free.

In this war, however, the enemy is no longer the Empire's construction. Here the state is having to battle with a real enemy, the majority population whom they have thus far controlled and oppressed. Nöel's reply to the medical officer in part 2: 'We are fighting this war … so that minorities will have a say in their destinies', is the only hint we have of the politics of this war. The symbolism, which Stephen Clingman speaks of below, points to an apocalyptic vision:

In Life & Times virtually the entire setting is symbolic—a symbolic landscape as much as a real one traversed by Michael K. Here the function of the symbolism is also specific, having to do with the confrontation of various choices in the landscape of the future.

Security measures have intensified. Military jeeps, riot troops, police vans, looters and guards, shots and sirens, shuttered windows and abandoned houses are the signs of the 'local' war in the city. As K and his mother huddle together in the Buhrmanns' devastated flat in Cape Town, 'the conviction grew in them that the real war had come to Sea Point and found them out'.

But the real war, the scenes of warfare, are very much left in the background. The focus is rather on this fringe character, Michael K, who keeps to the sides of the road, to the slopes and mountains. Disfigured by his hare lip, and described by others as a 'simpleton' or an 'idiot', Michael K is nevertheless a clever and adaptable person, who creates space for himself as he ranges over the landscapes of Cape Town and the Karoo.

He thought: Now surely I have come as far as a man can come; surely no one will be mad enough to cross these plains, climb these mountains, search these rocks to find me; surely now that in all the world only I know where I am, I can think of myself as lost. (Life & Times of Michael K)

Unlike Magda in In the Heart of the Country, K does want to be one of the 'forgotten ones of history'. In his makeshift existence at the dam, when he returns for the second time, he wishes to leave no trace of himself; and thus he will not inscribe history like a castaway or a prisoner, for '… his life by the dam was not a sentence that he had to serve out'. He uses materials and tools that will disintegrate into the earth; and, unlike the 'founding fathers', K refutes the idea of patrimony: '… I am not building a house out here by the dam to pass on to other generations', for 'The worst mistake, he told himself, would be to try to found a new house, a rival line …'.

But the garden spot does rival the farmhouse: precisely because K's existence by the dam is not an imitation of that structure, but one which is based on completely different terms. And when the guerrillas come to the farm, there is that much-quoted moment when he considers joining the war effort:

Yet in the same instant that he reached down to check that his shoelaces were tied, K knew that he would not crawl out and stand up and cross from darkness into firelight to announce himself. He even knew the reason why: because enough men had gone off to war saying the time for gardening was when the war was over, whereas there must be men to stay behind and keep gardening alive, or at least the idea of gardening….

The garden is thus a site of resistance, for K is defining his own role. He is not a fighter, but a cultivator. One must also remember that he makes the 'deserted farm bloom', which, when he arrived, was simply a 'rockery garden in which nothing was growing'. Additionally, in order to make these pumpkins grow, K must work in a very disciplined and strategical fashion: he is not cultivating an open and abundant garden. He uses the pump sparingly and only at night; he has only a certain number of seeds, and only two kinds: pumpkins and melons. Having to hide out from the enemy as it were, he camouflages his existence. And realising he could be betrayed by his pumpkins, which he first piled 'in a pyramid near his burrow; it looked like a beacon', he than goes through elaborate measures to disguise them, painting 'each shell in a mottled pattern' with a mud paste. Earlier, when a helicopter flies above him, he realises the absurdity of cultivating such visible vegetables. He muses: 'They can see everything from the air, everything that by its nature does not hide underground. I should be growing onions'.

But lest we start to glorify Michael K and his garden, and write our own version of the pastoral or an adventure tale, it is clear that his existence is minimalist; it is not romantic: '… a man must be ready to live like a beast', he says; and then, 'One cannot live like this'. Coetzee himself emphasises 'how terribly transitory that garden life of K's is: he can't hope to keep the garden because, finally, the whole surface of South Africa has been surveyed and mapped and disposed of'.

At odds with Voltaire's romantic credo from Candide: 'Il faut cultiver le jardin', is the reality of Michael's lot. As a member of the 'multitude in the second class' (as the medical officer calls him), K lives within certain restrictions. In what seems to be a South African landscape, we have a character who seems to be a member of the majority oppressed class. But, with the exception of the medical officer's reference above, and his charge sheet designation of 'CM', which may or may not refer to 'Coloured Male', Michael K is classified, within the first paragraph of the text, not by his race, as Kelly Hewson notes, but by his disfigurement.

K will be put in his first 'camp' at Huis Norenius, an orphanage for afflicted children, for his supposed simplemindedness, at the expense of the state. Now, during war-time, the state will fund other camps for Michael K. After his one-day stint in a labour gang on the railroad tracks near Touws River, he will have more extended stays in Jakkalsdrif, a 'resettlement camp', (what he had thought, from his view in the mountains, was a 'construction site') and then at the old racecourse Kenilworth, the 'rehabilitation camp'/hospital in part 2. They try to contain K within these bits of barbed wire, the guards on duty; and others try to contain him with euphemisms, renaming the sites: 'This isn't a prison', said the man. 'Didn't you hear the policeman tell you it isn't a prison? This is Jakkalsdrif. This is a camp', even going so far as to say, 'You climb the fence … and you have left your place of abode. Jakkalsdrif is your place of abode now. Welcome'.

Throughout the text, Michael K is creating his own environment. He is a resilient figure, despite his bouts of hunger and fever and confinement in various camps. But is his garden life a 'rival topography' in this state of civil war?

There is first the distinction, which K himself makes, between the garden he cultivated in Cape Town at Wynberg Park and the garden he cultivates in the Karoo: '… he was no longer sure that he would choose green lawns and oak-trees to live among…. It is no longer the green and the brown that I want but the yellow and the red….'. Secondly, there is Coetzee's reply to Tony Morphet that if there is a 'structural opposition' between 'camp' and 'garden', it is 'at most at a conceptual level'.

Coetzee's answer is based on the ephemeral nature of K's garden existence; but perhaps K's own 'dream topography', which closes the novel, closes down the camp sites as well.

Fences and Fictions

He could understand that people should have retreated here and fenced themselves in with miles and miles of silence; he could understand that they should have wanted to bequeath the privilege of so much silence to their children and grandchildren in perpetuity {though by what right he was not sure) … (Life & Times of Michael K)

As Michael K's movements show, fences are simply signs of an outward, exterior story: they cannot, in the end, enclose him. Moreover, K proves himself to be both good at escaping them and, ironically, talented at making them. As the farmer in one of his Jakkalsdrif work gang assignments tells him, he has 'a feel for wire' and 'should go into fencing. There will always be a need for good fencers in this country, no matter what'. Later, running through the 'almost empty' landscape upon his escape from Jakkalsdrif, he feels a 'craftsman's pleasure' in the taut wire of the fences he is ducking. But K has never been the entrepreneur, never the proprietor, and 'he could not imagine himself spending his life driving stakes into the ground, erecting fences, dividing up the land'.

Fence posts, barbed wire and the national roads dot the landscape—within these enclosures are the farms captured by settlers. The fences both exclude and isolate, and Magda, in the heart of the country with too much land, is sceptical of her inheritance: 'But how real is our possession?… the land knows nothing of fences, the stones will be here when I have crumbled away….'

The interior of the land resists capture, finally, like Michael K. It insists on identification, not exploration, so that even Jacobus Coetzee questions in his narrative whether he is truly able to penetrate the interior, 'Are they not perhaps fictions, these lures of interiors for rape which the universe uses to draw out its explorers?'

Age of Iron

Age of Iron (1990), Coetzee's sixth novel, is an even more identifiable and contemporary South Africa then Life & Times of Michael K, where, as Cynthia Ozick writes, 'Except for the reference to Cape Town and to place-names that are recognizably Afrikaans, we are not even told that this is the physical and moral landscape of South Africa.' Indeed, there is no textual reference to 'South Africa' in Michael K, although the back cover blurb of the Penguin edition designates the setting as a 'South Africa torn by civil war'.

In Age of iron, there are not such geographical gaps: we know this is South Africa, but the topography has shifted—both in Coetzee's narrative style and in the novel's landscape. Not since Dusklands (the dated narratives of both Eugene Dawn and Jacobus Coetzee) have any of Coetzee's novels been assigned such a particular time and place. And from the imagined apocalyptic vision in Life & Times of Michael K, here is something even more tangible: the 'emergency years' of 1986–1989, during which Coetzee was writing the novel, are the context for the novel itself.

The desert Karoo of much of Michael K has given way to the seascape of Cape Town; K left us in Sea Point, but Mrs Curren's sea brings us to False Bay, and it is just as empty as the sea which surrounds Susan Barton's desert isle in Foe. It is neither a source of inspiration nor a site of activity, but a symbol of the 'sluggish, half asleep' minority population. Here, South Africa is not a land of beauty or mystery, but is 'Fixed in the mind as a place of flat, hard light, without shadows, without depth'. As Benita Parry says in her review of the book, '… the drably named False Bay is redesignated a "bay of false hope"; and a land renowned for its scenery and sunshine … is derided for its "uninspired name"'.

Mill Street of the suburbs is not described for its comforts or its opulence, but for its slow decay. Mrs Curren's own house 'is tired of waiting for the day, tried of holding itself together'. The sagging of the gutters, the clogging of pipes—the house itself represents the country's malaise:

A house built solidly but without love, cold, inert now, ready to die. Whose walls the sun, even the African sun, has never succeeded in warming, as though the very bricks, made by the hands of convicts, radiate an intractable sullenness.

Constructed by the labour of prisoners, the house is not a home, nor a landmark of history, but a 'site without a human past…'. The orders of the 'patricians of Cape Town' a hundred years earlier that 'there be erected spacious homes for themselves and their descendants in perpetuity …' are thus empty of promise. In this 'age of iron', white patrimony and pastoral no longer have a place. Echoing Coetzee's 'failure of love' theme in his Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, Mrs Curren's words, this time, carry some weight:

A land in the process of being repossessed, it heirs quietly announcing themselves. A land taken by force, used, despoiled, spoiled, abandoned in its barren late years. Loved too, perhaps, by its ravishers, but loved only in the bloomtime of its youth and therefore, in the verdict of history, not loved enough.

The landscape itself recoils, rendering Mrs Curren's own version of the pastoral obsolete. She has rested her roots in South Africa on her mother's story of the early days of settlement—'in the age of ox-wagons'. But the site of her 'natal earth', the Piesangs River, 'Such a lovely golden name! I was sure it must be the most beautiful place on earth', becomes—in Mrs Curren's own adulthood—'Not a river at all, just a trickle of water choked with reeds…. Not Paradise at all'.

Pastoral is seen to be an old, old story—the old story of the 'shadowy presence', like the gardener who is missing from her family photo: 'Who are the ghosts and who the presences?… No longer does the picture show who were in the garden frame that day, but who were not there'.

'After [the] Bigger Game'

The feel of writing fiction is one of freedom, of irresponsibility, or better, of responsibility toward something that has not yet emerged ….

In an 'emerging' South Africa, Coetzee's literary landscapes are landscapes in the making; boundaries are renegotiated, erased, or ever-shifting. Like Michael K, who 'wondered whether there were not forgotten corners and angles and corridors between the fences, land that belonged to one yet', Coetzee's novels speak from spatial margins which question—rather than reclaim—notions of space.

Since territory, in the South African context, is such an explosive term, the seemingly 'marginal' concerns in his fiction have in the past provoked charges against him of 'evasiveness' and 'ambivalence'. These very positions or conditions of Coetzee's work, however, are the nature of his commitment: contestation rather than rigid fixity and unthinking acceptance; arbitrariness and alternative narratives instead of confining literatures and methodologies.

Taken together, the terrain of Coetzee's fiction shows movement: there are gradations in the landscape as well as gradations in his fictional technique. But the 'ruptures' within his novelistic corpus demonstrate a dual concern: there is a commitment to craft, to the play of writing; and there is a deeper, ethical sense which is not bound in liberal-humanism, but which might be more accurately recognised as the 'rational humanism' to which Neil Lazarus refers in terms of T. W. Adorno's model of modernism: '… however problematical and problematized—[it] might well exist as the only aesthetic on the side of freedom.'

Coetzee's aesthetic preferences would indicate a need to find different approaches, imagine new scenes—and new scenery, perhaps. For not only is he not interested in 'copying the "real" world', as he tells Morphet, it would appear that he is not interested in copying himself. Regarding the change-over in Michael K to a more 'specified' location as compared with the 'invented' landscape of Waiting for the Barbarians, he says (as quoted earlier): '… and what would have been the point, this time round?'

Coetzee is, however, consistently wary of language and entrapment. His attitude toward literary discourses—academic and fictional—are, as with his politics, non-committal. There is a tendency to subsume him under a 'postmodernist' heading, it seems, because he writes in a postmodernist fashion. Attwell also places him as 'working within the culture of postmodernism',but with the qualifier that 'he certainly does not do so in the spirit of abandonment that seems to typify much of what goes on under the name'.

His attitude towards realist modes of fiction is generally known, and otherwise evident, for the most part, from his novels. In a 1978 interview with Stephen Watson, he commented that he admired Nadine Gordimer's work but 'would like to think that today the novel is after a bigger game [than the critical realist type]'. This 'bigger game', however, doesn't simply carry the label of 'postmodernism'. Despite the fact that he sometimes plays within it, 'pilfering' and 'adapting' what he can, Coetzee is sceptical of the trend—or at least some of its conventions. As he tells Attwell:

Anti-illusionism—displaying the tricks you are using instead of hiding them—is a common ploy of postmodernism. But in the end there is only so much mileage to get out of the ploy. Anti-illusionism is, I suspect, only a marking of time, a phase of recuperation, in the history of the novel. The question is, what next?

What is to emerge, rather, in Coetzee's own fiction?


If, as a writer, Coetzee has placed himself outside a narrowly defined 'national' field, it could also be argued that the progressions and digressions in his oeuvre are essential to the multivocality of a 'new' South Africa. Through parody and irony, plays on genre and geography, and elaborate intertextuality, Coetzee's novels perform cultural leaps. One could say that the 'South Africanness' of his narratives comes only from this '"doubleness" in writing'. That is, as Homi Bhabha has discussed in his seminal piece, 'DissemiNation', referring to an essay by John Barrell '… a discourse that was at the same time obsessively fixed upon, and uncertain of, the boundaries of society, and the margins of the text'.

In his paper, 'Reading for the Nation', Anthony Vital says he chose to focus his discussion on Michael K and Age of Iron

because of all Coetzee's novels to date, by drawing conspicuously on conventions of realism, they insist on their South African location. Through techniques of both naming and plotting, each constructs a space that is identifiably Cape Town and surrounding regions.

Interestingly, what follows each of these novels—Foe and The Master of Petersburg—are revisions of earlier texts from other empires. If Coetzee is sceptical about the 'newness' of South Africa as a nation, his fiction proves that the 'South African' novel is far from being exhausted. Rather, it shows, as Graham Huggan and John Noyes have used the term, vivid signs of 're-territorialisation'.

Long ago begun by Jacobus Coetzee and his ilk, 'the outward story', in an ironic twist, has been reclaimed by a descendant, who shows a different sort of exploration at work. It belongs not to the colonial trek of possession, but to the post-colonial route of configuration. Through his migratory maps, Coetzee contributes to a radical remaking of South African literature and history—a nomadic discourse—which works to displace any static notion of what constitutes (or has constituted) South Africa as a space.

Mike Marais (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: "Places of Pigs: The Tension between Implication and Transcendence in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg," in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXXI, No. 1, 1996, pp. 83-95.

[In the following essay, Marais contrasts relations of power in Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg.]


In a recent article on J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg, Stephen Watson observes that "the bulk of South African literature gives much evidence of that atheism of the imagination which is always conspicuous when a writer has set up barriers between human beings and the crucial questions of existence, such as their very awareness of themselves as spiritual beings". Watson maintains, however, that Coetzee's novels do not exhibit this form of "truncated imagination":

There are times in his recent fiction, particularly The Master of Petersburg, when it really does seem as if the spiritual needs of human beings are not simply the alienated form of their longing for justice and fraternity; when these emerge, clearly, as an expression of ineradicable psychic drives as well as the consequence of facts about our human situation which no amount of social engineering can hope to change.

This remark overlooks an aspect of The Master of Petersburg which is a key feature of Coetzee's recent fiction: its thematization of the inevitable implication of literature in the relations of power which determine the social context in which it is produced. By extension, then, the "truncated imagination" to which Watson refers is a condition of writing in a politically-fraught social context, one which Coetzee's novels cannot escape. Despite this oversight, however, Watson's remark does touch on a significant and paradoxical dimension of these novels which runs counter to this self-conscious admission of implication, that is, the desire which they evince to become a more human literature by transcending the stultifying politics of their social context. It would seem, then, that Coetzee's recent fiction is grounded in a paradox, one which this article will examine by means of a comparison of Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg.


Set in Petersburg in late 1869, The Master of Petersburg focuses on the murder of a young student, Ivanov, by a group of nihilists led by Sergei Nechaev. The killing of Ivanov by this group of student revolutionaries is probably best remembered as the historical event which inspired Dostoevsky to write The Devils, a novel which explores the political implications of the ethical problem posed in Crime and Punishment, that is, the indifference of the amoral superman, in the absence of a spiritual essence, to issues of good and evil. Coetzee's decision to focus on the above-mentioned incident suggests that he too, like Dostoevsky, wishes to examine the ethical ramifications of political nihilism in his novel. Furthermore, the fact that he departs from history by making the murdered student Dostoevsky's stepson, and by fabricating Dostoevsky's return from exile to Petersburg following the murder, suggests, in addition, that he wishes to explore the latter writer's personal and artistic response to the amorality of these revolutionaries.

Dostoevsky's literary response to revolutionary nihilism revolves around the biblical story of the Gadarene swine, a tale in which unclean devils, having been exorcized from a sick man by Christ, enter a herd of swine. This story serves as the structural metaphor through which Dostoevsky explores and ultimately condemns political nihilism in The Devils. As the following comparisons drawn by one of the nihilists in the novel indicate, the story generates a series of analogies which suggests that Russia is a "sick man" possessed by devils, and that the swine which the devils enter upon being exorcized are the revolutionaries:

These devils who go out of the sick man and enter the swine—those are all the sores, all the poisonous exhalations, all the impurities, all the big and little devils, that have accumulated in our great and beloved invalid, in our Russia, for centuries … all those devils, all those impurities, all those abominations that were festering on the surface … will themselves ask to enter into swine…. They are we … and we shall cast ourselves down, the raving and the possessed, from the cliff into the sea and shall all be drowned, and serves us right, for that is all we are good for.

It is misguided to conclude, as David Coad does, that since Dostoevsky implies "that the [nihilists] are possessed by the devil, pervaded by evil", Coetzee simply shares this conviction. It is true that he employs the parallels created by The Devils when his own character, Dostoevsky, argues that it is futile to imprison revolutionaries such as Sergei Nechaev since nihilism is a "spirit" for which the individual is merely a "vehicle", a "host". However, he applies the story of the Gadarene swine not only to Russia and the phenomenon of revolutionary nihilism, but also to Dostoevsky himself and his literary response to this phenomenon. So, in The Master of Petersburg, Dostoevsky is depicted as a "sick man" possessed by devils. The outward sign of this affliction is his epilepsy, a sickness which the novel relates to demon possession. Indeed, he speculates that not "seizure" but "possession" would be "the right word" to describe the fits from which he suffers. Coetzee's application of the story of the Gadarene swine to Dostoevsky's artistic response to nihilism emerges when this character is described as shaking "his head as if to rid it of a plague of devils". Elsewhere, Anna Sergeyevna tells him that he is "in the grip of something quite beyond [her]" and while engaging in sexual intercourse with him, at the onset of climax, she utters the word "devil". Significantly, in this scene the sexual act is depicted as both an inspiration and an exorcism, with Anna Sergeyevna occupying the dual role of muse and exorcist. As the novel ends shortly afterwards with Dostoevsky commencing work on The Devils, the implication, therefore, is that this text is also to be equated with the exorcized spirits in the story of the Gadarene swine. Clearly, this equation gives the title of Dostoevsky's text fresh significance. A further inference now also surfaces, namely that the readers within whom copies of the novel can be said to take up residence correspond to the swine in the biblical study.

I read Coetzee's reworking of the story of the Gadarene swine in The Master of Petersburg as a comment on the implication of writer and literature in the power dynamics or "sickness" of the social context in which they are located. Through applying the story to the artist and the artistic process itself, Coetzee suggests that Dostoevsky and his work are not immune to the "sickness" of Russia. Both are a part of Russia and are therefore also "sick". It is significant, for example, that as the novel develops, the boundaries between this character and his social context are increasingly blurred. He refers, for example, to epilepsy as "the emblematic sickness of the age" and earlier equates himself with Russia: "I am required to live … a Russian life: a life inside Russia, or with Russia inside me".

Clearly, "sickness" and devilry in this novel therefore serve as a metaphor for a destructive force at work in Russian society. The nature of this force is never clearly revealed in The Master of Petersburg but can be deduced when this novel is compared with Age of Iron. In both novels, a strong affinity emerges between the protagonist and his/her social and physical context—in the latter case, South Africa. Thus Mrs Curren describes the country as her "mother", "the place of the navel, the place where [she] join[s] the world". Moreover, like Dostoevsky, she too is ill and her illness, cancer, serves as a correlative of the diseased and deformed nature of South African society. In this regard, Mrs Curren often refers to South Africans as being ugly, deformed or virtually inhuman. As the novel proceeds, it gradually emerges from Coetzee's use of mythological analogies that it is the apartheid state's structures of power that exert this deforming influence on its citizens. So, for example, Mrs Curren claims that her tumours have been "sent by Saturn" or Cronus, the archetypal political father. Furthermore, the state and its ideological apparatuses are on various occasions likened to the Gorgons and to Circe, myths which deal with the metamorphosis of human beings into stone and swine. The implication here, then, is that the state's power relations have dehumanized South African people.

In both Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg, Coetzee's point seems to be that the networks of power within the societies in question pervade and pervert every aspect of life, including art. "Power", as Mrs Curren puts it, "is power, after all. It invades. That is its nature". A less cryptic statement on the corrosive aspect of power can be found in Coetzee's "Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech":

About these [unnatural] structures of power [that define the South African state] there is a great deal to be said…. The deformed and stunted relations between human beings that were created under colonialism and exacerbated under what is loosely called apartheid have their psychic representation in a deformed and stunted inner life. All expressions of that inner life, no matter how intense, no matter how pierced with exultation or despair, suffer from the same stuntedness and deformity. I make this observation with due deliberation, and in the fullest awareness that it applies to myself and my own writing as much as to anyone else.

Although Coetzee is specifically referring to the South African context here, the parallels which I have traced between Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg suggest that his point holds for all societies which have been "defined" by "unnatural structures of power" and for their literatures since these are inevitably preoccupied with "power and the torsions of power".

It is because of their representation, and therefore replication, of these "deformed and stunted relations" that South African and Russian writing are depicted as being disfigured in both Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg. In the earlier novel, for example, Mrs Curren refers to the words of her diary as "the issue of a shrunken heart", and as "words vomited up from the belly of the whale, misshapen, mysterious". And in the later novel, as Coetzee's broadening of the application of the story of the Gadarene swine to include the artistic process indicates, Dostoevsky's The Devils is not detached from but a part of "all the poisonous exhalations, all the impurities, all the big and little devils, that have accumulated in our great and beloved invalid, in our Russia, for centuries". In the societies portrayed in these novels, then, the literature produced is cast as a literature which, to appropriate Coetzee's term, "supplements" history by reproducing those oppositions related to class, race and gender conflict "out of which history and the historical disciplines erect themselves". Being "unable to move from [such] elementary relations of contestation, domination, and subjugation to the vast and complex human world that lies beyond them", it is, to use Coetzee's description of South African literature in his "Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech", "a less than fully human literature".

The "relations of contestation, domination, and subjugation" to which Coetzee refers here, can readily be detected in both of the novels under discussion. Indeed, upon comparison it becomes evident that the two texts share a basic pattern in this regard. Both depict societies which, temporally, find themselves in the interregnum between a decaying, old political order and a new one seeking to establish itself. In each novel, a protagonist who embodies the values of Western society confronts revolutionary nihilists who challenge his/her ethical assumptions. In the conflictual relationship which then develops, each protagonist condemns his/her antagonist's nihilism in ethical terms. Finally, the protagonists of both novels embark on literary exercises which reflect the assumptions that underpin their relationships with the nihilists.

The basic structure of the relationship which is depicted between protagonist and nihilist-antagonist in both of these novels is oppositional: the former—be it consciously or unconsciously—endeavours to adopt a subject position in relation to the latter, a position from which s/he then attempts to define and reify him/her. Significantly, these attempts at reification are conducted in terms of the dyadic structure of the Western ethical system. In Age of Iron, for instance, Mrs Curren's confrontation with the nihilism of John leads to an ethical judgement being passed on him and his political cohorts: "Comradeship is nothing but a mystique of death, of killing and dying…. I have no sympathy with this comradeship…. It is just another of those icy, exclusive, death-driven male constructions". And, in The Master of Petersburg, the character Dostoevsky echoes this judgment in his condemnation of the nihilism of Sergei Nechaev and his associates: "Nechaevism is not an idea…. It is a spirit…. It is a dull, resentful and murderous spirit". When asked to assign a name to this spirit, he responds with the word "Baal".

Clearly, the oppositions of God/Devil, heaven/hell, elect/reprobate, Christian/heathen, good/evil, right/wrong, life-directed/death-directedand, ultimately, self/other which inform these judgements, assist in establishing those relations of domination and subjugation which "contaminate" society. The oppositional structure of the ethical system which Mrs Curren and Dostoevsky employ to judge and thereby define their antagonists thus colludes with the state's networks of power. As with all oppositional constructions, it facilitates the process of othering in which subject defines object by integrating the latter into its interpretive framework.

This complicity of conventional Western morality in the state's power structures is made especially clear at the end of The Master of Petersburg when the fictional Dostoevsky starts writing The Devils. By presenting his novel, as the pretext of The Devils, Coetzee contrives to make his reader evaluate the historical Dostoevsky's novel in terms of the fictional Dostoevsky's relationship with the nihilists in The Master of Petersburg. Against this background, The Devils has to be seen as a continuation of its author's attempt to other the nihilists, that is, to condemn nihilism in terms of the Manichean dualism of conventional morality—as E. H. Carr argues, it is a fairly transparent attempt to "demonstrate the fundamental identity of moral evil and political nihilism". The metafictional dialogue which Coetzee sets up between his novel and The Devils suggests, therefore, that Dostoevsky and his novel remain locked in the oppositional mode of the contestatory relations that define Russian society. It also implies that, in depicting the nihilists as being possessed by devils, Dostoevsky not only endorses these relations, but also places them in a transcendental realm, thus providing them with a secure metaphysical foundation.

In failing to move beyond the power relations which pervade the society in which it is produced, the literary text which the character Dostoevsky settles down to write at the end of The Master of Petersburg (ostensibly The Devils) is, in Coetzee's terms, "less than fully human". In representing the deformed and stunted relations created by the state's hegemonic strategies, it reinforces them and thus colludes with the state's dehumanization of its citizens. This point emerges clearly when the imagery used to depict the state's dehumanization of South Africans in Age of Iron is compared with the imagery applied to Dostoevsky's writing in The Master of Petersburg. As I have indicated, in the earlier novel the impact of the apartheid state's manipulative power relations is depicted by means of an analogy between the state and Circe: like Circe, the state dehumanizes people or turns them into 'swine'. And, in the later novel, Coetzee's reworking of the story of the Gadarene swine constructs a link between the readers of Dostoevsky's novel and swine. The parallel which exists, here, in the portrayal of the brutalizing effect on society of state structures and the similar effect produced by literature suggests that the latter merely replicates the operation of the former, and thus collaborates in the state's dehumanization of its citizens.


In the passage from the "Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech" quoted earlier, Coetzee indicates that literature's implication in the network of power relations which defines a society such as South Africa is inevitable. His argument in this regard is very similar to Said's contention that "texts are worldly, to some degree they are events, and, even when they appear to deny it, they are nevertheless a part of the social world, human life, and of course the historical moments in which they are located and interpreted". Despite maintaining this position in the above speech and enacting it in his fiction, Coetzee has on occasion suggested, paradoxically, that it is possible for literature "to move from elementary relations of contestation, domination, and subjugation to the vast and complex human world that lies beyond them". For instance, in "The Novel Today", after having referred to fiction which "supplements" history, he refers to another fictional mode that "occupies an autonomous place" and "operates in terms of its own procedures and issues" and not those of history. And, in "Into the Dark Chamber", he argues that the writer should not "allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them". Instead, the challenge for the writer should be "how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one's own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one's own terms".

In Age of Iron, Coetzee takes up this challenge and explores the possibility of transcending the power relations which define South African society. This exploration marks the point at which the pattern of similarities which I have thus far traced between this novel and The Master of Petersburg ends. Differences between these novels begin to manifest themselves in the development which Mrs Curren's relationship with John undergoes following her initial condemnation of his nihilism. As I have indicated, her initial moral condemnation of John may be compared with Dostoevsky's response to Nechaev. After Bheki's death and her visit to Guguletu, however, Mrs Curren appears to realize that the system of Western values and ethics in terms of which she judges and acts has lost all validity and relevance in the historical context in which she finds herself. Thus, she comes to question her right and ability to judge at all:

"But now I ask myself: What right have I to opinions about comradeship or anything else? What right have I to wish Bheki and his friend had kept out of trouble? To have opinions in a vacuum, opinions that touch no one, is, it seems to me, nothing. Opinions must be heard by others, heard and weighed, not merely listened to out of politeness".

At this stage in the novel, it becomes clear that the references to the Furies which occur throughout suggest that, just as these mythical creatures lost their ability to protect Classical Greek society when that society ceased to believe in them, so too the Western system of ethics in modern South Africa has become obsolete. By juxtaposing in this way an archaic ethical system with one in the process of losing currency, the novel shows that ethics are socially and historically relative.

Her realization that the conventional system of Western ethics has lost its legitimacy in South Africa is the point in the novel at which Mrs Curren attempts to break out of the relations of contestation to which the dualism of that ethical system predisposes her. The procedure which she decides upon in her attempt to "rise above" these power relations is quite clearly articulated in the novel in the following passage:

I want to be saved. How shall I be saved? By doing what I do not want to do. That is the first step: that I know, I must love, first of all, the unlovable. I must love, for instance, this child…. He is here for a reason. He is part of my salvation.

In other words, she strives to overcome the deformed relations between human beings entrenched by the South African apartheid state's politics of dominance and subservience through learning to love the "children of iron"—those, such as John and, indeed, herself, who have been brutalized by these very power relations.

The efficacy of this strategy emerges in the way in which it enables Mrs Curren to reconstruct her relationship with John: "Yet something went out from me to him. I ached to embrace him, to protect him". The allusion, here, to a restoration of the umbilical bond between mother and child indicates that love is an emotion which is based on relationship and connection rather than separation and objectivity. Accordingly, it may be deduced that in this novel, "love" signifies a form of consciousness which, in acknowledging "our formation out of an interdependence with other human beings", points to the possibility of developing a relational mode which subverts the divisive power relationship in which subject defines object. And, in subverting the boundary between subject and object, self and other, it holds out the hope of constructing an ethical system which is grounded not in subject-centred consciousness, but in intersubjectivity.

Since it is the relations of contestation imposed by the state which dehumanize people, it follows that "love", in undermining the subject-centred consciousness which underpins such relations of power, has the ability to humanize that which has been brutalized. Indeed, this point emerges in the novel when, in an allusion to the analogy between the state and Circe, Mrs Curren comments as follows: "Metamorphosis, that thickens our speech, dulls our feelings, turns us into beasts. Where on these shores does the herb grow that will preserve us from it?". From this analogy it may be inferred that "love", which subverts the subject-object relation of dominance and subservience, is the equivalent of the herb moly through which Odysseus breaks Circe's spell and restores to his men their humanity.

The humanizing ability of "love" is also apparent in the novel's designs on its South African reader. In this respect, the effect of the change which Mrs Curren's relationship with the "children of iron" undergoes on the letter which she writes to her estranged daughter—who is also characterized as a child of iron—is significant. In contrast with the text on which Dostoevsky commences work at the end of The Master of Petersburg (a text which "supplements" history and so endorses oppositional relations and, accordingly, brutalizes its readers), Mrs Curren's text represents a mode of relationship which is grounded in affinity rather than division. Thus it is presented as an intimate letter from the writer-as-mother to the reader-as-daughter, a letter in which the writer attempts to restore the broken "filial" connection. Being a letter of "love", and therefore the product of a reconstructed ethical consciousness, it constitutes an attempt to represent a mode of intersubjectivity which undermines the state's oppositional relations and, after the manner of moly, restores to the reader—also a victim of the Circe-like state—her humanity.


There lies a danger in drawing too absolute a distinction between Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg on the grounds of the potential of the former to humanize the reader, since in certain significant respects this novel questions its own ability to achieve this end. By identifying the South African reader with Mrs Curren's estranged daughter, the novel constructs as its reader someone who is somewhat indifferent to its content. Furthermore, Susan VanZanten Gallagher is correct when she argues that in presenting itself as a letter which has to be conveyed to its reader by an inebriate, the novel advertises the possibility that the words which form it "may remain dead leaves" and "never even find an audience", and thus seriously "questions its own basis for existence". This self-reflexive questioning can, in part, be ascribed to the fact that it is impossible for the novel and, indeed, for Mrs Curren to "rise above [their] times", that is, to transcend the relations of contestation which have underpinned those times. (As I have already indicated, an admission to this effect is contained in Coetzee's "Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech".) Paradoxically, then, even as it thematizes the notion that the text, through transcending its temporal context, can provide a representation of a relational mode which is able to humanize its brutalized South African reader, the novel seriously questions the feasibility of this endeavour.

This strategy of nurturing the impossible can be observed throughout Coetzee's oeuvre and is, perhaps, most clearly articulated in Life and Times of Michael K in the medical officer's description of K's stay in the Kenilworth camp as an "allegory … of how scandalously, how outrageously a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it". It amounts to what Julia Kristeva has called "strategic essentialism"—in this context, a practice through which the text, whilst acknowledging their validity, self-consciously disregards social constructionist notions that the subject is constructed through and determined by insensible social relations of power. In Age of Iron, for instance, Mrs Curren, after becoming aware of the extent to which she has been brutalized by the state, comments as follows:

I have intimations … that once upon a time I was alive. Was alive and then was stolen from life. From the cradle a theft took place: a child was taken and a doll left in its place to be nursed and reared, and that doll is what I call I.

These "intimations" of an original identity which pre-date her state-conferred, artificial sense of self inspire her to rewrite her identity through reconstructing her relation with John. In the novel, this process of self-reconstruction is couched in terms usually reserved for fiction-writing, a fact which suggests that Mrs Curren, rather than excavating an original self, becomes the author of her self—engages, that is, in the Nietzschean paradox of discovering her self through creation. Instead of affirming the existence of transcendental essences, then, such "intimations" of an original identity and a primal relation based on connection and not separation function strategically in Coetzee's fiction. After all, being "intimations", they cannot "affirm", only allude, hint or insinuate. Accordingly, they serve primarily as an incentive to and stimulus for change.

Coetzee's general observation on the Buberian I-Thou relation is significant in this latter regard: "Intimations of the lost relation … inspire our efforts to reconstitute again and again the 'between' of the primal I-Thou". Apart from being manifest in characters such as Michael K and Mrs Curren, whose attempts to reconstitute the primal I-Thou are dramatized on the presentational surface of the respective novels themselves, this process of inspiration by intimation is frequently extended to include the reader of the text. In attempting to transcend the relations of contestation which define the society in which it was produced, Age of Iron, for instance, provides the reader with an "intimation" of "love"—that emotion which bridges the gap between the subject-object power relation. So, for example, Mrs Curren describes her letter and, by implication, the novel to her daughter and, by further implication, the actual reader of the novel in the following manner: "In this letter from elsewhere … truth and love together at last. In every you that I pen love flickers and trembles like St Elmo's fire". The suggestion here is that, like Mrs Curren's house, the novel is a "museum" which not only preserves the idea of the "lost relation", but also, as the etymology of the word "museum" suggests, inspires the reader with "intimations" of love to recreate his/her times and so convert South African history from a static realm of being into a dynamic realm of becoming.

Of course, being intimations, such prompts are easily overlooked or ignored. Indeed, it is the nebulous and minimalist nature of these "intimations", which can either be responded to or overlooked by the protagonists and readers of his novels, that accounts for the fluctuations in Coetzee's oeuvre between the guarded optimism of texts like Age of Iron and the bleak pessimism of The Master of Petersburg. Like the protagonist of the former novel, who is inspired by "intimations" of an original identity to reconstruct the "'between' of the primal I-Thou" in her relation with John, the character Dostoevsky, in the latter novel, receives "intimations"—in the form of the visions which he has of trying to communicate with his son underwater—which initially encourage him to reconstitute the filial bond. As the novel advances, however, these "intimations" are progressively blocked out by the exigencies of the dynamics of power in Russian society. So, towards the end of the novel, Dostoevsky comes to feel that "he has lost touch with Pavel and with the logic that tells him why, because Pavel died here, he is tied to Petersburg".

With the loss of the inspiration which comes from these "intimations", Dostoevsky is unable to humanize and resurrect his son, a son who, it earlier becomes clear (in an obvious allusion to the fate of the Gadarene swine), has flung himself or been pushed from a tower and who, it is also frequently suggested, has drowned. Indeed, the novel ends with Dostoevsky writing a text in which, as Watson puts it, "he proceeds to take an evidently true story about his dead stepson, one in which the latter is shown in a particularly good light, and rewrites it so that it is transformed into an episode of gratuitous cruelty". In other words, he writes a text inspired not by "intimations" of the primal I-Thou relation, but by the reality of the "deformed and stunted relations between human beings" created by the structures of power that define the Russian state. He produces, that is, the kind of text which, to use again the distinction which Coetzee's draws in "The Novel Today", "supplements" history, rather than that which "rivals" it by operating "in terms of its own procedures and issues". In so doing, he endorses those very hegemonic strategies which caused his son's death. When it is kept in mind that Coetzee's reworking of the story of the Gadarene swine equates Dostoevsky's The Devils with the devils who possess the swine and force them to hurl themselves from a cliff, the final perverse irony in this novel may be appreciated. In a complete metaleptic inversion of linear narrative, The Master of Petersburg ends by suggesting that Dostoevsky—who at the beginning returns to Petersburg to establish, among other details, whether it was the police or the revolutionaries who pushed his son from the tower—sired "the devils" who were responsible for this act.

In conclusion, then, one finds in Coetzee's fiction a minimalist programme for prompting change which is, quite literally, undermined even as it is articulated. Convinced of the need for change in the society in which he writes but, at the same time, aware of the compromising nature of the ineluctable "worldliness" of the literary text, this writer has had to choose between subsiding into silence and adopting a strategy of paradox. Premised as it is on this uneasy balance between knowledge of implication and hope for transcendence, this strategy can, at best, generate only "intimations" of an alternative to the status quo, intimations which are therefore often either overlooked or ignored.

World Literature Today (interview date Winter 1996)

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SOURCE: "An Interview with J. M. Coetzee," in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 107-11.

[In the following interview, Coetzee discusses his book Giving Offense and his position on key issues in the debate on censorship.]

J. M. Coetzee's new book, Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship discusses both writers and theorists from D. H. Lawrence to Geoffrey Cronje. It also covers a variety of concepts from feminist protest against pornography to South African apartheid opposition. Coetzee's stance does not take the binary oppositional Either/Or except in voting against censorship. On the whole, the ethical and philosophical question presented is whether or not one respects the act of taking offense by those whose convictions one does not share.

[World Literature Today:] Your new book has chapters on a wide range of writers—D. H. Lawrence, Desiderius Erasmus, Osip Mandelstam, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Zbigniew Herbert, Andre Brink, Breyten Breytenbach—as well as on people who aren't usually thought of as writers—the apartheid theorist Geoffrey Cronje—and on a variety of topics in the field of censorship: the feminist critique of pornography, the history of so-called publications control in South Africa, your personal experience of working under censorship. Obviously there is a certain South African bias to the book, and secondarily perhaps a bias toward the Russian or East European experience; but beyond expressing your general opposition to censorship (which won't be news to anyone, I am sure), I wonder whether you can say what the general thesis of the book is.

[J. M. Coetzee:] This is not a book with a general thesis. Its substance lies in the chapters on individual writers, rather than in the chapters that deal—unavoidably—with generalities. In fact, I am even dubious about accepting your comment that the book expresses a general opposition to censorship. I don't dispute your statement that a distaste for censorship—even a strong distaste—emerges from the book. What I am reluctant to endorse is the statement that the book is written to express an opposition to censorship. I would rather say that the book explores, in theory and in practice, opposition to censorship—explores that opposition not only in studies of several writers working under censorship, but also in my own case: what does it mean for a person of my kind, a rather disaffiliated intellectual whose heritage is largely European, or European-in-Africa, to be in opposition?

A certain ambivalence toward your own position certainly does emerge in the first chapter. I think, for example, of a passage in which you seem to be favoring a stance of liberal tolerance, but then say that, "depending on how you look at it," this tolerance is "either deeply civilized or complacent, hypocritical, and patronizing." Which is it? Is liberal tolerance deeply civilized or is it in fact the expression of a rather myopic point of view, in certain of its facets misogynist and imperialistic?

You raise a number of questions, not all of which I can deal with satisfactorily here—not all of which I can deal with to your satisfaction or to my own—but which I hope are at least approached in the book itself. Let me simply say that I am not enamored of the Either-Or. I hope that I don't simply evade the Either-Or whenever I am confronted with it. I hope that I at least try to work out what "underlies" it in each case (if I can use that foundationalist metaphor); and that this response of working-out on the Either-Or isn't read simply as evasion. (If it is, I have been wasting my time.)

Giving Offense is not a polemic. Polemic is not its genre and, I would hope, not its spirit. I have seen too many writers and intellectuals shift into the mode of polemic when they confront censorship, and in my opinion the results do not do them credit. In fact, one of the things I try to point out is that a regime of censorship creates among the intelligentsia an atmosphere of antagonism and anger which may be as bad for the spiritual life of the community as any of the more obviously repressive acts that the censor carries out.

Am I a liberal? Am I "merely" a liberal? Does Giving Offense espouse a liberal position? Do I think a liberal position on censorship is civilized or patronizing? I hope I am not "merely" a liberal. But then, no liberal today is merely a liberal: all liberals have careful qualifications of themselves that set them apart, however slightly, from "mere" (or "classic") liberalism. We have to do here with the phenomenon, the act, of naming, characterizing, and correspondingly with the experience of being-named. I am not espousing a position, or not setting out to espouse a position; but that does not mean that a position does not get espoused. I do not fly a banner, but that does not mean that a banner will not get attached to the book. That is how time works, how opinion works.

If this response to your questions seems vague, I can only say that in my chapter on Desiderius Erasmus I try to talk about the Either-Or and about vagueness or slipperiness or other stances (or non-stances) toward the Either-Or in a more philosophical way. A more philosophical way which (in a chapter on "The Praise of Folly") must also be an appropriately foolish way.

Is Erasmus then a hero of yours?

A hero insofar as a fool and a coward can be a hero. It must be clear to you that a range of attitudes get expressed in the various essays constituting the book. For instance, I don't have an immediate, intuitive sympathy toward someone like Solzhenitsyn, who is too much of a polemicist for my taste. At the same time, he is a world-historical figure. He has also, I think, undertaken some terrifying self-searchings in his books, self-searchings that have been a little obscured by his larger political, or politico-religious, project. In the case of Breyten Breytenbach, too, I think a complex attitude emerges in the book. There is something savage in Breytenbach, savagely self-rending, that I retreat from. At the same time his confrontations of himself are exemplary, particularly for South Africans of his generation and his background—among whom I number myself.

But it must also be clear to you that the most sympathetically treated figures in the book are Erasmus and Zbigniew Herbert. Erasmus in a sense maps out the ground I have to traverse in the face of the Either-Or. Luce Irigaray, who is otherwise not a central figure in the book, plays a similar guiding role when I take up the feminist critique of the law. As for Herbert, there is a kind of moral steadiness to him that stands as a light to me.

But Herbert has not suffered particularly under censorship. Some of the writers you deal with have been at the center of the struggle against censorship in our times. Either they have chosen of their own accord to be at the center—like Solzhenitsyn—or they have simply landed up at the center of censorship rows—I think of D. H. Lawrence and Lady Chatterley. But in the lives of other writers—like Herbert—censorship has been a rather peripheral matter.

Maybe. But that is because they have made it peripheral. They have put the censors in their place, which is a peripheral place.

I was going on to say: the censor has been rather peripheral in Herbert's life, and he (or she?) has been rather peripheral in your own life too. Were any of your books banned in South Africa?

No. Nor do I want to say that I suffered under the South African censorship. I do not want to minimize the impact of censorship on those South African writers to whom it was applied in its full rigor, particularly those black writers who stood absolutely no chance of publishing a word in their native country. At the same time, the metaphorics of suffering (the suffering writer), like the metaphorics of battle (the writer battling against the censor), seem to me to belong to structures of opposition, of Either-Or, which I take it as my task to evade.

I did not "suffer" in this sense. On the other hand, I would contend that we all suffered, together. We lived an impoverished intellectual life, just as we lived an impoverished cultural life and an impoverished spiritual life. If there is any general thesis in the book, it is that the unintended or not-fully-intended consequences of censorship tend to be more significant than the intended consequences. From that point of view, the spectacle of what is going on in South Africa right now, as new censorship laws are formulated to replace the old ones, is profoundly depressing. The past is being relived as though it had never occurred. "Pornography is bad (for us, for our children), therefore it must be banned"—that is the form that one side of the debate takes. And on the other side the form it takes is: "Is pornography really bad (for us, for our children)? If it is indeed bad, is it bad enough to be banned?" What does not enter the debate is the question: "What does it entail, to ban?" In the old South Africa we had bans; in the new South Africa it seems we are going to have bans again. What is banned is, to my mind, a secondary question, Regimes of banning are all alike.

You devote a lot of space in your book to South Africa, but not to the present, not to the issues you have just been talking about.

No, I don't. But in the light of what I have to say, not only about Publications Control in the 1970s and 1980s but about bans on pornography in general, I think you can predict what I would say about the present agitation for controls on pornography, on insult, and so forth.

What would you say?

What would I say as a citizen, or what would I say in a book to be published by a university press?


As a citizen I would vote against controls. That is the nature of the vote: Yes or No, Either-Or. In a book I don't think I would add anything to what I already say. There is nothing novel in the present South African situation. That, in a sense, is what is disappointing about it.

What you have said thus far centers very much on pornography. Yet one could argue that censorship on moral grounds is very much a side issue, that what ought to concern us, in the case of South Africa as much as in the case of the Soviet Union, is political censorship.

The theoretical case for distinguishing political from moral censorship, and for elevating the first over the second, at least in our times, is massive. However, the fact, the peculiar fact, is that regimes of censorship usually frame their legislation to cover both fields and entrust the role of watchdog over both fields to the same set of officials (though, I grant, there is sometimes a higher-echelon political censorship set over the bread-and-butter censors). This may be a mere accident—totalitarian regimes are usually conservative in morals as well—but the fact remains that the consequences for people in general are much the same: a kind of bleakening, if I may invent a word, of the landscape.

A book that is very much about political censorship in South Africa—A Culture of Secrecy by Christopher Merrett—has recently come out. It is not the kind of book I would have any interest in writing. A chronicle of instances with a strong polemical bias. But then, Merrett has no interest in literature that I can detect.

How does your long chapter on Geoffrey Cronje fit into what you have been saying? I haven't read any more of Cronje than what you quote here, but on the basis of that evidence I wouldn't want to.

Cronje wasn't a writer, a "literary" writer, he was an academic sociologist in one part of his life, and a propagandist of apartheid in the other. Nevertheless, I would hope that contemporary literary theory, if it has achieved nothing else, has opened up ways for us to talk about peripheral discourses—academic, political—in useful ways.

The chapter on Cronje sits rather uneasily with the rest of the book, I agree. Nevertheless, approaching Cronje with questions about censorship at the back of our minds allows us to see interesting things about him. To begin with, Cronje delivers strong hints that the censorship exerted by public opinion in the immediate post-World War II years makes it impossible for him to say just what he means: the reader is invited to fill in the blank spaces, so to speak. Nevertheless, Cronje does go on to express deep racial antipathies in a way that would certainly not be possible in public discourse today. To such an extent that his successors in the National Party intellectual establishment found him an embarrassment.

And then, finally, there is the silence of contemporary scholarship about the deeper currents that flow in the writing of Cronje and his fellows (who include influential political figures like Nico Diedrichs, Piet Meyer, H. F. Verwoerd). The historians and political scientists to whom we assign the task of comprehending apartheid—of comprehending our immediate past in South Africa—have nothing to say about it that interests me. It is as a response to their silence that my chapter on Cronje emerges.

I'd like to turn back to pornography, and to your critique of the feminist critique of pornography. There is a passage where you distinguish between erotic art and pornography. If that is a distinction you accept, then why don't you accept the position that, while erotic art—films, books, et cetera—may be valid, a line needs to be drawn when it comes to the deliberate denigration and humiliation of people, to the portrayal of violence against women and perhaps even the sexualization of violence against women, to the encouragement of the sexual abuse of children? That seems to me the kernel of feminist opposition to pornography.

But that isn't just a feminist position that you have been expressing. It's much older.

No, it isn't. But it is expressed most clearly today by feminists.

A complicated question. First, you ask whether I accept a distinction between the erotic and the pornographic. But it isn't a matter of whether I accept the distinction: it is a fact of life that people make that distinction, and act in terms of it. That is to say, writers, filmmakers, whatever, advance their productions under the banner of the erotic or the pornographic as they choose, very often with specific commercial ends, specific markets, in view. The question is therefore what I make of the distinction.

By claiming to be working in an erotic rather than a pornographic mode, on the grounds that sexual materials are being handled with imagination, intelligence, taste, et cetera, the producer, in the range of cases I am interested in, intends to invoke the protection of the law. What I point out is that it is not in the erotic mode but in the pornographic mode (for instance, by people like Sade) that real assaults have taken place, not only on moral norms and indeed on norms of human conduct, but on the limits of representation itself, or at least on the idea that representation must have limits.

Whether you are happy to have assaults take place on these targets, whether you think assaults on them ought to be allowed, is another question, a question with a strong political dimension. For the moment, let me simply stress that if you stand for a ban on such assaults, then you are standing for the protection of, among other things, standards of representation. To this extent opposition to pornography is and must be conservative.

Is that the essence of your opposition to Catharine MacKinnon—that she is an unacknowledged conservative?

I would hesitate to say so. I am by no means the first person to point out that MacKinnon has landed herself with some uncomfortable bedfellows from the moral right wing in the United States. But in fact I would hesitate to say that I am opposed to MacKinnon. Or to put it slightly differently, I don't believe the point of my chapter on MacKinnon is to express opposition to her. It is rather to explore the foundations of her outrage. In the process I find that there are concepts that illuminate her outrage more satisfactorily, to me, than the moral-political vocabulary she herself uses: the concepts of honor and shame, for instance.

You mention outrage. I would like to return, finally, to what you have to say about offense and outrage, and particularly about your own inability to take seriously the outrage of other people—of religious groups, for instance, or perhaps ethnic groups, though you don't actually mention them. Let me formulate my question in the strongest terms, which would be something like this: Don't you think that a scholar who, in today's world, can't take outrage at ethnic or religious insults seriously is not competent to write a book with a title like Giving Offense, which presents itself as a discussion of such phenomena—psychological phenomena, perhaps, but profoundly important social and political phenomena too—as giving offense and taking offense?

If I didn't take offense seriously, I wouldn't be spending years of my life writing about it. Let me try to respond as clearly and precisely as possible. I take offense itself seriously. It is a fact of life. The question is whether I respect the motion of taking offense. To be more precise, the question is not whether I, in person, respect this motion: the question is, what does it mean to respect—really respect—the taking-offense of others when you do not share the religious convictions or ethnic sensitivities from which this taking-offense emerges? This seems to me a properly philosophical question, and I hope that in the book I give it a philosophical answer, to the best of my abilities. Therefore, to answer your question finally, if I am incompetent to write the book I have written, it can only mean that I am philosophically incompetent.

Jennifer Wenzel (essay date Spring 1996)

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SOURCE: "Keys to the Labyrinth: Writing, Torture, and Coetzee's Barbarian Girl," in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 61-71.

[In the following essay, Wenzel argues that although Waiting for the Barbarians does not deal explicitly with sociopolitical issues of South Africa, the image of the tortured human body around which the novel revolves represents "a nexus of the political and the poststructural, the historic and the linguistic," which necessarily includes events in South Africa.]

In a 1987 address in Cape Town, J. M. Coetzee denounced what he called

a powerful tendency … to subsume the novel under history, to read novels as what I will loosely call imaginative investigations of real historical forces and real historical circumstances; and conversely, to treat novels that do not perform this investigation of what are deemed to be real historical forces and circumstances as lacking in seriousness.

Coetzee's interest in maintaining the autonomy of the novel from history is especially significant in terms of his position as a white South African novelist whose novels, for the most part, are not set in the contemporary turmoil that is South Africa. Since Coetzee's fiction explicitly engages questions of language and the difficulties of constructing truth or a story, the novels invite poststructuralist readings that in their insistence on the indeterminacy of truth could suggest an abdication of political responsibility. The magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians becomes obsessed with the telling of a story, but the object around which his frustrations with language revolve is a broken human body, tortured into silence under an imperial regime. When the structure of torture is examined alongside the play of language, Coetzee's seriousness about language, politics, and the human body becomes clear. Waiting for the Barbarians cannot be read as an explicit investigation of South African history, but the silence of the tortured body in the novel does provide a nexus of the political and the poststructural, the historic and the linguistic.

In describing the treatment of Coetzee's fiction in criticism, David Attwell speaks of "a considerably oversimplified polarization between, on the one hand, those registering the claims of political resistance and historical representation (who argue that Coetzee has little to offer) and, on the other, those responsive to postmodernism and poststructuralism, to whom Coetzee … seems to have much to provide." Critics who do find political significance in Coetzee's novels too often resort to simplistic allegory by mapping his plots onto the surface of South African politics; yet the ambiguity of Coetzee's language provides no "moral" for a story of South Africa. The indeterminacy of language also tends to forestall questions of historical significance for those critics responsive to poststructuralism. If language is a "self-referring system of signs," as Paul Williams maintains, then a literary text cannot speak about reality or South Africa. Thus Coetzee's novels are read as politically and historically irrelevant or irresponsible, depending on a critic's agenda. But Barbara Eckstein questions the inviolability of the opposition of poststructuralist language and political responsibility:

The method of deconstruction which questions certainty, scrutinizes authority … and undoes the rigidity of binary oppositions can serve serious political concern and analysis of politics in texts. When a critic practicing a deconstructive method leaps to conclusions of irresponsibility and despair, it is not because those conclusions are inherent in the method.

Eckstein, by allowing for a critical methodology that reveals not only indeterminacy but also oppression, explores a discursive space at the center of the critical opposition. This space is much like what Teresa Dovey terms "the potential area between the [political and the poststructural], which is concerned to theorize the ways in which discourses emerging from diverse contexts, and exhibiting different formal assumptions, may produce different forms of historical engagement…." The alternative historical engagement that Dovey calls for would combine the South African story and Coetzee's characters' inability to tell their stories, without resorting to allegory or irresponsibility.

One "discourse" that may allow for an exploration, grounded in language, of the political dimension of Coetzee's fiction is that surrounding the practice of torture, which is undeniably a part of the South African story. The definition of torture in the United Nations' Declaration against Torture, adopted in 1975, reads:

torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he has committed, or intimidating him or other persons.

Inflicting pain to obtain information has long been the justification for judicial torture; the third-century jurist, Ulpian, provides an early definition of torture: "By quaestio [torture] we are to understand the torment and suffering of the body in order to elicit the truth." But a further investigation of the structure of torture reveals, with remarkable resonance to the tropes of poststructuralist theory, the elusiveness of the truth that torture seeks.

On the surface, torture appears to be a kind of conversation in which physical and mental pain are used by one person to encourage another person to speak. The means of "encouragement," of course, represent the inequity of power in the verbal and physical exchange between tortured and torturer. In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry calls into question the truth-value of the information obtained in this exchange. Scarry argues that physical pain has the ability to destroy the voice that would express it in language; furthermore, she suggests that this is precisely the motive of torture: "it is in part the obsessive display of agency that permits one person's body to be translated into another person's voice, that allows real human pain to be converted into a regime's fiction of power." If the pain of torture eliminates the voice of the victim, the traditional guise of torture as a means of eliciting the truth is unmasked. Still, the conception of torture as enforced truth-telling must remain in order for the practice to continue. Îacuñán Sáez explains that "executioners think that ideally torture is a way to find out the truth, but … they also admit that the practice of torture gives rise to many distortions." Attending to Scarry, Sáez argues:

The threat of pain does link in the mind of the victim the experience of the self and the recognition of truth, but only through their negation…. Scarry has argued that torture destroys language and the self; I am contending, instead, that it produces them as negative, as absent, as disembodied images…. Torture forces pain to become something like a "transcendental signifier," the dominant element in the system of language…. I will stop making sense so that they stop the pain.

Far more explicitly than Scarry, Sáez makes clear the connection between the practice of torture and poststructuralist theory. For the victim, truth is negated along with the voice of an integrated self, although torturing continues to demand truth while further destroying the victim's ability to speak, or even to know, truth.

Sáez writes of the fascination of the discourses of both torture and post-structuralism with "language, the body, the absence of truth" as a "strange coincidence." This coincidence proves extremely useful in reconciling the abstraction of language with the reality of oppressive political regimes:

The recognition … of that coincidence … does not expose the guilt, or even the responsibility, of the postmodern mind; it merely points to its limits. To venture beyond those limits (to stop before torture), does not mean to take refuge once again in the old myths of subjectivity and truth. It means, on the contrary, to subject those myths to a more ruthless theoretical attack. It also means, it means perhaps above all, that the most ruthless attack has to be more than just theoretical.

If torture represents the limits of the postmodern mind, it also represents a discursive space between language and history in which Coetzee's historical engagement can be considered, with the understanding further that in addition to that discursive space are many geographical, physical, bodily spaces where torture is practiced, as Eckstein says, "from Chile to Pakistan; from history's beginning to this minute." Eckstein insists upon holding in mind the fact that torture (and not only the discourse of torture) exists now everywhere; and the unnamed, unhistoricized empire of Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, far from representing an avoidance of the story of South Africa, allows torture to be examined as a phenomenon that could (and does) occur not only in South Africa, but in any place where political power imposes itself upon the human body.

Coetzee does not name South Africa as the empire in Waiting for the Barbarians, but one may wonder how writing a novel about torture and imperialism could be construed as shirking political responsibility. Coetzee's protagonist, a frontier civil magistrate, confronts torture when the perceived threat of a barbarian invasion brings Colonel Joll, a military interrogator, to the frontier from the capital. But one of the magistrate's frustrations in the novel is that he is not given the details of events in Joll's torture chamber; the magistrate finds himself compelled to elicit from a tortured barbarian girl the story of her experience. In the first part of the novel, torture is named but not described, allowing it to be potentially absent to critical eyes. Coetzee himself provides a possible explanation for this absence that implies that the telling of a story of torture is not necessarily an act of political resistance. In "Into the Dark Chamber," Coetzee admits the South African writer's fascination with torture, and he wonders "how to treat something that, in truth, because it is offered like the Gorgon's head to terrorize the populace and paralyze resistance, deserves to be ignored." Coetzee obviously cannot and does not ignore torture, but in choosing to represent torture, he must face the challenge of "how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one's own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one's own terms." The terms for torture that Coetzee employs are deeply embedded in language, a language that tells not of beatings or shocks but instead of the difficulty of talking about the body in pain. By examining torture in a language separate from that of historical discourse, however, the unspecified geographical setting of the novel can become a merely theoretical space in which the political implications of the novel are subsumed into the poststructural; Susan Gallagher writes, "With his combination of sexual and authorial images, his antonymic articulations, and his failure to discover meaning in words, the Magistrate seems to he wandering in the wilderness of deconstructive criticism" (emphasis added). Out of history and into language, the magistrate is suddenly more poststructural literary critic than fictional political figure. But if the magistrate is lost in a poststructuralist "wilderness," one way to locate him (if not for him to position himself) may be to forge through the wilderness using its terms in an attempt to reveal how a deconstructive criticism can also be a criticism of the state.

The magistrate recalls a dream in which he is "carrying the girl, the only key I have to the labyrinth"; it is the relationship between the magistrate and the tortured barbarian girl that offers a way out of the magistrate's struggles with his relation to both language and power. The magistrate finds the blinded and lamed barbarian girl begging by the barracks wall after Joll's departure; as he brings her first into his house and then into his household, the magistrate finds himself increasingly compelled to find out from the barbarian girl exactly what Joll has done to her. Torture has transformed her into a text to be read: the magistrate admits, "It has been growing more and more clear to me that until the marks on this girl's body are deciphered and understood I cannot let go of her." The magistrate finds the girl's body impenetrable, unwilling to yield its secrets, and as such he experiences it as wholly other, unknowable, to the point that he cannot even remember what the girl looks like when he is away from her. It is this sense of otherness that allows torturers to ignore the pain of their victims; the magistrate seeks to eliminate his sense of the girl's otherness and to understand the pain of her torture as he verbally and physically probes the girl in an effort to read the signs of torture written on her body. Eckstein explains the magistrate's linguistic disposition: "As a man of the 'first world,' [the magistrate] is accustomed to assigning meaning to sentient signs, particularly signs of the (barbarian) 'third world.' He can make presence or absence as he chooses."

Eckstein's argument holds also for the magistrate's fascination with the hieroglyphic poplar slips he finds outside the fortress: he can admit to himself that he cannot read them, or he can provide his own strategic reading of imperial injustice when Joll demands that he interpret them. "Reading" one of the slips for Joll, the magistrate says, "It is the barbarian character war, but it has other senses too. It can stand for vengeance, and, if you turn it upside down like this, it can be made to read justice. There is no knowing which sense is intended. That is part of barbarian cunning." Likewise, Joll has the political power to inscribe "ENEMY" into the flesh of his barbarian victims in front of a gathering of the outpost residents; he beats them until "their backs are washed clean" by sweat and blood, the act of torture literally erasing their threat to the empire.

But Joll cannot "read" the potentially fictional nature of that threat; his public staging of torture makes the threat seem so real that even the skeptical magistrate helps to prepare the fortress against the barbarian attack. Joll does not understand that he may be writing, and not reading, the threat of the barbarians. Similarly, the magistrate does not have the linguistic power to read meaningful presence in the tortured body of the girl or the ability to approach her in any other way:

Is it … the case that it is the whole woman I want, that my pleasure in her is spoiled until these marks on her are erased and she is restored to herself; or is it the case … that it is the marks on her which drew me to her but which, to my disappointment, I find, do not go deep enough? Too much or too little: is it she I want or the traces of a history her body bears?

In a way, torture has domesticated the other so that it cannot be perceived in and of itself. The magistrate exerts intellectual and physical energy trying to read the hieroglyphic inscription of force on the body of the girl, but she does not provide him with any satisfactory answers. Frustration at his inability to read her only makes his desire more like Joll's writing of her: he asks himself "whether, when I lay head to foot with her, fondling and kissing those broken ankles, I was not in my heart of hearts regretting that I could not engrave myself on her as deeply [as Joll]."

Both Joll and the magistrate fail to understand how the experience of torture has transformed the girl's relationship to language. Just as there is no answer the girl could give to satisfy Joll's need for the "truth," there is no story the girl could tell that would make the magistrate certain of her pain. By not allowing her tortured body to be translated into language, she prevents the othering that the magistrate's categorizations would impose in transforming her story into his own. Although the magistrate falls into the old trap of locating truth in the body of woman, the relationship between the magistrate and the girl becomes a "key … to the labyrinth." Furthermore, in allowing the girl to refuse translation of her tortured body into language, Coetzee presents the body as a "key to the labyrinth" and a way out of the deconstructive wilderness.

Because he can neither read the girl's body nor inscribe his own meaning onto it, the magistrate is able neither to determine his own position within the imperialist regime nor to pen the history of his outpost. The magistrate admits: "It seems appropriate that a man who does not know what to do with the woman in his bed should not know what to write." The magistrate only fully recognizes the resistance of the body to linguistic significance, however, after his own aging body is subjected to a torturous interrogation. He finds, contrary to Joll's confident assertions about his craft, that pain is not truth, that the only "truth" of torture is the truth of the body, that, as Attwell says, "the body sets clear limits to what can be endured or claimed on behalf of ideals or principles."

After his own experience of torture, the magistrate finds himself in a position similar to that he had imposed on the girl. A blow to his face leaves a "caterpillar"-like scar under the magistrate's eye: the scar is not only nearly identical to those on the girl's damaged eyes, but the magistrate also discovers that "people are surreptitiously fascinated" by the marks on his body. Just as the girl, because "[she] did not have a choice," had found shelter and sustenance in the company of several men before the magistrate took her in, the broken magistrate finds himself "sing[ing] for [his] keep" when he learns that "I am not without friends, particularly among women, who can barely conceal their eagerness to hear my side of the story." The gendered parallelism of the barbarian girl's and the magistrate's reintegration into the community after torture extends even to sexual activity: while the sympathetic men and women play a rather parental role by feeding, bathing, and clothing these victims of torture, it is the girl and the magistrate (as victim) who escalate physical contact with their respective nurturers to a sexual level, thereby signaling their return to the adult realm.

The status of the barbarian girl and the magistrate in the outpost community is transformed after torture into something like that of children; gender differences play a role only in terms of the parallel (un)conventional heterosexual relationships in which Coetzee's characters find recuperation. Examining the process of torture in The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment, Kate Millett writes, "Under torture one is first reduced to a woman, then to a child, and as the torture creates a woman out of any human material being tortured, he also creates a child, the citizen as child, frightened before the great, all-powerful … state." While the experiences of the barbarian girl and the magistrate after torture are indeed initially childlike, the forms of torture they endure move beyond the gendered terms of Millett's analysis. The assumptions lurking behind Millett's pronoun choices betray the rather antifeminist (though common) conception of the role of gender in torture that the rest of her words confirm: (male) torturers humiliate (male) victims by "reducing" them to women. The barbarian girl's torture is seemingly ungendered: her eyes and her feet are the areas that Joll targets for mutilation. A reader following Millett's argument might assume that Joll has no need to "reduce … [the girl] to a woman," that "unfortunate" task already having been accomplished by her birth. When the magistrate is subjected to a mock hanging and then suspended by his wrists from a tree, his torturer offers him the choice between wearing a woman's smock or nothing: he can be symbolically "reduced" either to a woman or an animal. The magistrate accepts the smock; but the pain inside of his body, the "body that knows itself damaged perhaps beyond repair," so overshadows the intended patriarchal shame of the feminine clothing covering the body that the magistrate subsequently describes himself as a "beast," rather than as a woman. Regardless of the intentions of the torturers in the novel, the pain that the girl and the magistrate experience effectively erases the significance of gender at the moment of their torture; both are subjected to pain that lies at the limits of human experience. To conclude that torture reduces the (hu)man to woman is thus to deny the pain of the body and to acknowledge and embrace the shame of the smock offered by the torturer.

The magistrate understands the pain inscribed onto his body by the regime as much more significant than the clothes it forces him to wear, and only then can he read his own bruises and scars as signs of his position within the empire. He attempts to distance himself from the crowd watching, and thus participating in, the public torture of the barbarians in order to extricate himself from responsibility:

For me, at this moment, striding away from the crowd, what has become important above all is that I should neither be contaminated by the atrocity that is about to be committed nor poison myself with impotent hatred of its perpetrators. I cannot save the prisoners, therefore let me save myself. Let it at the very least be said, if it ever comes to be said … that in this farthest outpost of the empire of light there existed one man who in his heart was not a barbarian.

Yet the magistrate finds that he cannot go far in distancing himself from the empire that he serves. When he imagines alternative possibilities for the shape of his society, empire remains at the center: "It would be best if this obscure chapter in the history of the world were terminated at once, if these ugly people were obliterated from the face of the earth and we swore to make a new start, to run an empire in which there would be no more injustice, no more pain." When the magistrate ventures outside of the walls of the imperial fortress, he soon recognizes that a space outside of the empire is no place at all; he finds "nothing for me outside the walls but to starve." The magistrate's experience confirms Edward Peters's words on torture: "a society which voluntarily or indifferently includes among its members both victims and torturers ultimately leaves no conceptual or practical room for anyone who insists upon being neither." The magistrate, like the girl whose story he sought, wants to be neither victim nor torturer, and it is only after he has been in both positions that he can understand the girl's inability to tell her story.

Subsequently, the magistrate acknowledges his inability to write a history of his outpost that can account both for his aversion to and his complicity with empire. It is in the anguished cries the magistrate utters while being hung from the tree—cries that the spectators call "barbarian language"—that he comes closest to the truth of his position in the worlds of language and history. The suffering body cannot be reduced to "civilized" language, and civilization itself obstructs any protest made within its structure. The history remains unwritten, except in the magistrate's private monologue that is Waiting for the Barbarians. At the end of the novel, the magistrate dreams of children building an armless snowman: he walks away instead of trying to translate the body into a fully realized form. In this final image is an awareness that just as the tortured body cannot be subsumed to linguistic structures, the political systems supported by those structures are incapable of completely appropriating the vulnerable human body and its voice, incapable of silencing the voice of protest, however implicated within the structure it may be. The hope implicit in this view is conditional on the recognition of the body as partly autonomous from, but nonetheless vulnerable to, the totalizing abstraction of language.

Coetzee insists on holding the substantial body, the body in pain, on equal terms with the abstraction of language; in doing so he broaches alternative frameworks for reconciling language with history. In Waiting for the Barbarians, the tortured body serves as a marker for what Sáez terms the limits of the postmodern mind, while at the same time a postmodern sensibility reminds us of the difficulty of making oversimplified appeals to truth in the face of historical oppression. Yet the problems that the magistrate, Coetzee's would-be storyteller, faces are to some extent Coetzee's own. Coetzee, like the magistrate, is implicated in an imperial regime that, as Peters argues, leaves no room beyond being either torturer or tortured. Coetzee's struggle is then, as Anne Waldron Neumann says, a struggle "with how best to tell the history of oppression, without imposing that history on anyone else (particularly on those most directly oppressed) … a struggle to determine the value of that telling, to determine the value literary art can have in the context of a political struggle that is itself all too present." Attwell argues that it is Coetzee's insistence on maintaining the autonomy of fiction from history that imbues his work with both literary and historical value and allows him to imagine, if not to speak from, a position outside of the imperial structure: "the brute facticity of power can halt the endlessness of textuality; but … if authority is ultimately a function of power, then it ought to be possible, through the rediscovery of fiction's capacity to reconfigure the rules of discourse, to find a position outside current power relations from which to speak." It is precisely because Coetzee (unlike the magistrate) is a literary and not a political/historical figure that he can write an imaginative imperial history that explores the issue of complicity without becoming co-opted by it.

Coetzee's fiction, in terms of his desire to prevent the appropriation of the novel by the discourse of history, represents an engagement with history on his own terms, terms that can blur the distinctions between self and other, between oppressor and oppressed. Waiting for the Barbarians presents the reader with an interpretive choice, but that choice is not necessarily between historical seriousness and poststructuralist indeterminacy. The language of Coetzee's novels reveals both the liberation and the oppression latent in theoretical discourse and reminds us as readers that we are all, like the magistrate, like Coetzee himself, people of "language in a world of pain."

Martha Bayles (review date 22 September 1996)

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SOURCE: "The Silencers," in New York Times, September 22, 1996, p. 33.

[In the following review, Bayles praises Coetzee's approach to questions of censorship in Giving Offense.]

"Of all the pathologies," J. M. Coetzee writes, "paranoia has been the most amenable to artificial simulation." The workings of the paranoid mind. Mr. Coetzee explains, can be programmed into a computer so that "qualified psychiatrists have been unable to tell whether what is being relayed to them is the verbal behaviour of a human being or an automaton." Not surprisingly for a dissident South African novelist, Mr. Coetzee finds a similar narrow, predictable "automatism" in state censorship.

Yet in Giving Offense, an extraordinary collection of essays written over the past eight years, Mr. Coetzee does not cast himself as the noble, freedom-loving artist; he finds this role almost as narrow and predictable. He rejects the melodrama (he does not call it that) of heroic artist and foul villain censor because it is simpleminded, and like all simple—mindedness leads back toward censorship. Instead, he seeks to demonstrate the complexity and insidiousness of censorship's harm.

At the book's core is a somewhat cryptic reading of Erasmus's Praise of Folly that is basically a tour-de-force defense of humanist "weakness" against every kind of radical certainty—including those bequeathed by the progenitors of post-modernism. Mr. Coetzee does not dismiss Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan or Rene Girard, but he does not embrace them as uncritically as has, say, the American academic establishment. Perhaps, having lived in a police state, he hesitates over the Foucaultian proposition that liberal democracy is just another kind of prison.

What Mr. Coetzee does do is squeeze a drop of wisdom from these theorists. For example, his essay on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn begins with an account of Mr. Girard's theory of the politics of desire. Here Mr. Coetzee finds a metaphor for the struggle of the writer with the censor. Instead of the usual Freudian scenario of the son in revolt, Mr. Girard posits the image of rival brothers. Thus, the grandiose, intolerant, polemical face of Mr. Solzhenitsyn strikes even his admirers as that of "a secret Stalinist … his own enemy, rival, twin."

Despite his erudite commitment to free speech, Mr. Coetzee stands at a certain remove from the concerns of most Americans. Consider his discussion of pornography. As a South African, he complains that though "there is a world of difference between subversive ideas and morally repugnant representations," this difference is not recognized in law: "The same censors patrol the boundaries of both politics and esthetics." Therefore, Mr. Coetzee declares, he will not bother drawing a "sharp line between censorship on political and on moral grounds."

Yet this is precisely the line that in the American context separates protected from unprotected speech. Indeed, for some American artists, one way of getting acquitted of obscenity charges for "morally repugnant representations" is to argue (in the language of the 1973 Supreme Court decision Miller v. California) that the work, possesses "serious political value." Even, in some cases, that it expresses "subversive ideas." From Robert Mapplethorpe to 2 Live Crew, this strategy has expanded the definition of political speech to encompass material that in a different era, or a different polity, would unquestioningly be judged obscene.

South Africa is obviously such a polity—or has been until recently. Doubtless this is why Mr. Coetzee writes, "I am not sure … what to think about artists who break taboos and yet claim the protection of the law." For him, the thorny question of constitutional protection for morally repugnant material is not yet salient. Yet by the same token, Mr. Coetzee's dissection of the totalizing arguments of the feminist antipornography crusader Catharine MacKinnon is cogent, witty and salted with good sense. And his warning—that if censorship returns, it will be down such paths of righteousness—is well worth heeding.

Michiko Kakutani (review date 7 October 1997)

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SOURCE: "Childhood Hurt and Fear as a Writer's Inspiration," in New York Times, October 7, 1997, p. E8.

[In the following review, Kakutani discusses the early elements of Coetzee's life, as described in Boyhood, that led to his later writing career.]

Though Boyhood has the stylized, fablelike quality of so much of J. M. Coetzee's fiction, it is not a coming-of-age novel, but a memoir that happens to be told in the third person and the present tense. It is a fiercely revealing, bluntly unsentimental work that both creates a telling portrait of the artist as a young man and illuminates the hidden courses of his art.

Indeed, the seeds of Mr. Coetzee's mature work—Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K, Foe and Age of Iron—can all be found in this slim volume. Mr. Coetzee's fascination with power and the Darwinian equation it draws between those with authority and those without, his sympathy for the disenfranchised and dispossessed and his concern with the struggle that isolated individuals wage for emotional and physical survival—all, we learn, have very specific roots in his childhood, in his tempestuous relationship with his parents, in his fearful experience of school and in his youthful apprehension of race under the apartheid laws of South Africa.

The young Mr. Coetzee, referred to throughout this volume as "he," and only once, obliquely, as John, grew up in the years after World War II in a dismal housing project outside the town of Worcester, a place where the streets "have tree-names but no trees yet." Although his family's name was Afrikaans, English was spoken at home, and John always felt like an outsider at school, set apart by his family's lack of religion and his parents' failure to fit in with their neighbors. At once fearful and contemptuous of his classmates and teachers, he came to see school as a microcosm of "the cruelty and pain and hatred raging beneath the everyday surface of things," a place where beatings and humiliation could be randomly dispensed by others.

John's sense of isolation seems to have nourished a sympathy, even a sense of identification, with "the Natives." "In the stories that have left the deepest mark on him," Mr. Coetzee writes, "It is the third brother, the humblest and most derided, who, after the first and second brothers have disdainfully passed by, helps the old woman to carry her heavy load or draws the thorn from the lion's paw. The third brother is kind and honest and courageous while the first and second brothers are boastful, arrogant, uncharitable. At the end of the story the third brother is crowned prince, while the first and second brothers are disgraced and sent packing.

"There are white people and Colored people and Natives, of whom the Natives are the lowest and most derided. The parallel is inescapable: the Natives are the third brother."

Like Michael K, the young John is endowed with the clearsightness of innocence, a child's common sense that enables him to intuitively understand the injustice of apartheid and the corruption of the system. "He does not see the point of having elections if the party that wins can change the rules," Mr. Coetzee writes. "It is like the batsman deciding who may and who may not bowl."

John's skepticism, however, also gives him a highly cynical take on his own family, goading him to see love as just another form of politics. Even before his weak, ineffectual father returned home from the war, he says, he decided "he was not going to like him": he decided "he does not want to have a father, or at least does not want a father who stays in the same house."

As for his doting, protective mother, he regards her with a mixture of adoration, resentment and Marcel-like dependence. Her self-sacrificing love for him, he realizes, means he will never be able to pay her back: "The thought of a lifetime bowed under a debt of love baffles and infuriates him to the point where he will not kiss her, refuses to be touched by her. When she turns away in silent hurt, he deliberately hardens his heart against her, refusing to give in."

John's wariness of the claims of others makes him a furtive, secretive child, quick to worry, quicker to dissemble. This watchfulness, combined with a grandiosity—he thinks of himself as special, capable of achieving whatever he wants to do—will turn his heart "dark and hard." It will also make him into an observer and storyteller who will transform the raw hurt, fear and anxiety of his childhood into such remarkable works as Waiting for the Barbarians and Life & Times of Michael K.

Though this book does not possess those novels' artistry or mythic power, it provides a potent emotional blueprint for them, even as it reveals how their creator became a writer to begin with.


Coetzee, J(ohn) M.


Special Commissioned Entry on J. M. Coetzee, Margaret Lenta