J. M. Coetzee Coetzee, J(ohn) M. - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

J(ohn) M. Coetzee 1940–

South African novelist and translator.

Coetzee examines in his fiction the moral implications of South Africa's history, prompting some critics to interpret his work as political allegory. In the postmodernist manner, he creates ambiguities of space and time. Critics especially praise Coetzee for the surreal landscapes and intense, brooding mood of his recent novels, From the Heart of the Country and Waiting for the Barbarians.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Ursula A. Barnett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dusklands is among the first truly modern novels in English written and published in South Africa. Doris Lessing and Dan Jacobson left their homelands many years ago and have abandoned southern African subject matter; Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton and others continue to write well and conservatively and are published abroad. Although the Afrikaans-speaking section of this country has always been equated with conservatism, it is the Afrikaans novelists who were the pioneers in the field of the avant-garde novel. Calling themselves "Sestigers," men of the sixties, they modeled their works on the novels of France, Germany, Holland of the previous decade. Again paradoxically, since Afrikaners are the main exponents of white South African nationalism, the Sestigers rarely chose a truly South African background or wrote of matters of immediate South African concern.

In both respects J. M. Coetzee has taken a lead. Dusklands consists of two short novellas, the second of which ["The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee"] is based on a historical incident involving a white explorer among the Hottentots in the eighteenth century. It is the tale of the individual savageness of modern civilization pitted against the collective savageness of the untamed. The first story ["The Vietnam Project"], by way of analogy, deals with an American specialist in psychological warfare working "in the spirit of absoluteness," "of intellectual ferocity," on a...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

Blake Morrison

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The pivotal event of J. M. Coetzee's second novel, In the Heart of the Country [published in the United States as From the Heart of the Country], is a cross-cultural seduction. Isolated and repressed since the death of his wife, a white South African sheepfarmer takes a desperate "lunge towards happiness" when he wins over with gifts, and finally brings into his own home, the young wife of his black foreman Hendrik. The act not only violates racial codes, but incites jealousy and madness in his devoted daughter Magda…. [Madga] shoots her father, disposes of the body, and throws open the farmhouse to Hendrik and his wife. Social codes are now further subverted as Hendrik rapes Magda, takes to wearing the "baas's clothes", and departs only when suspicious neighbours begin to investigate his master's disappearance. Magda is left alone….

This is the essential narrative, but in the novel it is filtered through Magda's consciousness—which is Mr Coetzee's chief interest. And since Magda is in some sense disturbed, the narrative is necessarily more disturbed than has been indicated. For the first few pages we are led to believe that Magda's father has not taken another man's wife but has brought home his own "new bride": the "parricide and pseudo-matricide" which follow function as a kind of preliminary mime to the main action, but also cast doubt on its authenticity…. The last pages compound [uncertainties by suggesting...

(The entire section is 565 words.)

Paddy Kitchen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In the Heart of the Country] is a novel that transcends nagging pragmatism. Its intensity of imagery and language, and its vivid, self-enclosed territory, make it the most original book I have read for a long time….

It is a difficult novel to describe. Every paragraph is numbered, which has the effect of creating a series of slight separations, slowly down one's reading speed. This is necessary, as the book, which is short, is as concentrated as a collection of African spices. Coetzee teaches linguistics, and has found a format in which to try to harness both his philosophical speculations and his passion for words. If I have any doubts, they are related to the last half of the book: intrusions of overemphasis in a sex scene, a striving to touch the boundaries of individual perception that almost topples the structure of the book. But the faults are of ambition, not pretension.

Paddy Kitchen, "Death in the Head" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1977; reprinted by permission of Paddy Kitchen), in The Listener, Vol. 98, No. 2522, August 18, 1977, p. 223.∗

Charles R. Larson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[One] cannot help admiring the technical artistry of J. M. Coetzee's lyrical puzzle, In the Heart of the Country…. Patricide, rape, incest and miscegenation are not exactly unexplored themes in South African writing, though rarely have they been treated as hauntingly as in Coetzee's novel. The unnamed heroine's "monologue of the self" (as she refers to her tale) recapitulates her violent murder of her white father out of jealousy for his affair with his African workman's wife. Then after the burial of her father, the daughter begins an affair with the husband of her father's African mistress—thus duplicating the relationship she had previously abhorred. When the African couple begin to fear that they will be held responsible for their white employer's death, they run away, and the daughter is left alone on her decaying and isolated farm on the veld. At the end of the narrative the author suggests that the entire story may have been the fantasy of a deranged consciousness…. In the Heart of the Country is a perplexing novel, to be sure, but also a fascinating novelistic exercise in the use of cinematic techniques in prose fiction. The reader feels as though he is observing a series of stills extracted from a motion picture, each one overlapping with and canceling the image of the earlier one. (pp. 245-46)

Charles R. Larson, "Anglophone Writing from Africa and Asia," in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 245-47.∗

Barend J. Toerien

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Dusklands] was a most authentic sounding diary of an early explorer, a device which allowed [Coetzee] to show the jelling of rigid attitudes and the props needed to establish and maintain the master/servant relationship, which is still the crutch of the South African establishment.

[From the Heart of the Country] continues this probe. Bold in concept, it purports to be the diary of a spinster on an isolated and unspecified desert sheep farm…. The reader soon realizes that these are the untrustworthy ravings of a hysterical, demented individual consumed by loneliness and her love/hate relationship with her patriarchal father…. Her ravings are so unreliable that it is hard to know what to believe, and she herself is drawn into a physically degrading yet spiritually enriching relationship with the [husband of her father's mistress].

What the book is about basically is a spiritual search for God, for a reaching out beyond the restrictions imposed by Calvinism; but above all it is a search for the self. I can hardly recall a work more steeped in the authentic and historical South African situation. Over it all hangs a brooding intensity, intermixed with a crazy humor. Coetzee is not one for easy answers or for cashing in on the market for the slick novel on the South African "racial problem." Thank goodness.

Barend J. Toerien, "South Africa: 'From the Heart of the Country'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 3, Summer, 1978, p. 510.

Sheila Roberts

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Three generations of writers, white and black, have tried to arouse South Africans to a recognition of what they saw as a growing spiritual and moral aridity and a tighter political extremism resulting from the systems of apartheid. Now it is 1980, thousands of printed protest pages later, and the National government is still in power, having grown unwieldy and corrupt, but not seriously challenged by white opposition parties and, so far, capable of destroying black opposition before it finds a voice or, having found one, has disseminated any message. (p. 19)

With these irrefutable realities before me, and the constant comments of political scientists on the suicidal stupidity of white South Africa,...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Dusklands] includes two separate pieces of novella length—"The Vietnam Project" and "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee." The former deals with a Californian who works for a think-tank group which is developing new ways to undermine the bases of Vietnamese culture in 1973; he gradually is going mad in the course of the task. Though there are sound psychological insights on what makes an intelligence man click, I found the basic plot of the piece rather predictable fare. "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee," about [an] eighteenth-century settler, seems to merit more consideration here, for the reasons that it is directly concerned with African affairs, and, more importantly, it is an extremely well-wrought and fascinating work of fiction. The author may have intended for the two to be more integrally related. They do share the theme of outsiders failing to understand the cultures of the people they wish to dominate, and a character named Coetzee (a descendant of Jacobus? both of them related to the author?)—does turn up in "The Vietnam Project." Nevertheless, I think they can stand as separate novellas, and I certainly cannot detect enough unity to make them parts of a single whole….

Jacobus Coetzee gives his story, sometimes reminiscent of an explorer's log and at other times more like a theological tract, complete with extended observations on race and God. (p. 42)

The writing here never slacks, whether it be at moments of intense action, revealing contemplation, or haunting envisioning, as in a fine dream sequence fueled by [a] fever. The reader is entirely inside Jacobus Coetzee's head, and even the most patently disgusting moments of the story he has to tell are not avoided…. Overall, Jacobus Coetzee emerges in all his contradictory complexity, a complexity that he finally denied by falling back on his set belief in his own superiority. (p. 43)

[Today] the past is what many white South Africans strive to glorify in rationalizing the code of their dominance. But Coetzee in his straightforward portrayal of Jacobus Coetzee (a bull-headed trader out to make some quick money on ivory) shows us that past isn't much to believe in; the sad, brutal story of colonialism never is. (p. 44)

Peter La Salle, "Insight into the South African Psyche in Fiction," in Africa Today (© Africa Today Associates; reprinted by permission of Africa Today, Graduate School of International Studies, University of Denver, Denver, CO 80208), Vol. 27, No. 3, Third Quarter, 1980, pp. 42-4.∗

Nicholas Shrimpton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Waiting For the Barbarians is] a grimly thoughtful book, impelled by a coherent saeva indignatio. Set in an imaginary colonial territory …, [it] is actually an allegory of recent events in Southern Africa. The hero is a humane minor official who worries about his relationship with the imperial state of which he is part. When a brutal colonel from the 'Third Bureau' arrives to start torturing native suspects, the sense of involuntary complicity becomes intolerable.

A platonic love affair with a native girl deepens his sympathy for the subject peoples and prompts a reconsideration of the concept of barbarism. Eventually, after a long trip into the desert, he returns to find himself an enemy of the state. Thereafter events can be read either as a retrospective account of the end of empire in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, or as a covert prophecy for the future of South Africa itself. Once the penny's dropped, of course, historical allegory of this kind can seem a little dull—a matter of ticking off fictional events against their literal counterparts. But if you are interested in the region (and who can not be?) Waiting For The Barbarians provides an intriguing sidelight on its continuing agony.

Nicholas Shrimpton, "Cold Feet in Moscow," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 100, No. 2590, November 7, 1980, p. 30.∗

Peter Lewis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

South Africa may be the world's whipping-boy, but J. M. Coetzee is too intelligent a novelist to cater for moralistic voyeurs. This does not mean that he avoids the social and political crises edging his country towards catastrophe. But he chooses not to handle such themes in the direct, realistic way that writers of older generations, such as Alan Paton, preferred to employ. Instead, Coetzee has developed a symbolic and even allegorical mode of fiction—not to escape the living nightmare of South Africa but to define the psychopathological underlying the sociological, and in doing so to locate the archetypal in the particular. He did this in [In the Heart of the Country] …, which, with its doom-laden action...

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Paul Ableman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[As] soon as you start probing [Waiting for the Barbarians] for clues as to a possible historical model the book's meaning sways towards the allegorical. Conversely, if you look for specific allegorical components the vivid, concrete qualities reassert themselves. The frontier town is real and its inhabitants are as plausible and as inconsistent as living people. The barbarians beyond the horizon are real men on horseback, pointing ancient weapons that can kill. And yet this is no conventional adventure story of life in a frontier outpost….

Mr Coetzee has produced a remarkable book which works at varying levels of abstraction. It is, in the first place, a gripping account of frontier strife...

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Martin Seymour-Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Waiting for the Barbarians shows that J.M. Coetzee] has learned much from the masters of the novel of more or less oblique protest—Vargas Lhosa, Asturias, García Márquez. Above all, he has learned not to let crude polemic or propaganda intrude into his essentially humane message. Humanity, as he demonstrates, is not the property of any democratic organization. This book is brilliant, disturbing, dry, ironic, unsensational, deeply moving and above all it acknowledges the weakness of all men in the face of barbarity. It is free of rhetoric, subtle, and ought to be read by all those interested in decency and its perpetuation amongst men. It has much more significance than a thousand polemical...

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Anthony Burgess

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Waiting for the Barbarians] is not about South Africa: It is not about anywhere, and hence it is about everywhere.

The hero-narrator has no name, merely a title. He is a magistrate serving an anonymous empire in one of its frontier settlements—easygoing, with literary inclinations, sensual, due for retirement. He is visited by a certain Colonel Joll…. The nomenclature sounds contemporary, but Coetzee sets up a temporal dubiety…. The illusion of a composite time zone is, throughout, very skillfully maintained.

Colonel Joll is concerned, on behalf of the empire he serves, with holding back the barbarians—meaning comparatively primitive people who fish and hunt on the...

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Webster Schott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In nearly every way J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians is a novel beyond the ordinary, and I cannot imagine anyone reading it and remaining unmoved by its anguish and sense of futility. Memories of Kafka and Faulkner dart through Coetzee's surreal fable of racial brutality and injustice. The mood is that of Albert Camus as he examined the condition of existential man in The Stranger.

The novel takes place at a trading outpost at the farthest reaches of a state called "The Empire."…

For around 30 years the aging magistrate who narrates Coetzee's novel has presided over the affairs of the lazy village…. But news of native raids on pack trains and flocks of...

(The entire section is 438 words.)