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.
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.
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.
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.