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


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Special Commissioned Entry on J. M. Coetzee Margaret Lenta

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

The following special entry, written by noted scholar Margaret Lenta, presents an overview of Coetzee's life and works. For further information on Coetzee's writings, see CLC, Volumes 23, 33, 66, and 117.

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.

Essay: Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Margaret Lenta (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Lenta, Margaret. “An Overview of the Life and Career of J. M. Coetzee.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 161, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2002.

[In the following essay, Lenta discusses Coetzee's life, career, awards and recognition, and overall body of work, while also examining the era in which Coetzee wrote and the critical reception of his works.]


Coetzee was born in Cape Town in 1940 and spent part of his childhood, from 1948 until 1951, in Worcester, a small town in the Cape Province of South Africa. His parents were Zacharias Coetzee, the lawyer son of a farmer, and Vera Wehmeyer Coetzee, who had been a schoolteacher but who, in conformity with the prejudices of the day, did not work during Coetzee's childhood, devoting herself to her two sons, of whom J. M. Coetzee was the elder. Both parents were of Afrikaans descent, Vera being the granddaughter of a German who had come to South Africa and, as frequently happened, had been absorbed into the Afrikaans group.

In Boyhood, Coetzee shows himself-as-child as having a difficult relationship with both parents: adoring his mother, and as a small child being intensely possessive of her, he nevertheless jealously guarded the privacy of his own life and was often puzzled by her paradoxical attitudes in matters of race and social groupings. For his father, his feelings seem to have been antagonistic and strongly oedipal. Perhaps because of his absence during World War II, Zacharias Coetzee seems to have been a marginal figure in a family that centered on mother and sons. The child J. M. Coetzee seems to have felt a mixture of resentment and contempt for him, but at the same time to have felt that these feelings were deviant. Afrikaans family life was strongly patriarchal, and he believed that his father's family disapproved of his own father's marginal position in the family.

Coetzee's parents had chosen to speak English to their children, who regarded themselves as members of the English-speaking group. This decision had important consequences for Coetzee, whose sense of his identity, as far as it related to his ancestry and language group, was always insecure. His adult decision about his identity has been that

No Afrikaner would consider me an Afrikaner. That, it seems to me, is the acid test for group membership, and I don't pass it. Why not? In the first place, because English is my language, and has been since childhood. An Afrikaner is a person whose first language is Afrikaans. … In the second place, because I am not embedded in the culture of the Afrikaner (I have never, for instance, belonged to a Reformed Church) and have been shaped by that culture only in a perverse way.

What am I, then, in this ethno-linguistic sense? I am one of many people in this country who have become detached from their ethnic roots, whether those were in Dutch South Africa or Indonesia or Britain or Greece or wherever, and have joined a pool of no recognizable ethnos whose language of exchange is English.1

In 1948, a Nationalist government was for the first time in South African history elected to power. The franchise was at this stage restricted to members of the two white language groups, Afrikaans and English, and the Nationalist party was committed to the advancement of the interests of the Afrikaans group.2 These interests, the party believed, could best be served by preserving the unique culture of its members in a school system separate from that of English speakers. The party also wished to prevent children of the Afrikaans group from being absorbed into the English group, and there was considerable pressure on people with Afrikaans names (which of course included the Coetzees) to send their children to Afrikaans-medium schools.

The Coetzee parents were in fact indifferent to the antagonisms between Afrikaans and English speakers, and Coetzee as an adult has traced his own propensity to live “wherever he finds himself, turned inward”3 to his parents' attitudes:

His years in rural Worcester (1948–1951) as a child from an Afrikaans background attending English-medium classes, at a time of raging Afrikaner nationalism, a time when laws were being concocted to prevent people of Afrikaans descent from bringing up their children to speak English, provoke in him uneasy dreams of being hunted down and accused; by the age of twelve he has a well-developed sense of social marginality. (People of his parents' kind are thundered at from the pulpit as volksverraaiers, traitors to the people. The truth is, his parents aren't traitors, they aren't even particularly deracinated; they are merely, to their eternal credit, indifferent to the volk and its fate.4)

The school that Coetzee attended as a child was “dual medium”; that is to say, there were separate classes for Afrikaans and English children, each taught through the medium of the children's home language; children of both groups would meet in the playground. The child narrator of fears that he will be categorized by officialdom as an Afrikaans child and moved to the Afrikaans classes.5

At this stage in his life, the young Coetzee identifies strongly with English culture, partly because he sees the Afrikaans children of Worcester—mostly the children of farmers in a period of agricultural depression—as poor, coarse and brutal, but also because of his pleasure in reading the English-language literature of childhood. Unlike most children, he is allowed to stay at home whenever he says that he is sick and to settle down to a day of reading, and he develops a rich life of the imagination, based on his reading.

Yet, though he fears being compelled to become part of the Afrikaans group, he resists the snobbery that often, in South Africa of the late forties and early fifties, made English-speakers feign ignorance of or contempt for Afrikaans. He is proud of his fluency in the language, though he does not wish to live as Afrikaners do. In an interview, the adult Coetzee has spoken of his belief that there was once a distinctively Afrikaans culture and that in his lifetime it had already disappeared:

In a funny exclusive way they did create (in an anthropological sense) a culture of their own. But I don't think that any thinking Afrikaner can believe that this culture persists. It was very much a rural culture which has fragmented and fallen to pieces, and there's now a very ordinary urban anomie the Afrikaner must feel as well.6

The ambivalence that Coetzee shows towards Cape Dutch people (known from about the late 1920s as Afrikaners) in his novels seems partly to stem from this belief.

The strongly partitioned society in which the child lives demands that he acknowledge in every area of his life the group to which he belongs, and as his parents are as indifferent to religion as they are to other group loyalties, this causes problems for him when he is required to declare which religion he practices. The options are Christian (in the context this means Protestant, Dutch Reformed Church, the group to which almost all Afrikaans people belong), Roman Catholic, or Jewish. He claims to be a Catholic, because this exempts him from school assemblies. It exposes him, however, to the anti-Semitism of the Afrikaans children, who do not distinguish between Catholics and Jews. He is drawn to the Jewish boys, but his parents' anti-Semitism makes him fear Jews. He is embarrassed by his ignorance of Catholic doctrines and practices, and when he eventually goes to a Catholic high school, St. Joseph's, in Cape Town, he is relieved to find that it is no longer necessary—is in fact impossible—to pretend that he is a Catholic.

Part of the child's anti-Afrikaans feeling seems to have been absorbed from his mother, who understandably resented the fact that while her husband was away on military service during World War II, his family ignored her and her children and did not invite them to the family farm. But the young Coetzee nevertheless loved his visits to the farm after his father returned: “He must go to the farm because there is no place on earth that he loves more or can imagine loving more.”7 He had spoken fluent Afrikaans since early childhood, and used this language without difficulty in his contacts with his paternal family and with the “Colored”8 laborers on the farm. His love for the farm is always accompanied by a knowledge that the rural life lived by his uncle and his family is not for him: “[t]he farm is not his home; he will never be more than a guest, an uneasy guest.”9 The position of the “Colored” laborers and house servants on the farm puzzled and made him uncomfortable: it was understood that they “belonged” there, in a profound sense, since their ancestors were indigenous to the land, but their position was unchangeably subservient, and the child was discouraged from making friends with them. In Doubling the Point he writes, “[f]or a variety of reasons he ceases visiting the family farm, the place on earth he has defined, imagined, constructed, as his place of origin.”10 Similar conflicting feelings of love and rejection for the farm itself and for the “Colored” people who work on it are experienced by the protagonist Magda in In the Heart of the Country. Coetzee has tried to offer an account of the origins of the relations between “Colored” laborers and white landowners in his first novel, Dusklands, in his portrayal of the Hottentot servants and their master Jacobus Coetzee.

Coetzee's first painful encounters with people from a race group other than his own occurred in Worcester, where there was a large population of “Colored” people, restricted by custom and, after 1948 increasingly by law, to menial and badly paid jobs. He records in Boyhood his observation that “Colored” children began their working lives when white children were still going to school and that they were compelled to labor for whites and could be cruelly punished by them. He began at this early stage to speculate on the resentments that such injustices must produce.11

The reader hears little about Zacharias Coetzee's interests and tastes, since his child has little respect for or interest in him, but he often tries to understand his mother's attitudes:

He is always trying to make sense of his mother. Jews are exploiters, she says; yet she prefers Jewish doctors because they know what they are doing. Coloured people are the salt of the earth, she says, yet she and her sisters are always gossiping about pretend-whites with secret Coloured backgrounds. He cannot understand how she can hold so many contradictory beliefs at the same time.12

The mature Coetzee would understand this gap between racial prejudice and convictions based on observation, but the child cannot, and his special relationship with his mother—“[h]e is too close to his mother, his mother is too close to him”13—does not prevent him from thinking independently and feeling that she is mistaken.

Zacharias Coetzee lost his job with the municipality of Cape Town when the Nationalist Party came to power in 1948. In the time period of Boyhood, he works in Worcester as a bookkeeper in a fruit-canning factory until, in 1951, he decides to return to Cape Town and to the practice of the law. The law firm that he establishes does not flourish, since Zacharias has little ability to cope with money matters, and it is eventually closed down. Vera Coetzee is obliged to return to teaching, and the family becomes increasingly dependent on her earnings—which must, at this stage of South African social history, have been small, since women teachers were paid considerably less than men.

Now at the age for high school, J. M. Coetzee is sent to St. Joseph's in Cape Town, which he knows to be a low-status school but where he is reasonably happy, despite the fact that he is once again an outsider, since St. Joseph's is a Catholic school, mainly staffed by Marist brothers. He is, as he has been since he was a small child, passionately fond of cricket. This sport seems to have remained one of the ways in which the adult Coetzee maintained social contact with the world. In his essay “Remembering Texas,” he comments that as a doctoral student in Austin, remote from his students who “might as well have been Triobriand Islanders, so inaccessible to me were their culture, their recreations, their animating ideas” and almost equally out of sympathy with the graduate students who were his peers, he played cricket with a group of Indians.14

When the time comes for Coetzee to go to university, he “pays his own way … doing odd jobs, if only because he is too squeamish to witness his mother's sacrifices.”15 Self-support for students at university is a commonplace in the United States, but in South Africa, where whites formed in the late fifties and early sixties a relatively affluent group, it was rare, and the white student jobseeker would have had a difficult time, since menial...

(The entire section is 5603 words.)

Themes And Techniques In J. M. Coetzee's Novels

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Coetzee, whose first novel appeared in 1974, two years before the Soweto Revolt signalled the approach of revolution in South Africa, and who has published novels at approximately three-year intervals ever since, has always acknowledged in his fiction an obligation to comment on and to reinterpret the history of South Africa. His work has not, however, been overt interpretation of contemporary events, as has that of South Africa's other major white novelist, Nadine Gordimer, for whose work he has nevertheless expressed admiration1. Gordimer's fiction has fittingly been called by Stephen Clingman “history from the inside,”2 and she has so far been...

(The entire section is 5934 words.)

J. M. Coetzee And His Era

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In an interview with Stephen Watson in 1978, J. M. Coetzee said, “I still tend to see the South African situation as only one manifestation of a wider historical situation to do with colonialism, late colonialism, neo-colonialism.”1 His willingness to make analogies in his novels between different examples of the colonizing process in different countries and eras has made the concept of “the author's era” an extensive one, stretching from the eighteenth-century Cape Colony to the post-revolutionary phase of the 1990s in South Africa. This chapter will therefore deal with the whole time period, in South Africa, of his novels, from the mid-eighteenth-century Cape, in which the action of Jacobus...

(The entire section is 7361 words.)

The Works Of J. M. Coetzee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Coetzee's best-known works are his novels, but he is also a critic, especially of South African literature. His novels and volumes of criticism are separately listed and summarized below. His novels are difficult to summarize, because of his extremely economical mode of writing. He has written of his practice: “when I myself write, I … laboriously search out the right word. I do believe in spareness. … Spare prose and a spare, thrifty world: it's an unattractive part of my makeup that has exasperated people who have had to share their lives with me.”1 The summaries offered are therefore fairly extensive, since there is no redundant detail in the works.


Dusklands: Braamfontein: Ravan Press, 1974. Dusklands consists of two novellas, the first being “The Vietnam Project,” narrated by Eugene Dawn, an American “mythographer,” a writer of propaganda and of documents concerning strategy during the Vietnam War. The second, “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee,” is narrated by an eighteenth-century frontiersman at the Cape of Good Hope. The narrators of both novellas are “unreliable”: they are neither impartial nor truthful. They are obsessed with their own purposes, and they see everybody whose interests compete with their own as enemies, to be sacrificed if their interests seem likely to prevail. Both are “colonists” in the sense that they invade lands inhabited by other people and seek to impose their will and their vision of themselves on the indigenes.

In the case of Eugene Dawn, who never leaves America, the “invasion” that he designs, the subjugation or destruction of the Vietnamese and their environment, is to be carried out by others.2 Jacobus Coetzee is a white stock farmer on the borders of the Cape Colony.3 In 1760, he makes an expedition northwestwards to the land of the Namaqua, an indigenous African people, herdsmen and hunters, akin to the Khoikhoi (popularly known as Hottentots in the period).

Eugene Dawn works on the preparation of an overarching plan for American campaigns in Vietnam. It is based on the idea of replacing one mythology with another. He proposes that Vietnamese culture, which he sees as “patrilineal … hierarchical and … authoritarian,”4 be replaced by a different “elder brother” voice, that of Vietnamese who side with America, and a “father voice,” which will be that of America. He sees the myth of the father god, who is supplanted by rebellious adult sons, whom their mother has kept safe from him, as based on the symbiosis of Earth (the mother-goddess) and sky (the father-god). It is now outdated, since the earth is no longer the enduring and fertile producer but is devoured by men and repudiated when they take flight elsewhere. Now the appropriate goddess is Athene,5 who symbolizes science, rather than the fertility of the earth.

Dawn asserts sons must subject themselves to their father if there is to be peace. He himself, and all dutiful junior bureaucrats, subject themselves to their superiors whilst awaiting their turn to inherit power. He envisages, in the campaign to enforce this subjection, total war in Vietnam, which will destroy the land as well as random numbers of people.

Dawn's superior (who is called Coetzee) is embarrassed by this document, and he asks for revisions. The result is that Dawn, already alienated from his wife, becomes unwilling to go to work and takes refuge with his little son in a motel. Here he is discovered by the police and stabs his son to silence him. The last section of the novel finds him in a mental hospital, where he says, “I have high hopes of finding out whose fault I am.”

Jacobus Coetzee's worldview demands that he always be seen as superior and that those who surround him recognize and agree to their own inferiority to him. His means of imposing himself on others is the gun that the indigenous peoples whom he encounters do not possess. He makes two expeditions outside of the borders of the Cape Colony to the land of the Namaqua. On the first he is accompanied by a group of Khoi servants.

Jacobus Coetzee's first encounter with the Namaqua does not go as he expects: they do not acknowledge his superiority and commandeer his cheap trade goods and provisions. When, however, he becomes sick, they give him a hut, and he is nursed by his servant Klawer and an old woman of the tribe. Recovering, he assaults a child who laughs at him, and the Namaqua tell him to leave. Of all his servants, only Klawer, who dies on the way, will accompany him, and he struggles back to the Cape alone. The following year he undertakes a punitive expedition back to the Namaqua, to assert that he is not to be treated in this way.

In the Heart of the Country, London: Secker and Warburg, 1977; Johannesburg (South Africa): Ravan Press, 1978. (This edition differs from the British one by having the dialogue between the narrator-protagonist, Magda, in Afrikaans.) New York: Penguin, 1982. In the Heart of the Country consists of numbered paragraphs, which form a monologue, which is presumably unspoken and internal, and consists of the reveries of Magda, a lonely, unmarried Afrikaans woman, the only daughter of a widowed farmer on a remote farm in the Karoo. The time period of the novel is not clear, but the mention of the flying machines in the last sections suggests that it is in the first half of the twentieth century, perhaps the 1930s. The reader has no way of knowing whether Magda's account is simply what she imagines or whether some of the events actually occur. Some of her stories are clearly fantasies, since she gives several different accounts of what occurs. Her fantasies are dreams of rebellion against the conventions of rural Afrikaans life, which is patriarchal and racist, and dreams of other possibilities for her life.

Magda has two main preoccupations, the one with her taciturn father and the other with her loneliness, which leads her to try to make friends with the “Colored” people of the farm. She fantasizes that her father has brought home a new wife and that she has murdered them both. Later she believes that her father has seduced Klein-Anna, a “Colored” domestic, and she again fantasizes murdering him. This leads to fantasies of being alone on the farm with only the “Colored” workers, Hendrik and Klein-Anna, their refusal to obey her, her rape by Hendrik, and the eventual departure from the farm of the workers. She then imagines her solitary life on the farm, messages from the sky and her eventual acceptance of life on the farm—where she is caring for her now senile father.

Waiting for the Barbarians, London: Secker and Warburg, 1980. New York and London: Penguin, 1982. New edition, New York: Penguin 1999. The novel takes its title from a poem by the Greek poet, C. P. Cavafy (1863–1933), who lived in Egypt and wrote a poem with that title.6 Like Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country, Waiting for the Barbarians is a monologue delivered by a single narrator, the Magistrate, an official in a small town on an oasis on the border of an (unnamed) empire. He is a “reliable” narrator, who tells the truth as he sees it and tries to be accurate and unprejudiced, even when under pressure to falsify what he sees.

The novel begins with the Magistrate's receiving a visit from Colonel Joll, an official from the metropolis, who has come to investigate rumors of barbarian movements on the frontier. Joll interrogates an old man and a boy who have been captured. The Magistrate, against his better judgment, investigates the treatment of these two and finds that the man has been tortured to death. This is a crucial moment for him: he is now committed to discovering the truth concerning the operations of Empire.

The narrative contains a series of dreams, mostly concerned with children in the snow. These seem to be related to the figure of the barbarian girl, whom the Magistrate seeks to understand. She is a captive of the imperial forces and is subjected to torture by Joll. She is partially blinded and lamed and is left behind when the other barbarians leave the town after Joll's departure. She is succoured by the Magistrate, who tries unsuccessfully to get to know her. Finally, he decides to make an expedition to return her to her people. On his return he finds that an officer called Mandel has been sent to take over his function as Magistrate, and he himself is tortured, publicly humiliated, and imprisoned on the grounds of having fraternized with the barbarians.

Joll returns to the town with barbarian prisoners, who are ritually beaten. A general fear of the barbarians is produced in the town. A second punitive expedition beyond the frontier is unsuccessful, and people begin to leave the town in fear. The Magistrate reflects on the nature of Empire, understanding that he was a part of Empire in its easy times and Joll was the face of harsher times. The Magistrate is asked by the townspeople to resume his office and provision the town for winter. The remains of the expeditionary force return and leave the town for the capital; the barbarians have eluded them, and most of them have been lost.

The Magistrate embarks on the writing of an account of the idyllic life of the oasis. He claims that life there was simply “the time of the seasons.” He regrets that he has not really understood the terrible year through which he has lived.

Life and Times of Michael K, Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1983. This, the fourth of J. M. Coetzee's novels, is the first not to be conceived of as a monologue. Most of the novel is related by a nonfigural narrator, who is not a character in the novel but who speaks from outside the action. The reader is usually confined within what K can understand. Most of section 2, however, (pp. 177–204; pp. 208–29) is narrated by the medical superintendent of the camp in which K is detained; pp. 204–08 consist of a letter (unsent) from this man to K.

The novel is set in the Cape Province of South Africa, at a future but unspecified time when civil war has broken out. The reader is presented with a disintegrating nation-state and large numbers of displaced people. The novel is one of a group of apocalyptic novels written in the 1970s and 1980s, of which Karel Schoeman's Promised Land7 and Nadine Gordimer's July's People8 are probably the best.

Michael K is born in Cape Town, with a harelip, the son of a domestic servant, Anna K. Mentally slow, he is sent to a residential institution and at fifteen goes to work as a gardener for the Municipality. When he is thirty-one, his mother becomes ill, and he agrees to take her to Prince Albert,9 her birthplace. There is a riot in Cape Town, and the Seapoint block of flats in which K's mother lodges is looted. After waiting fruitlessly for a permit to leave Cape Town, the two set out through what is now obviously a war-torn land. At Stellenbosch, Anna dies, and K makes his way to Prince Albert, through the danger and difficulties of the war. He finds his way to a deserted farm, where the (Afrikaans) Visagie family once lived and finds and plants pumpkin and mealie10 seeds by the dam, where he can irrigate them. A deserting soldier, a member of the Visagie family, arrives at the farm. He tries to make K serve him, but K takes refuge in the Swartberg mountains, where he lives for some time on roots and grubs. Realizing that he is starving, he comes down the mountain into Prince Albert and is arrested and taken to a camp where displaced persons of all ages are confined.

When arson occurs in Prince Albert, the police beat up the inmates of the camp, ransack their possessions, and a more severe regime is established. K manages to escape, and returns to the Visagie farm. Eating almost nothing, he waits for his seeds to bear fruit. A group of guerrillas comes down from the mountain; K hides from them, deciding that it is his role to “keep gardening alive … because once that cord was broken, the earth would grow hard and forget her children.”11

The next section is narrated by the medical office of a camp where K has been placed. K, whom he calls Michaels, cannot keep food down; he does not particularly want to live. The director of the camp is under pressure to interrogate K about his involvement with guerrillas. It is clear that K knows nothing, and the medical officer persuades the director to fabricate a report that will satisfy the police.

Discharged from the hospital, K is made to exercise, and he collapses. The medical officer writes an (undeliverable) letter to him, explaining that he wants to understand him. He feels that K resembles an insect that survives quietly in a garden. K escapes, and the medical officer, losing belief that his work in the camp has any value, submits a death certificate for him.

Back in Seapoint, K is befriended by the leader of a group of vagrants.12 He sees himself as an object of different forms of charity and rejects this sense of himself. He is sorry that he did not have enough seeds to plant gardens all over the veld. He imagines journeying through the country with a companion and making a plan to draw water for them from the earth with a bent teaspoon and a string—enough for them to live minimally.

Foe, Braamfontein: Ravan Press, 1986. New York: Viking Press, 1987. Foe is an early work, written with other, earlier works, specifically those of Daniel Defoe (1660–1731), in the mind of its author. Coetzee assumes these works are already familiar to the reader. Students who intend to work on the novel will find that they need to read, at least, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Roxana (1724).

The themes of Foe are the process of colonization and the ways in which that process is rendered in literature. In the first section of the novel (pp. 5–45) Susan Barton is addressing Daniel Defoe.13 She tells the “true” story of the colonial process as she observed it.

Like Dusklands, In the Heart of the Country, and Waiting for the Barbarians, Foe is written as a monologue by a single speaker, Susan Barton, or, in section 2, a written account. Susan is truthful and reliable in her accounts of life of the island and of her experiences in London, and Coetzee intends her narrative to be a corrective to the account offered by Crusoe himself, the narrator in Robinson Crusoe.

In order to follow Foe's discussion of truth and fiction at the end of the novel (pp. 134–37), the reader should bear in mind that Defoe wrote fictions that appeared with the claim that they were true accounts of the experiences of their narrators.14

Susan Barton tells of her arrival at the island: castaway by the crew of a ship, she dives from a rowing boat and part-swims, in part is carried by the current to the shore of the island. There she meets a black man, who helps her to an encampment where she meets Cruso (so spelt in the novel), a European man of about sixty years old. She tells him that she grew up in England but went to Bahia in Brazil, because her daughter had been abducted and taken there. After an unsuccessful search for the girl, she decided to return via Lisbon. Cruso gives different accounts of his family, his adventures and his black servant Friday. He does not want to leave the island after so many years there. The furniture and implements of the house are rudimentary, since Cruso has only crude tools, having brought nothing but a knife from the wreck of the ship. He has kept no journal of his life on the island. He tells Susan that Friday's tongue has been cut out by slavers. He is determined not to allow change on the island. When he has fever, she nurses him, and as he recovers, they engage in a single act of sexual intercourse.

Susan decides that Cruso on the island may be a kingly figure but away from it he would be meaningless. He falls sick again with fever, and whilst he is ill, a ship, the John Hobart, arrives at the island. Susan is able to arrange for them to be taken on board. Despite her care, Cruso dies on the voyage.

Susan and Friday are in lodgings in London. She has written her account of the island for Foe. She tries to teach Friday how to do washing; she also attempts to teach him to understand speech but makes little progress.

Foe is hiding from bailiffs, and Susan is short of money and anxious. She and Friday move into Foe's house. Writing an account of her adventures, she finds herself beginning to invent; Friday is dumb and cannot tell his story. A girl begins to watch the house; she claims to be Susan's lost daughter. Friday becomes withdrawn and depressed, and Susan longs to be able to communicate with him. He has discovered robes and wigs in the wardrobe and dances and hums as he wears them. Susan writes a document granting him his freedom and hangs it round his neck. Intending to help him return to Africa, she sets out with him for Bristol.15 Various misadventures on the way culminate in the finding of a dead baby girl in a ditch, an episode that seems to symbolize both the futility of Susan's search for her daughter and the effacement of women from public roles in the period. When they reach Bristol Susan finds that shipmasters either obviously intend to sell Friday back into slavery or refuse to take him on board.

Back in London, they find Foe, who tells Susan that he is having difficulty writing the story of the island. His questions make it clear that he is drawing material from Susan's life for several books (Roxana, Moll Flanders, as well as Robinson Crusoe). Susan decides that she wishes to be the Muse16 who inspires authors. The girl who claims to be Susan's daughter arrives with her nurse. Susan explains that she is not a story but “a substantial being with a substantial history in the world.”17

Foe invites her to spend the night with him, and she agrees, having intercourse with him as she imagines the Muse does with her poets. Foe says that he must make Friday speak; she says that she has failed to do so. The next day she tries to teach Friday to write, but makes little progress and claims that he needs to understand more than commands given him.

The last section is a dream vision narrated by an unknown intruder in Foe's lodging: the body of a woman lies on the landing of a house; a man and woman are in bed together, and Friday is lying on the floor. The intruder listens to his mouth and dimly hears “the sounds of the island.”18 A second vision follows, in which the narrator (evidently in our own era) enters Foe's house and again finds the girl on the landing, the couple in bed, and Friday in his corner. The narrator finds Susan's narrative of her beginning to swim to the island. S/he too slips into water and swims down into the wrecked ship. Finally s/he reaches Friday; out of his mouth comes a slow stream without words.

Age of Iron, London: Secker and Warburg, 1990; New York: Random House, 1990; New York: Penguin, 1998. Age of Iron is the sixth of Coetzee's novels and the fifth to be framed as a monologue. The novel is set in 1986, a year after the first State of Emergency in South Africa was declared in July 1985.19 In this period the police assumed powers to detain people suspected of fomenting violence; political meetings were banned, and by October of that year, 689 people had been killed. The second emergency occurred in June 1986, when hundreds more people were detained and journalists were banned from areas of unrest.

The narrator is Elizabeth Curren, an elderly teacher of Latin and Greek. The narrative is a letter to Curren's daughter, who has emigrated to Canada. It is the story of her last days, when she chose to understand what for many years she had been oblivious of.

The title of the novel is taken from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, where King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream of a great statue with a head of gold, chest of silver, hips of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of a mixture of iron and clay. Daniel interprets this dream as meaning the stages in the history of his empire, the fourth and penultimate age, the age of iron, being that in which it will shatter and crush all the earlier empires. The period of the novel is therefore to be understood as the penultimate and most violent period of the Apartheid era.

Curren encounters a vagrant, Vercueil, near her home when she is returning from the doctor who has told her that she has terminal cancer. Vercueil becomes a kind of guardian to her. She asks him to send to her daughter in Canada the manuscript that she is preparing.

Florence, Curren's maid, who has returned with her two little girls, Hope and Beauty, and a fifteen-year-old son, Bheki, disapproves of Vercueil, who is drinking heavily. A young friend who is staying with Bheki pours away his brandy, and Vercueil strikes him. Curren asks who the friend is and says that Vercueil has a right to be there. Florence and Curren discuss the rights of children and their elders; Florence admits that the rising generation is “cruel”20 but claims that this is the fault of whites.

Bheki and his friend, on a bicycle, pedal towards Curren and Florence, pursued by a police van. A policeman opens the van door to knock the boys off the bicycle and they crash into the road. The visiting boy is taken to hospital. Curren tries to lay a charge against the policeman who knocked Bheki and his friend offer their bicycle; the police refuse to deal with it.

Curren drives Florence and her little girls to Guguletu.21 She passes police roadblocks and stops at a house where Mr. Thabane, Florence's cousin, lives. He helps them search for Bheki. They find Florence outside a hall, which has been burnt down. In the demolished interior, Bheki's body is one of five laid out for people to see. On the way home, Curren is told by the soldiers that such killings are going on all the time.

Back in her house Curren finds Vercueil asleep in the lavatory. She asks herself if she has lived “a doll's life,”22 ignorant of what was happening in the country.

Vercueil takes Curren in the car to the mountain above Muizenberg: she considers killing herself but cannot. He gives her brandy, and she tells him of the death of Bheki. They quarrel, and he throws the car keys into the bushes where she cannot find them. Later he finds them and they drive home.

Bheki's friend John returns to the house in the night; Curren tells him of Bheki's death and begs him not to go home. She finds that he has a gun and phones Florence for advice. Mr. Thabane is there and speaks to her about the comradeship that such boys share.

The police come to the house and insist on taking away John. Curren hears a fusillade of shots and realizes that John is dead. She goes down into Cape Town, where she collapses. Children attack her; then Vercueil finds her and carries her home. On the way she reflects that she is seeing the effects of a crime committed long ago.

Now very sick, Curren has to take medication that makes it difficult for her to write; she senses the presence of the dead John. She has a vision of Florence, carrying Hope and Beauty, all three wearing masks, and Florence like a Greek goddess of death. She tells the dream to Vercueil and says that she is now waiting for death. Vercueil offers to help her die. She asks him to sleep beside her. She quotes Virgil on what makes the dead unable to rest and begs him to send the letter to her daughter. She thinks of her grandchildren, who are strangers to him. As she dies, Vercueil holds her.

The Master of Petersburg, London: Secker and Warburg, 1994; New York: Viking Penguin, 1994. The Master of Petersburg, like Foe, is an intertextual novel, in which Coetzee has in mind (and feels entitled to require his reader to be familiar with) Dostoevsky's novel The Possessed, which was first published in Russian in 1871–1872. Though this work is not a monologue, it is entirely focalized through the perceptions of the protagonist, a fictional recreation of Dostoevsky; that is to say, the reader is allowed to know only what Dostoevsky sees and understands.

Dostoevsky arrives in Petersburg from Germany in October 1869 and calls at 63 Svechnoi Street, where his stepson Pavel, who died ten days before, has been lodging. Anna Sergeyevna Kolenkina, his landlady, allows him to see Pavel's room. Dostoevsky arranges to visit the room during the day. Anna Sergeyevna, her daughter Matryona and Dostoevsky visit Pavel's grave. Anna Sergeyevna tells him of the friendship between Matryona and Pavel. He dreams that he finds the dead Pavel. Next morning he tries to write, but cannot. He decides to stay in Anna Sergeyevna's apartment for a few days.

Dostoevsky goes to the police to claim Pavel's belongings and is told that he cannot have them as the case is not yet settled. The judicial investigator, Maximov, asks him about Nechaev, because Pavel's papers include a list of people to be assassinated by Nechaev's organization, the People's Vengeance. Maximov shows Dostoevsky a story written by Pavel about a murder committed by a young man. Finally he asks Dostoevsky to “give him a reading”23 of Pavel's papers; Dostoevsky refuses.

Dostoevsky and Anna Sergeyevna spend the night in Pavel's room, and he feels that he is with the dead man. When she comes again to him, he has another vision of the dead Pavel. Thereafter she refuses to sleep with him, saying that she is being used. He finds himself haunted by the imagined presence of Nechaev.

After sleeping, Dostoevsky realizes that he is about to have an epileptic seizure. He puts on Pavel's white suit and tells Matryona how Pavel bought it to wear in a pretended courtship of a feeble-minded woman who imagined him to be in love with her. Matryona makes a shrine to Pavel. Dostoevsky meets a beggar, Ivanov, and feels that Pavel would expect him to take him in. He does so, and the man tells him about himself. A Finnish girl whom he believes to be sent by Nechaev and who claims to be Pavel's friend visits him and claims that the police killed Pavel.

The next day Dostoevsky sees the Finnish girl in the street and pursues her. He realizes that the woman with the Finn is in fact Nechaev in disguise, who talks of his nihilistic policies and offers to show Dostoevsky the place where Pavel died. Dostoevsky refuses. The Finnish girl makes an appointment to meet him at ten that night.

Matryona tells him that Ivanov has been murdered and the police have come. He tells Anna Sergeyevna about his meeting with Nechaev, and she advises him to keep his appointment, to find out about Pavel's death. The Finn takes him to the shot tower, where Nechaev meets them. He tells Dostoevsky that Pavel was their comrade and accuses Dostoevsky of deserting his stepson. Anna Sergeyevna has waited up for Dostoevsky and tells him what she knows of Pavel's death. The death was described as misadventure.

Dostoevsky tells Anna Sergeyevna that he will be leaving as soon as he is given the papers. Matryona becomes jealous of Dostoevsky and becomes ill. Dostoevsky is summoned to Maximov to discuss Pavel's case; the office is closed when he arrives. Anna Sergeyevna describes the search made by the police, and tells him that Pavel made a cult of his (real) father. Dostoevsky tells Anna Sergeyevna of his sense of her as “a conductress of souls,” and asks her to bring Pavel back. He has a vision of a child who he first thinks is Pavel but who is actually Nechaev.

Maximov gives Dostoevsky the papers with the exception of the list of people to be assassinated and asks about his contact with Nechaev. Dostoevsky reads some of the papers, which include the short story about the student who kills an oppressive landowner. The student gives an account of himself to his beloved, which is a distorted form of Pavel's life story.

Dostoevsky is finding it hard to leave, despite the fact that his business is over. Nechaev visits him, disguised as a woman, and asks if he led the police to his group. He demands money from Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky tries to refuse, but eventually gives Nechaev all his money. Matryona appears to be friendly with Nechaev. Dostoevsky is obliged to dispose of Nechaev's women's clothes. He has another epileptic seizure.

Anna Sergeyevna says that she wishes Dostoevsky to leave because he is introducing a disturbing element into the house. The Finnish girl is brought by two policemen to the house; she identifies Dostoevsky, and they ask if Nechaev has been there. They take Dostoevsky's passport and order him to report daily to the police station.

Nechaev appears as Dostoevsky leaves the house; he is confident that the Finnish girl will not “break” under interrogation. Nechaev takes Dostoevsky to a cellar where three children, obviously malnourished, are sitting. He speaks of the revolution and of a society without money, whose institutions are all new. The children's mother returns and gives them fresh bread. Nechaev asks Dostoevsky to write “a statement” that his organization can print, promising to distribute whatever he writes. Dostoevsky writes a claim that his son was murdered by Nechaev.

Longing for his family and Dresden, Dostoevsky reports at the police station and is told to wait. He visits Matryona, who admits that she gave the Finnish girl poisoned bread, on Nechaev's instructions. Dostoevsky registers the death of innocence. He throws the poison into the canal. He reads Pavel's diary, in which he writes resentfully of Dostoevsky's meanness towards him.

Dostoevsky claims that he has to lead “a Russian life” (p. 221) in order to write. He speaks of being “conducted” to his son, as Anna Sergeyevna is to her daughter. Anna Sergeyevna comes to him in the night; he tries to beget a child with her, but she says she will have no child.

Student riots have broken out. Anna Sergeyevna again comes to him in the night and makes love to him wildly. She pronounces the world “devil.” She says that she can no longer be used as a route to Pavel. Matryona finds them together.

Dostoevsky asks himself whether he ought to return to his wife to be protected or to remain in Russia to find in himself the horror of what is happening and write it—to live through and record what Pavel died of—being a Russian at this point in history. Finally he begins to write of Pavel, telling the story of the simple woman who fell in love with him to Matryona. Dostoevsky reflects that he has given up his soul to write his books.

Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life London: Secker and Warburg, 1997; New York and London: Penguin 1997. The Coetzee family lives in Worcester, in the Cape Province of South Africa, on a new housing estate. They keep chickens that do not thrive; the child feels horror at his mother's cutting out of horny tissue under their tongues and relates it to her handling of meat.24 His mother buys a bicycle and is jeered at by his father: women do not ride bicycles. The child, usually on his mother's side, is threatened by his mother's freedom of movement and sides with his father.

The child, now at school, reflects that he keeps his life there a secret from his mother. He fears beatings and understands that there can be a sexual motivation behind them. His own home is different: his mother is indulgent towards her children (he has one younger brother) and never beats them. This makes him feel excluded from the masculine world of beatings and toughness.

His father is marginal in the family, though in most families the father is central. The boy wishes to feel that his mother loves him more than his brother, though she will not say this. He knows himself to be a spoilt child who behaves badly at home, though at school he is obedient.

Now ten, he joins the Boy Scouts, finding that there is an examination system there, too, but that he is less skilled in fire lighting and knot-tying. At camp he finds that his equipment is different from that of the others. He cannot swim but does not admit this and has to be saved by the troop leader.

The Coetzee family does not practice any religion, but at school he is required to declare himself “a Christian, a Roman Catholic or a Jew.”25 He claims to be a Catholic, because this exempts him from assembly. It exposes him, however, to the anti-Semitism of the Afrikaans children, who do not distinguish between Catholics and Jews. He is drawn to the Jewish boys, but his parents' anti-Semitism makes him fear them.

At home his sympathies (he is obviously a natural outsider) are with the Russians as opposed to the Americans.26 He is also enthusiastic about cricket, which he practices at home.

His mother is scornful of men who are not able with their hands—his father and her brothers. She sometimes denounces “book-learning”27 but urges him to take up a lucrative profession. The boy reflects on the contradictions in what she says. Nevertheless, he is reassured when she tells him that she will not die, though she fears cancer.

He becomes absorbed in collections and realizes that his mother knows nothing of them. She has conventional racist attitudes to “Colored” people and Jews, and he is puzzled to find that she is simultaneously prejudiced for and against them. His father's family are traditional farming people, patriarchal in their traditions, and when his father was away fighting in World War II, they did not invite his mother and her children to the farm. The boy's mother seems to regret her marriage and to wish she had married an earlier love. His father's photograph albums show his war service, which makes the boy proud. His mother is of German ancestry.

He loves the bioscope28 and listens to radio serials. He has a few books, most of which are concerned with travel and adventure, and loves them. His mother is self-sacrificing, but he is aware of her nostalgia for a happier past. The family acquires a dog, which is poisoned and dies. His father enjoys cricket but is mediocre at it, as at all else. The boy sees cricket as a test of character.29

The child enjoys cycling to school. Arriving early, he finds Afrikaans children there before him and considers the appearance and behavior of poor white children in winter. He considers what he knows about human reproduction. He looks thoughtfully at a “Colored” boy, poor and barefoot, and asks why such children, who are poor and free, do not devote themselves to sex. He reflects on the fact that “Colored” people are subject to whites, as are “Natives.” “Native” was the term used in the period for people of pure African descent, as opposed to “Coloreds,” who were usually of mixed African, Asian and European origins.

The man who delivers food to the house is a native, and the boy thinks of the bad treatment natives receive. He thinks of the pro-Afrikaner history that he learns at school. There are few English people in Worcester and his own family, which is English-speaking though of Afrikaans origin, has suffered as a result of the coming to power of the Nationalist party in 1948,30 when his father lost his municipal post.

Looking at the “Colored” children who hang about on the fringes of the lives of whites, he finds their poverty a reproach.

The family has few friends, and the boy and his brother are shy. Nevertheless he loves visiting the farm, to which he feels he belongs. The extended family gathers there, and he listens to their reminiscences. The “Colored” people who work there are acknowledged to have the right to remain, but they may not associate as equals with the whites. The child enjoys hunting, though there is little game. The shearers arrive, and he enjoys watching them and their work. His cousin Agnes becomes his friend, and he finds that he can confide in her because she is a girl.

The boy is allowed to stay at home when he says that he is sick; he then settles down to a day of reading. Books are important, and he argues with his father that P. C. Wren31 is a greater writer than Shakespeare. His father tries to talk to him about Wordsworth's poems, but the child snubs him. He marvels at his mother's excellent English; his father has an Afrikaans accent. Despite frequent absences, the boy always comes first in class. He looks for heroes but cannot find them in South Africa.

Aunt Annie in Cape Town has broken her hip. When the boys and their mother visit her in hospital, he is repelled by the old woman, and his mother promises that she will not live with them. Aunt Annie has given her life to translating and selling her father's book, which is a religious autobiography.

The family prepares to leave Worcester for Cape Town, because his father is leaving his job with Standard Canners and intends to set up in legal practice. Their rent in Cape Town is high; the boy is not accepted for a “good” school and goes to St. Joseph's, the Catholic school, where teachers are Marist lay brothers except for one Catholic layman, Whelan, who teaches him English and gives him low marks because he is not a Catholic. The boy now focuses on cricket, which he enjoys, but is also made to play rugby. He takes a book about sex from his mother's drawer and shows it to boys at school; a master seems to know about it and is disapproving. The boy makes friends with a Greek boy from a rich family. His mother has returned to teaching, and they now have a maid. At thirteen, he feels change in himself. His father has been lending people money and eventually is found to have been misusing trust moneys. His father drinks more, pretends to look for work, but does not do so. Eventually, his debts are paid by a relative, who stipulates that he shall no longer practice law. As his father deteriorates, his mother grows stronger. The boy's disgust at this drunkard, as he sees him, deepens. He realizes that his mother can assess him objectively and is afraid. She has a life apart from him.

Aunt Annie has died in a home, and the boy and his mother go to the funeral, which is attended only by the dominee32 and a few relatives. The boy thinks of Aunt Annie and her belief that he was special. He asks about her books, but his mother does not know what happened to them. He feels that he will have to keep the books and the stories in his own head.

Disgrace, London: Secker and Warburg, 1999. Disgrace is focalized through David Lurie, the middle-aged academic, to whose perceptions and judgments the reader is confined, though the latter are influenced by his cynicism and egotism, especially in sexual matters. Lurie belongs to the generation that was formed under Apartheid. His judgments and opinions are challenged principally by his daughter Lucy and by minor characters like Bev Shaw. The time period of the novel is post-Apartheid, that is to say, after 1990, and before the end of the millennium—the period when whites and blacks in South Africa were accommodating themselves to the new regime.

There is an intertextual element in the novel in that David Lurie seems to compare himself with the poet Byron, notorious for his promiscuity. Lurie's interest is the end of Byron's life, when his passions were diminishing and appearing less heroic.

David Lurie, twice divorced, fifty-two years old, formerly a professor of modern languages, now teaching “Communications” at the Cape Technical University, has established a routine of visiting a prostitute, Soraya, weekly. After Soraya leaves him, Lurie meets a student, Melanie Isaacs,33 to whom he is attracted. He invites her home for a drink and gives her supper; she remarks on his interest in Byron. He pursues her, despite her reluctance and forces himself on her. She fails to attend class next day, the day of the midterm test. He records a mark of 70 percent for her. A week later she comes to his house and, obviously distressed, asks to stay for a while. The next day she leaves for classes and says that she will be back after rehearsal that evening.

A young man comes to Lurie's office and tells him that he knows of the affair. Melanie attends Lurie's classes, looking ill, but does not approach him. When he is teaching Byron, the young man comes to class and asks questions. Lurie asks Melanie to his office, and the young man follows. Lurie tells Melanie that the young man must not come to class again and that she herself must attend regularly. He asks her to take the test she has missed.

Melanie does not come to the test, and Lurie receives notice that she has withdrawn. Her father asks him to persuade her not to give up university. Later in the week, the father turns up in the department and reproaches Lurie, who receives notice that a complaint has been lodged against him of sexual harassment. He attends a preliminary meeting. He pleads guilty to the charge of harassing Melanie and of falsifying marks but refuses to read Melanie's statement. It is suggested that he is mocking the procedures. He is asked for an admission that he has done wrong, which he makes, formally. When reporters ask him about the affair, he claims to have been “enriched” by the experience. The Vice-Rector offers him a lesser penalty if he will apologize. He refuses.

Lurie goes to stay with his daughter Lucy on a small holding in the eastern Cape. She is a lesbian, and her partner has returned to Johannesburg. Lucy grows vegetables and flowers and runs dog kennels. He tells her of his plan to write a chamber opera on Byron. She introduces Petrus, a black man who works for her.

Lurie asks Lucy if her life is what she wants, and she says she is satisfied with it. On Saturday they take fresh produce to sell in Grahamstown, where they meet a woman, Bev Shaw, who runs an animal refuge. Lucy suggests that Lurie help her by cutting up dog-meat and working for Petrus on his own lands, as well as helping at the clinic. He agrees.

At the clinic Bev is tending animals, without antibiotics. Owners are rarely willing to let her put animals down. At home with Lucy, Lurie reflects on the way in which she must grow to independence and difference from him. He reads Byron's letters.

Lucy loves the ducks that visit her dam. Lurie talks to her about “the rights of desire”34 and reminds her of a next-door dog who was beaten when it became sexually excited and was taught to “hate its own nature.”35 They meet three men, who, when they arrive home, are teasing the dogs. On the pretext that they need to telephone for medical help, one is admitted to the house, and the second gains entry. Lucy is gang-raped; Lurie is beaten, doused with kerosene, and set alight. The men shoot all the dogs but one. The house is wrecked, the telephone smashed, and the car stolen. Ettinger, an elderly farmer, drives them to hospital. Lurie's hurts prove to be minor. The next morning he asks Lucy if she has seen a doctor, which she has. She intends to return to the farm and clean up.

Before they leave, Bev changes Lurie's dressings. They return to the farm, followed by two policemen to whom Lucy gives a list of stolen items and an account of the break-in, omitting mention of the rape. Lurie digs graves for the dogs. The survivor dog, Katy, is brought into the house. Lurie wonders if Petrus knew that the attack was to take place; is he perhaps a schemer who plans to take over Lucy's land? Lucy cannot sleep at night, and can no longer eat meat. Lurie turns to his project of writing a chamber opera on Byron's life with Teresa Guiccioli.

Petrus invites Lucy and her father to the party he is giving. They go to the party where Lucy sees one of the men who raped her. She prevents her father from telephoning the police, saying that she has to continue living there.

Petrus asks Lurie to help him with pipe laying, and he reluctantly agrees. Petrus says that the rapist is a boy and not a thief. Lurie is tired of living with Lucy; he tries to work on the Byron project but only achieves fragments. He spends much time at the Animal Welfare Clinic. On Sunday afternoons he and Bev put down unwanted dogs. He takes the bodies to the incinerator and sees them burnt with as much dignity as possible.

Lurie begins a sexual relationship with Bev, at her instigation. He reflects on Petrus's growing prosperity and the inevitability of Lucy's defeat. Lucy claims the rape was not carried out with “personal hatred.” She refuses to sell the farm, despite Lurie's pleadings.

Lurie visits the Isaacs family in George, meets a beautiful younger sister, and goes to Mr. Isaacs's school. He tells Isaacs of his brief passion for Melanie and hears that she has resumed her studies. He apologizes to Melanie's parents and prostrates himself in front of Mrs. Isaacs, noticing as he does so the beauty of Desiree.

In Cape Town, Lurie's house has been ransacked. He thinks of the Byron opera, which he had conceived of as about a young woman and a man who has outlived passion. He turns to Teresa in middle age, trying to recall Byron, who is long dead. Lurie decides that a little banjo, of the kind played in the black townships of South Africa, is an appropriate accompaniment for her song.

He and his ex-wife discuss the inquiry into his misconduct as an academic. He goes to see Melanie in a play and reflects that he has been enriched by all his sexual partners. At this point he is hit by a series of spitballs fired by Melanie's boyfriend, who tells him to stay with his own kind. On the way home, he picks up a prostitute.

Lucy reports that she is well and that Petrus is helping her. Lurie decides that he must visit her; he finds that she is pregnant and refuses to have an abortion. Pollux, who was one of the rapists, is back on Petrus's holding. Petrus says that Pollux is one of his family. He offers to marry Lucy, saying that Pollux is too young. Lucy understands this as an offer of protection, in return for the surrender of her land. She agrees that she will be his tenant, and the child will be under his protection.

Lurie sees Pollux peeping through the bathroom window at Lucy. He kicks him, and the dog bites him. Lucy drags the dog off and asks Lurie to leave. He arranges with Bev that he will stay in Grahamstown and help in the clinic.

Lurie imagines Teresa calling back Byron but realizes that his lyric gift is inadequate, as are his musical resources, to the composition to which he aspires. He thinks of a dog with a withered hindquarter, of which he is fond and which must soon be put down. He helps Lucy on her Saturday stall and visits the smallholding, where the flowers are blooming. He sees that Lucy is becoming a peasant farmer. He thinks of being a grandfather, and he and Lucy make a new start. The novel ends with Lurie giving up the dog he loves to be put down and acknowledging his love for it.


White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, Sandton: Radix, 1988; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988. This volume contains the essays “Idleness in South Africa,” “The Picturesque, the Sublime and the South African Landscape,” “Farm Novel and Plaasroman,” “The Farm Novels of C. M. van den Heever,” “Simple Language, Simple People: Smith, Paton, Mikro,” “Blood, Taint, Flaw, Degeneration: The Novels of Sarah Gertrude Millin,” and “Reading the South African Landscape.”

All the essays are interesting in relation to Coetzee's fiction, and “Idleness in South Africa” is particularly so, since it is a discussion of the attitudes of early explorers to indigenous people and contains material that is especially relevant to Dusklands. “Farm Novel and Plaasroman” contains discussion of the pastoral and is relevant to In the Heart of the Country. In “Blood, Taint, Flaw and Degeneration” Coetzee gives his views on matters of race as they appear in literature.

Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London: Harvard University Press, 1992. This collection is edited by David Attwell, who is the interviewer in the eight interviews included, which are important sources of biographical information on the author, as well as containing his opinions on literary and non-literary topics. It contains critical essays on Beckett, Achterberg, Kafka, Tolstoy, Rousseau, Dostoevsky, Musil, and the South African writers Yvonne Burgess, Alex la Guma, Athol Fugard, Breyten Breytenbach, and Nadine Gordimer.

Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996. The essays in this volume are “Taking Offense,” “Emerging from Censorship,” “Lady Chatterley's Lover: The Taint of the Pornographic,” “The Harms of Pornography: Catharine MacKinnon,” “Erasmus: Madness and Rivalry,” “Osip Mandelstam and the Stalin Ode,” “Censorship and Polemic: Solzhenitsyn,” “Zbigniew Herbert and the Figure of the Censor,” “Apartheid Thinking,” “The Work of the Censor: Censorship in South Africa,” “The Politics of Dissent: Andre Brink,” and “Breyten Breytenbach and the Reader in the Mirror.”

Since Coetzee published his novels in South Africa, his views on the system of censorship, which he offers in “Taking Offense” and on censorship in South Africa, which appear in “Emerging from Censorship” and in “The Work of the Censor: Censorship in South Africa,” must be of great interest. The essay “Apartheid Thinking” gives an account of the ideology that underpinned Apartheid and is relevant to all Coetzee's work.

The Lives of Animals, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999. This volume, edited by Amy Gutmann, contains a fictionalized discussion of animal rights, which originally was delivered as the 1997–1998 Tanner Lectures at Princeton University. It is particularly relevant to Disgrace, in which the treatment of animals by humans is an important theme.

Stranger Shores: Literary Essays, 1986–1999. This collection of literary essays and reviews contains pieces on European and Middle Eastern authors and their work, as well eight review essays on South African topics and authors. The essay “The Memoirs of Breyten Breytenbach” contains an interesting discussion of the “Colored” people of the Cape Province (pp. 252–57); “Noel Mostert and the Eastern Cape Frontier” (pp. 272–81) gives an account of the conflicts between the Xhosa and the 1820 settlers, which helps the reader to understand the competition for land which forms part of Disgrace. The essays “Daniel Defoe: Robinson Crusoe” (pp. 17–22) and “Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years” (pp. 114–26) are useful background reading to Coetzee's Foe and The Master of Petersburg.


A Land Apart: A South African Reader, London: Faber and Faber, 1986. Edited by André Brink and J. M. Coetzee. An excellent selection of short prose fiction by contemporary South African authors, together with a few excerpts from novels and some poems.


The kinds of interest perceived by critics within the work of J. M. Coetzee may be understood in terms of their relationship to (1) The Transition from Modernism to Postmodernism, (2) Postcolonialism, (3) South African Debates of the 1980s, and (4) Criticism after 1990.

It would be misrepresenting both the criticism of Coetzee and the author's oeuvre to suggest that these topics are discrete or are separately dealt with in critical articles; the fact is that they can be defined and understood in isolation before they are identified in the works. Several of Coetzee's recurring concerns on which critics have focused—intertextuality and opposition to master narratives are examples—are characteristic both of postmodernism and postcolonialism, and this will be indicated where appropriate. Discussion of features of his work that are related both to postmodernism and to postcolonialism has been arbitrarily placed after the defining discussions of postmodernism and postcolonialism.

1. The Transition from Modernism to Postmodernism: Some early critics of Coetzee's work, writing in the 1970s and early 1980s, saw his novels as modernist, though at the present time he would undoubtedly be categorized as postmodernist. Modernist writers (James Joyce and William Faulkner are examples of modernist novelists) are concerned, as is Coetzee, with formal and linguistic experiment, and even more, as Brian McHale has pointed out,36 with questioning the origin and quality of knowledge. Postmodernism, equally concerned with formal and linguistic experiment, nevertheless goes beyond modernism and questions being and modes of being. McHale quotes Frank Kermode as claiming that postmodernism is simply the persistence of modernism into a third and fourth generation.37 McHale, however, sees the relationship less simply: “[p]ostmodernism follows from modernism, in some sense, more than it follows after modernism.” He uses Roman Jakobson's discussion of the “dominant,” that is to say, “the focussing component of a work of art [which] rules and transforms the remaining components”38 to distinguish between modernist and postmodernist fiction, defining the dominant of modernist fiction as epistemological and the dominant of postmodernist fiction as ontological.

McHale's examples are drawn from Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, Fuentes, Nabokov, Coover, and Pynchon, but since Coetzee himself has acknowledged his debt to Nabokov,39 it will be useful to use this author to exemplify his meaning. McHale, in terms of his definition of modernist fiction as epistemological, claims that “the detective story [is] the epistemological genre par excellence.” He moves in the course of discussion to pointing out that Nabokov's Pale Fire, though it may appear on the surface to have detective qualities, is a text of “absolute epistemological uncertainty,”40 since nothing in it can be known for sure. The “ontological consequences” of this uncertainty are that being and nonbeing are also unsure: does the Kingdom of Zembla (fictionally) exist or not? Is it merely a delusion in the mind of a madman?

McHale's discussion here can be seen as equally applicable to Coetzee's “radically unreliable”41 narrators, and especially to Magda, the narrator/protagonist of In the Heart of the Country, whose narrative is proved to be “epistemologically uncertain,” by the fact that she often contradicts herself, offering several versions of incidents. If it is completely uncertain, then her whole world, that of the novel, must come ontologically into question. McHale makes the important point that

[l]iterary discourse … only specifies what questions ought to be asked first of a particular text and delays the asking of a second set of questions. This in a nutshell is the function of the dominant: it specifies the order in which different aspects are to be attended to, so that, although it would be perfectly possible to interrogate a postmodernist text about its epistemological implications, it is more urgent to interrogate about its ontological implications.42

This point, applied to In the Heart of the Country, suggests that although the reader may wish to gather information about the material world in which Magda may live, questions concerning the existence/nonexistence of that world, and the occurrence/non-occurrence of the phenomena that she reports must be primary. Similarly, in Dusklands, when Jacobus Coetzee offers two versions of the death of his servant Klawer, the reader must speculate first as to which is the true one—and as to whether either version represents the facts.

2. South Africa and Postmodernism: One aspect of the postmodernism debate that is crucial to Coetzee's work and its reception is the fact that European and American postmodernism, “informed by the essentially metropolitan experience of post-1968 disillusionment, its accommodation to the postindustrial age, and its subsequent celebration of relativist experimentation,”43 must differ in important ways from South African practice. South Africa is a postcolonial society, and most of its writers in the period 1948–1990 believed themselves to be committed to oppose Apartheid. Neil Lazarus describes the work of the major South African writers of the 1980s (Gordimer, Coetzee, Brink, and Breytenbach) as “so ethically saturated, so humanistic in its critique of the established order, so concerned to represent reality, and so rationalistic that it would be quite inappropriate to describe it as postmodernist.”44 Lazarus is commenting, in 1986, four years before the end of Apartheid was announced, on a debate that began in the early 1980s, in the work of Michael Vaughan,45 Paul Rich,46 and Rowland Smith.47 This debate was concerned with the question of whether the moral commitment necessary for South African writers in the post-Soweto revolutionary period was compatible with the moral relativism of (European) postmodernism. It will be dealt with at greater length below, under the heading of “South African Debates of the 1980s.”

David Attwell, writing in 1993, does not deny that the texts of Coetzee in particular are “ethically saturated,” but his answer to the vexed question of the right to use postmodernist techniques is to suggest that “there is postmodernism and postmodernism,” in other words, that metropolitan (European and American) postmodernism is not the only possible form of postmodernism. The postmodernism of countries and cultures whose recent experience has been postcolonial (which of course includes South Africa) is likely to be related to the crises within their experience, rather than to those of postindustrialism and the metropolis.

It is nevertheless necessary to acknowledge that Coetzee is deeply indebted to European postmodernism in his forms and practices. To give an example, McHale quotes David Lodge as listing “five strategies (contradiction, discontinuity, randomness, excess, short circuit) by which postmodernist writing seeks to avoid having to choose either of the poles of metaphoric (modernist) writing or metonymic (antimodernist) writing.”48 Several of these strategies are markedly present in Dusklands, In the Heart of the Country, Life and Times of Michael K, and Foe, and to a lesser extent in the other novels.

3. Postcolonialism: The term “postcolonialism” refers to the conditions of production in all the arts that prevail in a country after the process of colonization. Postcolonial criticism is criticism that focuses on the effects of the process of colonization and its aftermath.

The overlap between postmodernism and postcolonialism is considerable,49 since both question polarized categories such as “center/margin” and “major/minor.” Both are concerned with challenging “master-narratives”; that is to say, they question and argue against ideologies that have become naturalized in the customs and beliefs of a nation or group. Feminism, the practitioners of which have resisted being too strongly identified with either postmodernism or postcolonialism, is frequently allied to both these schools of criticism, since the master narrative which feminism opposes is that of patriarchy, equally characteristic of metropolitan and colonial societies.

It has been argued that postcolonialism begins at the moment of colonial incursion; that is to say, as soon as colonists have landed, art of all kinds begin to take cognizance of and to be deeply affected by their presence. This is not to deny that the voice of the indigene and all his/her arts may continue to be present and important long after the colonists have arrived. What is being argued is that at the colonial moment a crucial change takes place and will persist, first in the context and reception of art and later in artistic production. An example of an indigenous art that continued relatively, though not completely, unchanged after the arrival in South Africa of colonists, is San rock painting. Though examples do occur in which colonists are subjects, the natural pigments and the subjects—indigenous people and animals and their interactions—remain substantially unchanged until, in the twentieth century, with the gradual extinction of San hunter-gatherer culture, the paintings cease to be created. Yet early in the colonial period their meaning alters for all but the shrinking group of San, for some of whom, it must be presumed, they remain at least until the early twentieth century religious and magical constructs. In Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm, written in the 1870s, the pictures are seen as primitive and grotesque. They are described by a white adolescent as “strange things, that makes us laugh; but to [the San artist] they were beautiful.”50 The present day consciousness of them, though it acknowledges their beauty and power, is nevertheless equally far from the religious understanding that the original artists had of them.

Perhaps the most important change, at least for literary production, that takes place during the colonial encounter is brought about by the insistence of the colonist that his own language, forms, and culture must dominate. Related to this insistence is a further emphasis on printed text as opposed to oral performance. The oral tale is likely to be superseded by the printed novel or short story. Present day postcolonial criticism must take account of the fact that the descendants of indigenes, if they become writers, are likely to regard themselves as obliged to use a colonial language, either because the language of their ancestors has died out or because access to the publishing process is only possible for people who are prepared to use a world language like English. Equally, it must be registered that in postcolonial cultures certain groups of individuals are licensed to speak and write, and others are not.

4. Imperialism, Indigeneity, and Hybridity: Since Coetzee's central preoccupation is with colonialism and its related phenomena, and he has never written about a precolonial society, all his narratives, and especially those conceived of as monologues, are concerned with the qualities and behavior of the imperialist/colonist. That is to say, all the discourses that he constructs and the preoccupations that he shows in his characters have been influenced by the encounter between colonist and indigene, and all show elements of the different interacting cultures. Though the colonist may believe himself to represent the “superior” culture of Europe, he has also been shaped by the encounter with indigenous culture. However defensive of their relationship to a superior metropolitan culture Jacobus Coetzee and Magda may be, their narrative reveals how deep is their dependence on and involvement in the hybrid culture of the colony. The sentiments of the Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians have changed during his residence on the oasis on the frontier: he can no longer believe in any simple “self and other” relationship between himself and the people beyond the frontier. He is a clear example of the hybrid mentality, but Colonel Joll, who is based in the metropolis and has no difficulty in assuming its superiority, is nevertheless hybrid and postcolonial in his attitudes, to the extent that he and his fellows need the concept of the barbarian, the outsider, to support their own concept of self. It might be argued that imperialism, once distanced from the metropolis in which it originates, is necessarily hybrid, since it becomes fully aware of itself only in the encounter with the other. Edward Said, the introduction to whose Culture and Imperialism51 is probably the clearest discussion of these matters, has summarized the matter. He uses the example of American society, as the one most familiar to his readers, but his arguments apply equally to the South African societies depicted by J. M. Coetzee:

Before we can agree on what the American identity is made of, we have to concede that as an immigrant settler-society superimposed on the ruins of considerable native presence, American identity is too varied to be a unitary and homogeneous thing; indeed the battle within it is between advocates of a unitary identity and those who see the whole as a complex but not reductively unified one. This opposition implies two different perspectives, two historiographies, one linear and subsuming, the contrapuntal and often nomadic.

My argument is that only the second perspective is fully sensitive to the reality of historical experience. Partly because of empire, all cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated and unmonolithic.52

Since hybridity has necessarily been a feature of all postcolonial cultures, it is useful to understand and compare its manifestations throughout the postcolonial world. Students will find it useful to read the section on hybridity in The Postcolonial Studies Reader,53 where Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford offer a general understanding of the phenomenon.54 Chinua Achebe writes an account of growing up in the hybrid society of postcolonial eastern Nigeria,55 and Edward Kamau Brathwaite discusses the hybridizing process as it occurred in Jamaica.56 The section concludes with Homi K. Bhabha's “Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences,”57 in which he offers a theoretical understanding of diversity as inevitable and potentially productive, as opposed to “difference” that has often been understood by the imperialist as implying the inferiority of the culture that differs from that of the metropolis of which he sees himself as representative.

Coetzee's interest in hybridity has many different manifestations: Michael K, who, it is strongly suggested, is a man of mixed racial origins, is the child of the colonial encounter. In his review of Breyten Breytenbach's Dogheart, Coetzee discusses the meanings of the term and of Breytenbach's preferred variant, “bastard,” and recognizes that “bastardy”—or, more politely, hybridity—has become a fashionable term in cultural history and cultural politics.58 Even Susan Barton, in her growing sense of responsibility for Friday and her understanding that his condition has been produced by colonialism, shows that she too has been changed by her encounter with Cruso, the colonist, and Friday, the indigene reduced to slave. The narrator of Age of Iron, Elizabeth Curren, who consents to the journey into knowledge of the areas of Cape Town of which she has been ignorant all her life, is acknowledging a postcolonial involvement with all the component groups of her society. Boyhood, in which the child protagonist struggles to understand the status and rights of the “Colored” workers on the family farm, is poignantly concerned with hybridity. The child perceives that the workers have some of the rights of indigeneity, like the right to continued residence, and their superior knowledge of the land is at times recognized, but the limits and terms of their association with their colonial masters are fixed. In town he sees that the “Colored” people are a dispossessed proletariat, that they now share the language and many of the customs of their white masters but that it is assumed by these masters that their rights must remain lesser.

Coetzee's treatment of imperialism and post-imperial hybridity in Disgrace is more complex than in the other works, probably because the novel is set in the late 1990s, when the divisions between the racial groups are no longer enforced by law. Senior posts in the university are occupied by blacks; people no longer discuss racial matters. Yet in the way in which Lurie feels entitled to treat Soraya and Melanie there lies a belief that they are not his equals. As beautiful women, they are acceptable partners; as “women of color,” they must conform to his wishes. When he moves to the eastern Cape, the underlying theme, which he does not understand until close to the end of the novel, becomes that of the struggle for the land between indigene and colonist, the first and most fundamental of postcolonial themes. His daughter Lucy, more “hybrid” in this special sense than he is, can accept that the cost of continued life on the land is incorporation into the extended family of the indigene. Her child, begotten during a rape, is nevertheless truly hybrid, and the great moment of her acceptance of this condition occurs when she tells her father that though she does not love the child, as yet unborn, she will do so. The child, whose father is black and whose mother is white, represents the reversal of the norm of the past: Coetzee has commented that such people were in the past “the descendants of unions between people (usually men) of European … descent and people (usually women) of indigenous African (usually Khoi …) or Asian (usually Indonesian slave) birth.”59


Stephen Watson, in his article “Colonialism and the Novels of J. M. Coetzee”60 points out that Coetzee, despite himself, is a colonist, and relates his intertextuality and, still more, his ability to conflate historical periods within his books to this fact. Jacobus Coetzee uses a twentieth-century European vocabulary and concepts, as does Magda in In the Heart of the Country. So, from time to time, does Susan Barton in Foe. Attwell brings up the question of Coetzee's own position in the postcolonial state and argues that he “writes not as a citizen of the First World but of the Third—or perhaps the First within the Third—and therefore, like other white South African writers, he faces the problem of cultural authority.”61 Coetzee deals in part with this problem by refusing to exercise the ancient privilege appropriated by the colonist/patriarch, that of speaking for the indigene. In addition to this, he continually interrogates both the position of the colonizer and his own relationship to it. Several of his narrator/protagonists have an observable relationship to their author, the most obvious being Jacobus Coetzee, who in real life, as Coetzee has pointed out, was his ancestor.62

Though Coetzee is scrupulous in his refusal to claim to represent the “true” voice of the indigene, he continually makes his reader aware that the indigene and his/her descendants have been silenced. The great moment when this silence is represented comes at the end of Foe, when Friday produces a soundless fount from his mouth. Friday has been conspicuously silent, despite Susan Barton's efforts to communicate with him, throughout the text: this silent stream may be contrasted with the terse, formulaic but audible “yes, master,” which is Friday's typical utterance in Robinson Crusoe. This meaningful silence has been discussed by Benita Parry in her “Speech and Silence in the Fictions of J. M. Coetzee.”63

The serf's discourse demanded of the “Hottentot” servants in Dusklands (Jacobus kills those who diverge from it by refusing his orders), the formulaic master-and-servant exchanges of In the Heart of the Country, the failure of the Magistrate ever to understand the barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians, the inability of the medical officer in Life and Times of Michael K to understand K—all these are examples of Coetzee's awareness of the silence that is forced on the postcolonial indigene. Bheki and John, the African teenagers in Age of Iron, are unable, presumably because neither their English nor their confidence when talking to a white is sufficiently strong, to explain their attitudes and circumstances to Elizabeth Curren. She has to rely on the schoolmaster, Mr. Thabane (a truly hybrid figure, formally qualified to straddle the cultures in collision) to make her understand the behavior of young blacks. In Coetzee's most recent, and substantially realist novel, Disgrace, the silence of people who have traditionally gone unheard is also an issue. The Moslem woman Soraya, whose services as a prostitute David Lurie uses at the beginning of the novel, cannot explain to him why, after he has intruded into her family life, she will not continue to serve him. Melanie Isaacs, the young “Colored” student on whom he forces himself, cannot tell him how unwelcome his attentions are. Both, as non-members of the white group and as women, have been led to believe that they have less right to voice than the white male protagonist.

The point being made here concerns the power-based practices of the colonists, from which all white South Africans have arguably profited in a material sense. Coetzee has repeatedly acknowledged that this is so, even in those of his texts that are not set in South Africa. Rosemary Jane Jolly points out that Coetzee, together with two other distinguished South African authors who are his contemporaries, André Brink and Breyten Breytenbach, have been placed by “their gender, race and their primary linguistic heritage … in virtually untenable positions of powerful, privileged spectatorship—a fact which they have nevertheless chosen to recognize publicly, in terms of their dissident writing.” Jolly's argument is that their positions of domination “as whites, as males, and as scions of Afrikaner families”—have functioned as safeguards against “the glorification of dissidence and its counterpart, a facile vilification of all who entertain any position of power.”64

The figure of the Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians may be said to have an affinity with his creator in some respects; he too has profited from the fact that he represents imperial power in the remote border town that he rules. He is an authority figure who knows himself to live far from the metropolis and to have contacts and feel influences that come from cultures other than those of Empire. Elizabeth Curren and David Lurie have other obvious resemblances to their author: both are academics; both are involved with the literature of Europe. In the focalizer of Boyhood, Coetzee has overtly examined, through his own recollected experience, the diverse ways in which the attitudes of the postcolonial white child are formed.


Watson's understanding of Coetzee's position is that it is that of a “colonist who refuses,” a phrase which he derives from Memmi.65 This position, dangerous though it is, since it implies that the individual belongs, or at least seeks to belong, simultaneously to two competing groups, leads Coetzee to “dispel the myth by creating history, a new history.”66 He is compelled by this “refusal” to remain within the ethos of the colonizer continually to interrogate his own attitudes and practice, and he does this through his relationship to his various narrators and focalizers.

Coetzee's most characteristic form, the monologue—and free indirect discourse does not differ greatly from it in this respect—promotes self-interrogation and a critical sense of the self who reads, as well as of that other self who reveals him/herself in speech. It is not only the fictional self that the reader is invited to interrogate but also his/her own self, which s/he is invited to recognize as similar to and at times complicit with the self of the narrator. An example of this is the moment when Jacobus Coetzee, having killed or abandoned his faithful servant Klawer rejoices wildly: “I am not a Hottentot,”67 that is, “I do not belong to the expendable races of mankind.” Jacobus is insane at this stage, but the invitation to the reader is to recognize this racially-based self-congratulation as being amongst his own temptations.

Attwell, in defining Coetzee's work as “situational metafiction,”68 recognizes that he is an author who continually, and often through his narrators, reflects on and questions his own practice. Attwell therefore considers the problem of reference and asks the question of whether Coetzee's works have any subject other than themselves and their author. If they have not, then any challenge to master narratives, as well as to any other subject outside of the work, becomes impossible. Attwell concludes that “[m]etafiction … merely foregrounds its complex and at times problematic relationship with history and society” and that the relationship between a fiction and the processes of life that its narrators claim to describe is real—though not necessarily as those narrators understand and articulate it.

Michael Marais, one of the most interesting commentators on Coetzee,69 is the author of a useful essay entitled “The Hermeneutics of Empire: Coetzee's Post-colonial Metafiction,”70 in which he debates the designations “post-colonial” and “postmodern” writer for Coetzee and considers his metafictional strategies in the novels.


Postmodernism has been described by Linda Hutcheon as having “a contradictory relationship to what we usually label our dominant, liberal humanist culture”71 and as insisting on the illusory nature of master narratives. These master narratives and the necessity of opposing them have been an important preoccupation with Coetzee from the first. It can be seen that the effect of “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee” (though not the purpose of the narrator) is to oppose the master narrative of colonization, which maintains that the colonizer is benevolent and has the right to take over and administer the land for the benefit and to the satisfaction of the indigene. The major “narrative” to which In the Heart of the Country is oppositional is that of the pastoral—the idea that rural life is simple and idyllic. One of its other purposes is to oppose the master narrative of patriarchy, the belief that the senior male must rule. Waiting for the Barbarians opposes the master narrative of Empire, which is always present within the novel, in the form of the belief that the metropolis is the center of life and the source of civilization, which the barbarians, peripheral and hostile, are continually threatening to destroy. It is indeed difficult to find a novel by Coetzee that is not antagonistic to master narratives: Foe is oppositional to the generally accepted beliefs that the process of colonialism is constructive, and that the colonist and the authorized story-teller are male, creative and endlessly industrious. Even Boyhood, Coetzee's autobiographical fiction, has as a major subject the fallaciousness of master narratives: the child is continually faced with empirical evidence that the generally held beliefs of his community—on race, on gender, on religious and social groupings—are false. In Age of Iron, the master narrative that Elizabeth Curren discovers to be false is that which insists that right order prevails, since its semblance is maintained in the white suburbs.


Intertextuality is markedly common in Coetzee's novels, and an interesting discussion of its purposes may be found in Linda Hutcheon's A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory and Fiction.72 The concept to which Hutcheon refers, that of “a common discursive property” that allows for “the embedding of both literary and historical texts in fiction”73 has at times been resented by South African critics of Coetzee, of whom an early representative was Cherry Wilhelm.74 Their resentment stems from a wish that South African literature should be accessible to South African readers who have not had a British colonial education and that it should be characterized by a composite, but nevertheless real, South African identity, rather than looking towards Europe for inspiration and material. Judie Newman,75 however, amongst other critics,76 has argued convincingly that intertextuality is almost a necessary condition of a postcolonial literature, which is likely to reply to, supplement, and amend the great texts of Empire. Newman's discussion of the intertexts to Waiting for the Barbarians and Foe77 is an illuminating demonstration of how an author's reading matter may be present in his own writings. She points to Cavafy's “Waiting for the Barbarians” as the obvious point of origin for Waiting for the Barbarians but places stronger emphasis on Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger78 as the source of the understanding of the taboos on which the dichotomy “citizens of Empire—barbarians” is based. Patricia Merivale has traced the influence of Kafka in Waiting for the Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K.79 The text that has understandably evoked most commentary concerning its intertextuality is Foe: Newman's “Desperately Seeking Susan: J. M. Coetzee, Robinson Crusoe and Roxana,80 and David Medalie's “Friday Updated: Robinson Crusoe as Subtext in Gordimer's July's People and Coetzee's Foe81 are only two examples. Sheila Roberts82 and David Hoegberg83 have explored the connections between Age of Iron and Dante's Inferno. There have been few critics who have not reacted, positively or negatively, to their observation that Coetzee draws freely on the texts of Europe in his fiction.


Coetzee's interest in genre that is to say, in the questions of what literary kind a particular text belongs to—fiction or memoir (Dusklands, Foe, The Master of Petersburg) allegory or romance (Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K), pastoral, antipastoral or Gothic tale (In the Heart of the Country), traveller's tale or confessional narrative (Foe), fiction or autobiography (Boyhood)—is related to his postmodernism. In an interview with Joanna Scott,84 he discusses this interest at some length, and in Doubling the Point he offers his views on the pastoral and the antipastoral, as well as on other literary conventions.85 At the same time it is clear that he has a postcolonial interest (related to his understanding of postcolonial hybridity) in what happens to particular genres when they move from the metropolis to the colonies.

The discussion of genre is not merely about the appropriate labels for Coetzee's novels but also about the way in which he wishes the reader to receive them. In the Scott interview, for example, Coetzee makes the point that there are still people who believe Robinson Crusoe to be a memoir by a man called Robinson Crusoe. Their reception of the work is necessarily very different from that of a more sophisticated reader who understands it to be a fiction by Daniel Defoe and who sees its subject matter as the eighteenth-century Protestant, middle-class Englishman and the British colonial venture. Generic considerations may add or remove a dimension of a work: when Dusklands first appeared, readers who received it merely as two unconnected novellas were missing important areas of meaning. A reader of The Master of Petersburg who saw it purely as an historical fantasy based on the life of Dostoevsky would equally be missing meaning.


Feminism is an important interest for most postmodernists, despite the resistance of feminists to allowing it to be co-opted; and postcolonialism, with its rejection of the idea that groups of people must be regarded as marginal, has also often been allied to feminism. Coetzee's novels did not attract a feminist critique until 1987, despite the obvious feminist interest of In the Heart of the Country. This was probably because critical writing on Coetzee's novels before this date was largely South African, and, as is explained below in South African Debates of the 1980s, the pressures of imminent revolution left little space for other debates. In 1987, Josephine Dodd wrote her “Naming and Framing: Naturalization and Colonization in J. M. Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country,86 in which she reproached reviewers with ignoring the feminist elements in the work. Since then the novels, and perhaps especially Foe, have attracted much feminist commentary, notably from Dodd herself,87 from Sheila Roberts,88 Susan Van Zanten Gallagher,89 Judie Newman,90 and Sue Kossew.91

It might be more appropriate to write of Coetzee's opposition to patriarchy than his feminism, since patriarchy has been an important component of most colonial processes and perhaps especially so in South Africa, where many patriarchal cultures have encountered each other and lent each other strength. Judie Newman, in her discussion of Waiting for the Barbarians, quotes Toril Moi as suggesting the marginality of “women within the symbolic order, as on the frontier between men and chaos.”92 Regina Janes93 has argued that much of Coetzee's writing is characterized by a disgust at the phallus and a related refusal to occupy the position of authority traditionally granted to a man.

Magda, in In the Heart of the Country, is perpetually concerned with her own marginality and sees herself in this respect as typical of “the daughters of the colonies.”94 The recognition of this marginality is present in Foe: Susan Barton, though she cannot be recognized as the true author of the island story, is, other than Friday, who is dumb and illiterate, the only person who can know it. In Age of Iron, Elizabeth Curren, as a woman, is less complicitous with, more marginal to the forces of the white state. In The Master of Petersburg, Anna Sergeyevna is the unwilling conduit for Dostoevsky between the worlds of the living and the dead. Foe, with its narrator Susan Barton who struggles unsuccessfully to have the story of her life on the island recognized as her experience and the record of it as her book, in the face of the woman-effacing culture of eighteenth century England, was the first of Coetzee's works to be recognized as a feminist novel. Boyhood, Coetzee's autobiographical work, reveals a painful awareness of how women's lives are narrowed. Its first chapter shows the small child Coetzee collaborating guiltily with his father to deprive his mother of the small freedom of bicycle rides.

Disgrace contains a more complex awareness of the oppression of women: the scene in which Lurie is examined by a commission on his breach of rules in sexually harassing Melanie shows that his female colleagues are complacently righteous. He has to learn through his daughter's rape and subsequent suffering what women undergo when sex is forced on them. It is in this work that Coetzee makes his reader aware that not only white postcolonial culture in South Africa is sexist and patriarchal: the Xhosa peasant farmer, Petrus, manoeuvres Lucy, Lurie's daughter, into surrendering ownership of her smallholding and accepting the protection of marriage to him in order to retain the right to stay on the land. Equally, Coetzee is contemplating in Disgrace the problems of women in democratic, post-1994 South Africa,95 where despite a constitution that proclaims the equal rights of both gender groups, rape is extremely frequent and often unreported.


These debates for the most part pre-date the critical work that investigates the postmodern and postcolonial elements in Coetzee's work. It was nevertheless the understanding that the novels derived not only from a concern with South Africa but also from Coetzee's preoccupation with colonization as a global phenomenon and his interest in European and American literature that provoked censure (as well as admiration) of his work in the 1980s. Since the student needs to understand what was being objected to by South African critics of the 1980s, postmodernism and postcolonialism have been dealt with earlier in this chapter.

Although all Coetzee's novels after Dusklands were published in Britain as well as in South Africa, criticism other than that of reviewers was for the most part South African, or written by ex-South Africans, from the 1970s until the late 1980s. In the 1970s in South Africa, a resurgence of literary activity, for the most part poetry by blacks,96 had led to a reappraisal of literary criteria. Michael Chapman wrote of the black poets of the 1970s:

[t]heirs is a poetry which has been instrumental not only in re-establishing a vital tradition of black writing in South Africa, but in prompting serious, often uncomfortable, re-examination by writers and critics alike on the function of, and the appropriate responses to, literature in a racially turbulent society.97

The new criteria included directness, general accessibility, and orthodoxy of reformist/revolutionary sentiment. In the Heart of the Country, which was published in 1977 in London, and (in a slightly different version with some Afrikaans dialogue) in 1978 in South Africa, possessed none of these qualities. Waiting for the Barbarians was published in 1980, and in 1983 Life and Times of Michael K appeared; neither could be called direct or accessible to all. Even if the right of authors to cater to the small minority (in South Africa) of serious, experienced readers of fiction was granted, these too tended to look for some interpretation of or commentary on the present state of South Africa. The aftermath of the Soweto Revolt of 1976, as well as other tides of the 1970, had given rise to a belief amongst liberal and leftist South Africans that a national literature must be produced. Coetzee's works are intellectually demanding, and full of references to European and American literature. None of those which appeared before Age of Iron except Life and Times of Michael K (which posits a disastrous future) deals overtly with present day South Africa. The forms of the novels—introspective monologue, allegory, romance—were unfamiliar to what was seen as “the common reader.”

With hindsight, it can be seen that it was unlikely that any literature could be accessible to all South Africans, divided as they were by language, economic grouping and education. Nevertheless, the ideal of many critics was a literature of this kind, and the foundation of the journal Staffrider, in 1978, under the editorship of Michael Kirkwood, and committed to the publication of matter written for and by members of black communities, strengthened the idea that such a literature might be possible.98 In the wake of the Soweto Revolt, black writers had begun to publish fictionalized accounts of the events that surrounded it,99 all of which possessed the formal realism that was considered to be appropriate to the period.

Michael Vaughan, a Marxist critic, writes in 1982 that the obligation on South African literature to be “political” stems from the fact that the large majority of South Africans (all but whites) are not allowed any other kind of political intervention.100 He praises Coetzee's fiction for abandoning “the liberal premise of an ontology of the individual person, with a being which is freedom” but censures him because he analyzes rather than protests. Perhaps most significantly, he is critical of Coetzee because his analysis is concerned with race, rather than with class, and is preoccupied with consciousness, rather than with “material factors of oppression and struggle in contemporary South Africa.” Vaughan relates this to the fact that Coetzee does not deal with “modern industrial conditions.”101

The basis of this objection is the indirectness of Coetzee's handling of his subject matter: “modern industrial conditions” are certainly strongly implied in Eugene Dawn's narrative in Dusklands, and employer—employee relationships are a major subject in In the Heart of the Country. And race, in 1980s South Africa, was class. But in 1982, a work that demanded complex analogies and a command of postcolonial history was likely to be seen as elitist.

Reference has been made earlier to the critics Rich and Smith, who published articles that claimed that the formal challenges and the moral relativism of postmodernism were not for South Africa.102 In addition to such theoretical objections, some critics felt that Nadine Gordimer's more realist novels ought to be preferred—Rowland Smith is one of the most notable of these. Gordimer herself, though a generous admirer of Coetzee, published in The New York Review of Books an important review of his Life and Times of Michael K,103 in which she expresses general disapproval of the idea of allegory as “a superior literary form.” Coetzee, she points out, used this form in his first four novels, and whilst conceding that he had not done so in order to “bear aloft a pedestrian imagination,” she speculates as to whether his purpose was 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.” In this respect, she claims, he differed from the “agonized black writers” of the period—and as has been pointed out earlier, in the period this was a severe criticism, since black writers' contact with the Soweto Revolt and the related unrest of the period was usually more direct than that of whites, and their responses were therefore held to be more authentic.

Later in the same review, Gordimer questions the use of K, a totally apolitical figure, as protagonist: “is there an idea of survival that can be realized entirely outside a political doctrine?” This question was related to the ideal, current in the period, of solidarity against oppression. She is sufficiently responsive to the work to understand that “beyond all creeds and moralities, this work asserts, there is only one: to keep the earth alive, and only one salvation, the survival that comes from her.” Her own view of this creed is that of a skeptic.

By 1986, either the growing worldwide interest in postcolonialism or some glimmer of the approaching political transformation in South Africa allowed Stephen Watson104 to accept that Coetzee's novels, rooted in and descended from works of the South African past like Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm and William Plomer's Turbott Wolfe,105 were also part of a growing corpus of work emanating from all the former colonies. Novels produced in or by former inhabitants of India, the West Indies, Canada, and Australia reflected on the colonial enterprise and its aftermath, and Coetzee's novels belonged to this group. Watson says of Vaughan's reproaches to Coetzee, discussed above, “[p]erhaps Vaughan's disappointment, if not exasperation, is that understandable,” but is determined to grant Coetzee the right to produce fiction that is not explicitly related to “wider social and economic processes” and quotes Robert Scholes's claim that “the fictional element in literature, including poetry, is definable precisely in terms of our having to supply the missing elements in an act of communication as an absent context.”106 Watson continues: “[w]hat constitutes the fictional in Coetzee … is precisely that effacement of the material determinants which we, the readers, are expected to bring to our reading.” This recognition at once brings Dusklands, In the Heart of the Country, Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K, Foe, and even The Master of Petersburg, still in the distant future when the article was written, into the mainstream of South African writing.

The pressure on Coetzee to deal directly in his novels with the contemporary predicament of South Africa did not die away completely, and in 1987 he gave a paper, later published as an article,107 in which he explained his views on this matter. He makes a distinction between the obligations of history and those of fiction, in which he argues that the writer may make his own myths. But history, he claims, is equally with fiction simply a kind of discourse—and fiction may expose the falseness of any claim to “truth” of a conclusive kind made by history.

Attwell, writing, admittedly, with the advantages of hindsight in the 1990s: summarizes the charges brought against Coetzee as follows:

a certain consensus on the Left … held that Coetzee was a philosophical idealist whose fiction graphically portrayed the breakup of the dominating, rationalist subject of colonialism, but who offered … neither an analysis of the play of historical forces nor a moral anchor in the search for a humane response to colonialism and apartheid.108

The polarization between critics who censure Coetzee because he is not directly concerned with political resistance and those who admire him because of his interest in postmodernism and structuralism may now be seen as oversimplified. Coetzee is concerned with “the constitutive role of language in placing a subject within history.”109 Following from this is the fact that he is more concerned with “narrative and its relation to other discourses than he is with representation per se.”110 At the same time, as a writer who has concerned himself so deeply, over so long a period, with colonialism and decolonization, he cannot be considered unconcerned with politics.


The announcement of political change in South Africa in 1990 was followed by an upsurge in the rest of the world of interest of all kinds in South Africa, and especially by visits by foreign scholars to the country and its universities, which had previously been considered out of bounds by many.

There had, of course, been non-South African criticism produced in the 1980s: a first, book-length study, Teresa Dovey's The Novels of J. M. Coetzee: Lacanian Allegories,111 had appeared in 1988. Though it was written by a South African, its matter was not related to South African politics or society; as appears in its title, it analyzes the novels as dominated by the theories of Lacan. Dovey's explication of Lacan is of great interest, but her analysis of Coetzee's fiction is less so: Attwell has claimed that “Dovey's theoretical allegory turns Coetzee's novels into a supplement to Lacan.”112

Dick Penner's Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee appeared in America in 1989113 and Josephine Dodd's pioneering feminist article, referred to earlier, had appeared in Canada in 1987. The 1990s have seen an opening out of the critical debate on Coetzee, which would have been difficult in the prerevolutionary climate, and Americans, Australians, British, Canadians, and others have felt entitled to participate equally with South Africans.

Coetzee's own work of criticism, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa114 appeared in 1988. Despite the fact that he does not mention his own work within the volume, the essays that comprise it are important to an understanding of his writing, since they contain his views on writers whom he admires or against whom he has reacted, and on the early history of South Africa (seventeenth- and eighteenth-century travelers' views of the indigenous peoples of the subcontinent).

In 1991, Susan van Zanten Gallagher published A Story of South Africa: J. M. Coetzee's Fiction in Context,115 a volume that marks the fact that foreign scholars could now, without feeling politically compromised, interest themselves in Coetzee's characteristics as a South African. Gallagher's work offers details of the South African past and present that students who are not South African are likely to find extremely helpful.116 Her analyses of the novels are much enriched by this background information, especially by cultural information concerning South African ethnic groups.

For Coetzee scholars, it is likely that the most important event of the early 1990s was the publication in 1992 of Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews in 1992. The biographical data offered in these interviews has been dealt with in “About J. M. Coetzee” but the interviews offer, in addition, rich areas of literary commentary. The critical essays by Coetzee, though they do not overtly focus on his own fiction, are revelatory of influences on him and of his opinions and enthusiasms. The editor, Attwell, also edited Coetzee's critical work in White Writing, so that his own critical work on Coetzee, J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing, which appeared in 1993, has considerable authority proceeding from intimate knowledge of the author and his work. Extensive reference has already been made to the work within this chapter. The necessary limitation of Attwell's work is that it does not go beyond Age of Iron in its survey of Coetzee's fictions.

Sue Kossew's Pen and Power: A Postcolonial Reading of J. M. Coetzee and André Brink117 sites Coetzee usefully in the postcolonial debates, notably those that concern language and the link between language and power. She quotes Bhabha on the menace of mimicry and understands the difficulties of finding an authentic voice, rather than one that the metropolitan centre (or its representatives in the colony) has licensed to speak. She explains that Coetzee's novels do not claim that their narrators, or their interlocutors, are authentic voices; instead they draw attention to their inauthenticity and to the impurity of the motives that lie behind every statement or exchange.

Rosemary Jane Jolly's Colonization, Violence and Narration in White South African Writing: André Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, and J. M. Coetzee, already mentioned is important, not only for the discussion of the works that Jolly examines in detail, Foe, Dusklands, and Waiting for the Barbarians but also because she tackles a question which is important to all Coetzee's novels: what is the purpose and the effect of the terrifying depictions of violence within them? Jolly's preface, in which she uses Kafka to demonstrate the dangers of violence for the (literary or other) spectator, is useful in that it makes the reader aware of a particular danger of most South African works and of Coetzee's in particular. Her discussion of Waiting for the Barbarians and its scenes of torture will be helpful (cautiously used) for students struggling with scenes of cruelty in Disgrace, on which at present (2001) there is little critical commentary other than that available in reviews.

Also in 1996, a collection of essays on Coetzee, edited by Graham Huggan and Stephen Watson118 appeared. Two of the essays, by Peter Knox–Shaw on Dusklands119 and by Stephen Watson on Coetzee and colonialism,120 had appeared much earlier, in 1982 and 1986 respectively, and appear here at least partly because they are of historical interest in the criticism of Coetzee. Reference has already been made in this chapter to the essays in this volume by Watson, Parry, Marais, Parker, and Merivale; Derek Attridge's “Oppressive Silence: J. M. Coetzee's Foe and the Politics of Canonisation”121 is also of considerable interest.

Dominic Head's J. M. Coetzee122 appeared in the following year, 1997, and contains a survey both of Coetzee's fiction and of the criticism that it has elicited. The chronology of Coetzee's life and works123 is useful, and the way in which the criticism up to 1996 is summarized and the various arguments related to each other is equally helpful. Head's discussion necessarily stops with The Master of Petersburg, and though he is most interested in Coetzee as a postcolonial author, he is aware that there are many different postcolonialisms: “the complex colonial situation of South Africa would require a different model than the West/Third World opposition.”124 The work is above all informative: the discussion of The Master of Petersburg, for example, makes clear the relationship between Coetzee's novel and The Possessed125 explaining that it “becomes … an extended treatment of the chapter ‘At Tikhon's,’”126 originally suppressed from Demons. At the same time Head locates The Master of Petersburg in the line of Coetzee's work and its developing preoccupations.

The latest works by J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood and Disgrace, have as yet elicited little critical commentary. An article by Derek Attridge has appeared, entitled “Boyhood: Confession and Truth.127” Attridge sites the book generically, while asserting its marginality, within genres, and his article will be of great use to readers puzzled as to the expectation they should bring to the work. The reviews elicited by Disgrace are variable in quality; reviewers cannot, in most cases, be expected to understand the context of so local a work, but readers may find them helpful.


Coetzee's characteristic reticence has rarely allowed him to make his own life the subject of his work. The obvious exception to this is his autobiographical work, Boyhood, which will be dealt with below.

Even where the autobiographical element is not overt, it must be the case that the author's experience affects his interests in his fictions, and J. M. Coetzee, though he has not chosen to write a roman à clef of the kind of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, is no exception to this generalization. With the exception of Waiting for the Barbarians, Foe, and The Master of Petersburg, all his novels have been set in South Africa, where he was born, grew up, and has spent most of his life. Moreover, his work has been obviously concerned with colonialism and the struggle of groups and individuals to extricate themselves from colonialism, which has been the major concern of many South Africans in his lifetime.

Those of Coetzee's novels that are set in South Africa have as their background the Cape Province, to which, he claims, his South African experience is confined. Cape Town itself, where he spent part of his childhood, went to university and has lived intermittently throughout his adult life, is important as the setting of parts of Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace and the whole of the Age of Iron.

Coetzee is of Afrikaans descent; that is, he comes of a group whose forefathers came from Europe to settle at the Cape in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and whose members continued to speak a version of Dutch, known in the twentieth century as Afrikaans. His own parents were not interested in this part of their heritage and brought up their children to speak English as their first language. Although he does not regard himself as an Afrikaner, his interest in the Afrikaans group is evident in many of his novels: Dusklands, In the Heart of the Country, Life and Times of Michael K, and Age of Iron all contain characters (in the case of the first two novels, they are the protagonists) who are Afrikaners, and Coetzee prefers to investigate the forces that formed the characters of Afrikaners as colonists and settlers,128 rather than dismiss the whole group as brutal and insensitive, as did many South African novelists of the seventies and eighties. In Boyhood the Afrikaner group is an important subject, and the feelings of love and hate that the child Coetzee feels for the family farm and those who live on it are undoubtedly an important source for the ambivalence revealed by Magda, the protagonist of In the Heart of the Country, for the farm on which she lives.

In his essay “Remembering Texas,”129 he writes of the way in which the documents in the library of the University of Texas, which related to the seventeenth and eighteenth century in South Africa, led him to write Dusklands, though the work was not begun until he was working elsewhere. There is no doubt that his experience there and at the State University of New York in Buffalo during the Vietnam War led him to make the analogy between colonial expansion in South Africa in the mid-eighteenth century and American policies in Vietnam in the twentieth century.130

Waiting for the Barbarians is set on the borders of an unnamed empire, and the characters, also for the most part unnamed, are related to Coetzee's South African experience only to the extent that the interrogation and torture of dissidents was common in the 1980s, as was the disappearance of those interrogated, who would be described officially as having died accidentally, as is the old man in Waiting for the Barbarians. Coetzee's preoccupation with the agents of repression is one that he shares with most South African novelists of the period.131

In Life and Times of Michael K, K's mother lives in a servant's room in a large block of flats in Seapoint, a resort suburb of Cape Town well known to all Cape residents. The journey that K undertakes to Prince Albert, where his mother was born, via Stellenbosch, the second oldest town in South Africa, can be followed on a large-scale map of South Africa. The dreariness of the stalemate civil war is indicated by the fact that Stellenbosch, in fact a beautiful small town of Cape Dutch buildings, is perceived by K as consisting mainly of an overcrowded hospital. The Visagie farm near Prince Albert, where K takes refuge and where he plants his pumpkins, is presented as the twentieth century remnant of the rural life of the nineteenth-century Afrikaner. The young soldier who returns there has never been a resident on the farm, but he has spent holidays there and has been encouraged to see it as the family home. Coetzee's own relationship in his youth with his paternal uncle's farm was of this kind, as he indicates in Boyhood. The relationship that the young Visagie attempts with K, that of master and serf, is the traditional one between white farmer and “Colored” farm worker, which Coetzee knew well in his youth.

The setting of Foe is, for the most part, not based on any real place but on Coetzee's conviction that Defoe's portrait of the archetypal colonizer is a distortion of the reality of colonization.132 The island on which Cruso is marooned in Foe cannot be made fruitful by the efforts of the colonizer. The London that Susan Barton visits and through which she searches for “Foe” is equally an imaginative reconstruction, though Defoe did, in fact, live in Stoke Newington, as Coetzee indicates.

Age of Iron is not only set in Cape Town as Coetzee knew it in the 1980s but specifically in the tense, fearful Cape Town of 1986, during the second State of Emergency, when the South African government gave wide powers of arrest and imprisonment to the police force and the military. The most striking feature of South African life in the period to be incorporated into the novel, however, is the ignorance of the protagonist, Elizabeth Curren, of the conditions of life of the black people who live in the same city, and one of whom, the domestic servant Florence, works for her. The squatter camps that Curren eventually visits and the black townships around Cape Town are completely unknown to her, and she has to acknowledge that her ignorance (which is shared by the majority of the white population of Cape Town) is to a great extent willful. Florence's son, Bheki, and his friend John, whose schools are closed because of unspecified “trouble,” are representative of a large group of young black people, who after the Soweto Revolt of 1976, became disillusioned with the inferior Bantu Education system.133 Their contempt for their elders, which constitutes a departure from Xhosa tradition of respect for elders, is also characteristic of such young revolutionaries in the period. Florence's husband, forced to live away from his family in order to work, shares the plight of many black men in South Africa.

Though it obviously cannot be claimed that The Master of Petersburg in its geographical details replicates the experience of Coetzee's life, it is likely that he intends an analogy between the police state that is nineteenth century Russia and the South Africa that preceded the reforms of the 1990s. Dostoevsky's eventual decision to stay in this corrupt and oppressive country in order to write about it is close to Coetzee's decision concerning South Africa. The most obvious parallel, however, is that between Dostoevsky's loss of his stepson Pavel and the accidental death of J. M. Coetzee's son in 1989.

The next work, Boyhood, is overtly autobiographical, despite the fact that the author refers to his child self in the third person throughout.134 The facts concerning places and people correspond to those of Coetzee's youth: the family leaves Cape Town for the provincial town of Worcester when he is eight and returns to Cape Town four years later when he begins high school. More importantly, the child's observation of human relations corresponds to Coetzee's memories of his own family life and of racial attitudes in the white group in his youth. The most important facet of the novel, however, is its account of the child's development into the outsider, which Coetzee has claimed that he has remained throughout his adult life—not an Afrikaner, not a Catholic, not a Jew, outside of all religious and linguistic groups and to an extent remote even from his family.135

Disgrace is set in Cape Town and the eastern Cape of the 1990s and has the strong flavor of the postdemocratic elections period; that is to say, the action takes place during the period after the first democratic elections in 1994, in which white privilege began to be dismantled. Significant changes took place in the universities, and the reform of land tenure practices was begun. The strains of both these processes appear in the novel: the university at which the protagonist, David Lurie, works now has a staff composed of members of all racial groups resident in South Africa, whereas under Apartheid the rule was “whites only.” Like most South African universities in the 1990s, it has marginalized the teaching of literature and emphasized what it sees as the acquisition of more useful skills. In the Eastern Cape, Petrus, once a laborer on Lucy Lurie's smallholding, is now an independent landowner, who coverts Lucy's land.

The new constitution of 1995 asserts the equality of the sexes. It is one of the many ironies of Disgrace that Lurie is dismissed from his university post for sexual harassment of a young woman student, a charge that would have been impossible under the patriarchal rule of the Nationalist party, and yet his daughter Lucy feels that she must accept the protection of a black husband if she is to continue to live on her land. In real-life South Africa, it is often remarked that the constitutional equality of the sexes does not correspond to their relative positions in daily life, and rural women in particular are an oppressed group.

It is above all the violence of South Africa in the 1990s that is portrayed in Disgrace: the three young rapists who try to murder Lurie and the ransacking of Lurie's house in Cape Town are symptoms of this violence, as is the ex-farmhand Petrus's willingness to pretend that he was ignorant that the attack on Lucy's farmhouse would take place.

Lurie's character, selfish and willfully ignorant of the feelings of those whom he exploits, is Coetzee's verdict on the liberal white man formed under Apartheid.


J. M. Coetzee's novels, beginning with Dusklands in 1974, reintroduced into the South African novel subject matter that was of interest to the whole world, whilst at the same time being a vital analysis of events, past and present, in South Africa. Apartheid, specific to South Africa, monstrous and powerful over every area of life in that country, had become the irresistible subject matter of almost all English-language novels there, from the appearance of Alan Paton's great anti-Apartheid novel Too Late the Phalarope in 1953 until the end of the 1980s, by which time, Breyten Breytenbach, André Brink, Nadine Gordimer, Mtutuzeli Matshoba, Mongane Serote, Miriam Tlali, and many others had established themselves as writers of anti-Apartheid fiction. Coetzee's novels, especially the early ones, though they did not by any means ignore matters of race in South Africa, ranged further in their preoccupations and invited comparisons between the colonial process as it took place in different lands.137

The history of the reception of the novels at the time when they were published and their status in the twenty-first century shows that attitudes to them have altered significantly. The complexity of form and the breadth of their matter as well as the demands that they make on the reader are now, in the twenty-first century, seen as valuable, whereas in the seventies and eighties these features were considered to distract from the delivery of an antiauthoritarian, anti-Apartheid message. From the first, their technical brilliance and their originality of approach elicited admiration.

In Dusklands, Coetzee insists that parallels should be made between the colonization process in Africa in the eighteenth century and the twentieth-century-American intervention in Vietnam. The feminism of his second novel, In the Heart of the Country (1977), (though it went almost unremarked in the seventies when the work first appeared and was only picked up by critics in the late 1980s138), adds a dimension to South African studies that had up to that point been lacking. In the Heart of the Country and, later, Life and Times of Michael K, both brought to the attention of South Africans, and of readers in the rest of the world, the plights and voices of groups of people whom government and its opponents alike ignored. Specifically, Coetzee gives voice to a rural, unmarried, Afrikaans woman and a feeble-minded man with a congenital disfigurement. Beyond this specificity, the novels point out that patriarchy and colonialism are closely allied and that the poor and disabled are likely to be the victims of all regimes.

In Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), Coetzee presents a frontier town in an aging, declining empire. Because he does not set this novel in any particular country, the growing awareness of the protagonist/focalizer that the power of empire is repressive and always potentially evil has general application for readers, who may apply his insights to colonialism as it exists or has existed in their own lands. The lake people and the barbarians who are persecuted by the forces of Empire may represent any indigenous people whose existence and culture are regarded by colonists as competing with their own. Since this work was so generalized in its interests, it is unsurprising that it was the first to appear in Penguin.

In one sense, Life and Times of Michael K (1983) is, like Age of Iron (1990) and Disgrace (1999), very specifically South African. Michael K deals with the collapse of civil order in Cape Town and throughout the Cape Province and with the efforts of a man to save himself from “the camps,” that is, the institutionalized places of detention for people who are useless to the contenders. The novel is one of a group of novels in which authors of the 1980s speculate on South Africa's likely future.

In this first decade of J. M. Coetzee's career as a novelist, 1974–1984—his novels had begun to appear in Penguin editions in England and America in the early 1980s—his formal and stylistic practices were a matter of acrimonious debate, inside and outside South Africa. While South African critics tended to compare Coetzee's experiments in narration unfavorably with the realism and moral simplicity of other writers of the period, critics in Britain and America tended, with a few exceptions, to be willing to allow him his complexity of style and purpose.

Foe (1986) was not set in South Africa, nor was its setting contemporary, a fact that dismayed many South African critics, for whom the occurrences in their country and period were of overwhelming importance.139 For foreign critics, however, it was accessible and related to their interests in many cases: it was feminist and anticolonialist in its insistence that it was Daniel Defoe's sexist and racist prejudices that made Crusoe the sole narrator and the only significant consciousness in Robinson Crusoe; it was postmodern in its intertextuality and self-reflexivity, and it was formally challenging. Above all, it was a “writing back”140 to the first great fiction of colonialism. Foe is almost certainly the Coetzee novel that has attracted most critical commentary from non-South African scholars.

The novels of Nadine Gordimer, who published her first full-length novel in 1953 and has continued to be productive until the present day, had already, in the early 1980s, familiarized the reading public outside South Africa with discussions of the colonial and postcolonial history of the country. Gordimer, however, besides being committed to formal realism and to offering an interpretation of the recent past of South Africa, seems to have had no wish to draw on the remote historical past or to generalize about the colonial experience worldwide. Unlike Coetzee, she was politically committed141: her novels had sequentially argued her own movement from white liberalism to support for the more radical policies of the A.N.C., then a banned movement whose leaders were either in exile or imprisoned. Coetzee's stance was by no means ambiguous or vacillating, and his opposition to Apartheid was always clear, but he has always lacked the readiness to commit himself to a political movement, which Gordimer believed to be necessary.

Age of Iron is both South African and contemporary in its setting, though its protagonist-narrator is hardly an heroic figure, being an elderly woman, and a former teacher of Latin and Greek, who is dying of cancer. Though this novel is undoubtedly a “learned” work, since it draws on classical narratives of visits to the world of the dead for its form and for one of its characters,142 it was more acceptable to the reading public, especially in South Africa, than was, for example, In the Heart of the Country, where Coetzee's references to European texts had been found irritating by some critics.143

The date of publication of Age of Iron, 1990, the year in which the State President, F. W. de Klerk, announced the democratization of the electoral process in South Africa and the unbanning of the A.N.C. and other banned political parties, probably predisposed the reading public to allow Coetzee the subject matter that interested him. In addition to this, South Africans took pride in the literary awards that he had received, notably the Booker Prize for Life and Times of Michael K. In the 1990s, as South Africa, long isolated, rejoined the world, it was felt that literary experiment and the global interests associated with post-colonialism might be legitimate for a South African novelist.

The Master of Petersburg is a novel the relevance of which to the conditions of South African life depends on the willingness of the reader to make analogies between nineteenth-century Russia and South Africa in the Apartheid period. It has obvious bearing on the events of Coetzee's own life, both as an artist and as the father of a son. As an intertextual work,144 it is likely to remain of interest to admirers of Dostoevsky. As a novel on writing novels, it is an important metafictional work.

It is difficult to document, from the standpoint of 2001, the prospects of survival of Coetzee's autobiographical work Boyhood. The book deals with Coetzee's childhood, from 1940 when he was twelve years old, and gives a poignant, and to most readers who grew up in South Africa in the same period, immediately recognizable picture of the sensory experience and the ideological puzzlement, the shames, passions, and resentments of a white child in that era. It is likely to survive as a micro-historical work, but still more so as a brilliant curiosity of the autobiographical genre.

Coetzee's most recent work of fiction to date is Disgrace, which won him his second Booker Prize. This work, set against the background of the political and institutional change and the social violence of the 1990s in South Africa, is Coetzee at his most stylistically brilliant and economical. It is likely to remain popular for this reason, but, like Boyhood, though forty years later in its setting, it also offers (tinged with its author's characteristic pessimism) an unforgettable portrait of its period.

Disgrace may serve as an example of the ways in which Coetzee's fictions are never simply historical. Besides offering an account of the behavior of whites during the hand-over of power in the 1990s to a democratically elected government committed to the abolition of racial privilege, it suggests, through the figure of the protagonist's daughter Lucy and her father's reaction to her decisions, its author's fears and doubts concerning what must precede any reconciliation between the different groups in the South African community.

Stylistically, Coetzee's works must always be intriguing: the monologic narration of many of the novels involves their author in a complex mimetic process, in which he imagines the vocabulary and manner of his protagonists and combines it with the incorporation of boldly anachronistic matter. Magda's obsessive narrative about her confined life in In the Heart of the Country includes references to many European literary and philosophical works. Their intertextuality, referred to earlier, which allows Coetzee to engage in dialogue with works of the colonial past, equally fits his novels to claim a place in the postcolonial cannon.


The list of Coetzee's prizes included in “About J. M. Coetzee” is evidence that his work has been appreciated both at home and in Europe and America. In particular, the award of two Booker Prizes to him confirms that he has occupied an important place in world literature from the early 1980s until the present day.

Until Coetzee's novels appeared in Europe and America in Penguin editions, it was unlikely that he would become well known to readers abroad. His first novel, Dusklands, was first published by Ravan, a small but important publishing house in Johannesburg committed to the publication of literature that encouraged resistance to the Apartheid regime. Though Dusklands was from the first considered a distinguished piece of work by intellectuals in South Africa, it was not of a nature that would allow it to achieve popular success.

The second novel, In the Heart of the Country, was first published in England and America and only a year later, in a slightly different version,145 in South Africa. It was on the whole enthusiastically reviewed both at home and abroad, though there was general surprise that appearing the year after the Soweto Revolt, it nevertheless contained no reference to this popular uprising and did not even have a contemporary setting.

In South Africa, where the revolutionary climate of the 1980s was considered to demand a literature more accessible to people of limited education, and more concerned than were Coetzee's works with contemporary civil conflicts, there was much debate in the 1980s as to whether it was proper to write works that engaged only obliquely with current issues, if at all.146 Equally, there was censure of the fact that Coetzee was relatively uninterested in the formal realism that was preferred by Gordimer, with whom he was frequently compared, and his interest in postmodernism was taken to imply a moral relativism inappropriate to the revolution.147

Coetzee's novels, as they appeared, continued to be read, especially by the intelligentsia, and to be admired but were throughout the 1980s sharply criticized for their avoidance of subjects that were seen as morally unavoidable. Foe, appearing as it did in 1986, the year of the second State of Emergency, seemed to some South African critics almost morally offensive in its postmodernism and its preoccupation, not with the South African present but with the beginnings of colonialism and the fiction that recorded its ventures in the early eighteenth century.

After 1980, the publication date of Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee's reputation in the international arena as a novelist grew steadily with each novel. Here the international community of readers was sufficiently large to allow a sufficient section of it to meet the intellectual demands of the novels and to recognize them as part of the literature of postcolonialism.

Whilst certain of the novels give Coetzee's sense of a particular period of South African life (Life and Times of Michael K, Age of Iron, and, above all, Disgrace come into this category) all of them deserve and have been granted an honored place in the literature of postcolonialism.148 It is as postcolonial literature (of which South African writing in English has from its inception in the late nineteenth century in fact been part) that the novels have been read in the 1990s and after. Interest in this subject area has grown steadily from the 1980s until the present day.

Coetzee's works are for the most part still available at the present day in popular, paperback editions. The characteristics that caused them to be undervalued in the 1980s, namely that their subject matter is not limited to the time period in which they were written and their purposes are not simply revolutionary, are likely to prolong their life as postcolonial texts. But the works that are overtly concerned with the South Africa of the period in which they were written will interest readers of the future as interpretations of a unique process of decolonization.


  1. J. M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, (Cambridge: Massachusetts: Harvard University Press) p. 20.

  2. The novel is presumably set in the late 1960s, since large-scale American bombing of Vietnam began in February 1965, and the first contingent of troops (as opposed to individual military advisers) was sent there in July 1965. There followed three years of intensive bombing which devastated vast regions of Vietnam. Bombing was halted after negotiations with Hanoi in 1968, so the likeliest date for the compilation of the report of which Dawn's work forms a part is this three-year period, 1965–1968.

  3. For an account of the real Jacobus Coetzee and his expeditions into the interior, see “Other Authors and Works Frequently Studied with J. M. Coetzee's Novels.”

  4. Ibid., p. 21.

  5. Athene, the Greek goddess of knowledge, science, and the crafts, sprang fully formed from the head of her father Zeus, the sky god.

  6. C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard; edited by George Savidis (London: The Hogarth Press, 1984), p. 14.

  7. Karel Schoeman's Promised Land, (New York: Summit Books, 1978), originally published in Afrikaans in 1972 as Na die geliefde land and translated into English by Marion V. Friedmann, is not well known in America. It is an imaginative account of the life of Afrikaans people in South Africa after black people have taken over power.

  8. Nadine Gordimer, July's People, Braamfontein: Ravan Press, 1981.

  9. Prince Albert is a small town, southeast of Cape Town, in the Cape Province.

  10. The South African term for corn.

  11. Life and Times of Michael K, p. 150.

  12. There is a strong implication that these people are “bergies,” that is, that they are vagrants who live on the mountain slopes around Cape Town. K would not register this.

  13. Daniel Defoe's original surname was Foe, which he changed to Defoe in 1695. Throughout Coetzee's novel he is known as Foe, the name that will be used in this summary.

  14. See the illustration of the title page of Robinson Crusoe, where it is claimed that the author is Crusoe himself.

  15. The chief British port for slaving vessels, until the abolition of the slave trade in 1808.

  16. The Muses, in Greek mythology, were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne who inspired the various arts; here it is presumably Clio, the muse of history, who is referred to.

  17. Foe, p. 131.

  18. Ibid., p. 154.

  19. For a fuller discussion of the States of Emergency and the antigovernment violence of the 1980s in South Africa, see “The Author's Era.” The conditions that prevailed during the Emergency are summarized in an illustration.

  20. Age of Iron, p. 49.

  21. Guguletu is a black township near Cape Town.

  22. Age of Iron, p. 100.

  23. The Master of Petersburg, p. 48.

  24. J. M. Coetzee is a strict vegetarian, whose feelings for animals can be implied from The Lives of Animals, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999) and from Disgrace, (London: Secker and Warburg, 1999).

  25. Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, London: Secker and Warburg, pp. 18–19.

  26. Since Coetzee was born in 1940 and is now about ten years old, he is reacting to newspaper accounts and discussions of the Cold War.

  27. Boyhood, p. 32.

  28. “Bioscope” was a term used in South Africa until the end of the 1960s for the cinema.

  29. Boyhood, p. 54.

  30. For an explanation of the Nationalist party and the 1948 election, see under “The Author's Era.”

  31. writer of adventure stories of the period, whose most famous work is probably Beau Geste.

  32. Dutch Reformed clergyman.

  33. This name, the physical description of Melanie, and the fact that her sister's name is Desiree indicate that she is a member of the “Colored” group, that is to say, that she and her family are of mixed descent, probably having ancestors from the Dutch colonies in the far east, as well as Europe and Africa. Though the matter of race is not mentioned in Coetzee's presentation of the relationship between her and Lurie, it is implied that her boyfriend at least, and perhaps her father, resent the fact that Lurie may have used the prestige of a “white man” to bring pressure on Melanie.

  34. This phrase has been used by the South African novelist André Brink as the title of his latest novel, in which the narrator-protagonist is an elderly man with whom a young woman comes to stay.

  35. Disgrace, p. 90.

  36. Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (London and New York: Routledge, 1989). This work, and especially the first chapter referred to below, forms an excellent introduction to postmodernism and the transition from modernism to postmodernism.

  37. McHale's Postmodernist Fiction contains a chapter in which he explains, clearly and simply, the relationship between modernism and postmodernism.

  38. Ibid., p. 6.

  39. See “Other Works Frequently Studied with J. M. Coetzee's.”

  40. Postmodernist Fiction, p. 18.

  41. Ibid., p. 18.

  42. Ibid., p. 11.

  43. David Attwell, J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing, (Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford: University of California Press, 1993), p. 21.

  44. Neil Lazarus, “Modernism and Modernity: T. W. Adorno and Contemporary White South African Literature.” Cultural Critique 5 (Winter 1987), p. 148.

  45. Michael Vaughan, “Literature and Politics: Currents in South African Writing in the Seventies.” Journal of South African Studies 9(1), 1982, pp. 118–38.

  46. Paul Rich, “Tradition and Revolt in South African Fiction: The Novels of André Brink, Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee.” Journal of South African Studies 9(1), 1982, pp. 54–73.

  47. Rowland Smith, “The Seventies and After: The Inner View in White English Language Fiction,” in Olive Schreiner and After: Essays on Southern African Literature in Honour of Guy Butler, (Cape Town: David Philip, 1983) pp. 196–204.

  48. Postmodernist Fiction, p. 7.

  49. For a further discussion of the relationship between postmodernism and postcolonialism in the works of J. M. Coetzee, see J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing, pp. 9–34. An interesting essay that deals with the same topic is Kenneth Parker's “J. M. Coetzee: The Postmodern and the Post-colonial,” in Critical Perspectives on J. M. Coetzee, edited by Graham Huggan and Stephen Watson (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1996; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996).

  50. Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982 (1883)), p. 49.

  51. Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, (London: Vintage, 1993).

  52. Ibid., p. xxix.

  53. The Postcolonial Studies Reader, edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).

  54. Kirsten Holst Petersen and Anna Rutherford, “Fossil and Psyche,” in The Postcolonial Studies Reader, pp. 185–89.

  55. Chinua Achebe, “Named for Victoria, Queen of England,” in The Postcolonial Studies Reader, pp. 190–93.

  56. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, “Creolization in Jamaica,” in The Postcolonial Studies Reader, pp. 202–05.

  57. Homi K. Bhabha, “Cultural Diversity and Cultural Differences,” in The Postcolonial Studies Reader, pp. 206–09.

  58. “The Memoirs of Breyten Breytenbach” in Stranger Shores: Literary Essays, 1986–1999 (New York: Viking Penguin, 2001) pp. 254.

  59. “The Memoirs of Breyten Breytenbach” in Stranger Shores, p. 255. Note that David Lurie's relationships with Soraya and Melanie have resembled the earlier relationships which Coetzee describes here, where the powerful white man either buys, or otherwise obtains sex from a subjected woman of color.

  60. Stephen Watson, “Colonialism and the Novels of J. M. Coetzee,” Research in African Literatures 17(3), 1986, pp. 370–92.

  61. J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing, p. 4.

  62. J. M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992) p. 52.

  63. Benita Parry, “Speech and Silence in the Fictions of J. M. Coetzee,” in Critical Perspectives on J. M. Coetzee, edited by Graham Huggan and Stephen Watson (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), pp. 37–65.

  64. Rosemary Jane Jolly, Colonization, Violence and Narration in White South African Writing: André Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, and J. M. Coetzee, (Athens: Ohio University Press; Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1996), p. xiv.

  65. Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, (London: Souvenir Press, 1974) p. 20.

  66. “Colonialism and the Novels of J. M. Coetzee,” p. 383.

  67. J. M. Coetzee, Dusklands (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1974), p. 101.

  68. J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing, pp. 17–20.

  69. See also Marais's articles, “Who Clipped the Hollyhocks? J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and the Politics of Representation,” English in Africa 20(2), 1993, pp. 1–24, and “‘One of those islands without an owner’: The Aesthetics of Space in Robinson Crusoe and J. M. Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K,Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa 8(1), 1996, pp. 19–31.

  70. Michael Marais, “The Hermeneutics of Empire: Coetzee's Post-colonial Metafiction,” in Critical Perspectives on J. M. Coetzee, edited by Graham Huggan and Stephen Watson, (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996) pp. 66–81.

  71. Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, (London and New York: Routledge, 1988) p. 6.

  72. Ibid., pp. 124–40.

  73. Ibid., p. 124.

  74. See Cherry Wilhelm, “South African Writing in English: 1977,” Standpunte 141, June 1977, pp. 37–49.

  75. Judie Newman, The Ballistic Bard: Postcolonial Fictions, (London: Arnold, 1995; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995).

  76. An informative introductory discussion of the relationship between postcolonial and metropolitan literature may be found in W. A. Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, (London: Routledge).

  77. “Empire as a Dirty Story: J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians and Foe,” in The Ballistic Bard, pp. 84–104.

  78. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966).

  79. Patricia Merivale, “Audible Palimpsests: Coetzee's Kafka,” in Critical Perspectives on J. M. Coetzee, edited by Graham Huggan and Stephen Watson (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), pp. 152–67.

  80. Newman, Judie, “Desperately Seeking Susan: J. M. Coetzee, Robinson Crusoe and Roxana,Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa 6(1), pp. 1–12.

  81. David Medalie, “Friday Updated: Robinson Crusoe as Subtext in Gordimer's July's People and Coetzee's Foe,Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa 9(1), pp. 43–54.

  82. Sheila Roberts, “‘City of Man’: The Appropriation of Dante's Inferno in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron.Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa 8(1), pp. 33–44.

  83. David E. Hoegberg, “Where There is Hope? Coetzee's Rewriting of Dante in Age of Iron.English in Africa 25(1), pp. 27–42.

  84. Joanna Scott, “Voice and Trajectory: An Interview with J. M. Coetzee,” Salmagundi, 114/115, Spring/Summer 1997, pp. 82–102.

  85. Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, pp. 59–63.

  86. Josephine Dodd, “Naming and Framing: Naturalization and Colonization in J. M. Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country.World Literature Written In English 27(2) 1987, pp. 153–60.

  87. Josephine Dodd, “The South African Literary Establishment and the Textual Production of ‘Woman’: J. M. Coetzee and Lewis Nkosi.” Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa 2(1), pp. 117–18.

  88. Sheila Roberts, “Cinderella's Mothers: J. M. Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country,English in Africa 9(1), May 1992, pp. 21–33.

  89. Susan Van Zanten Gallagher, A Story of South Africa: J. M. Coetzee's Fiction in Context, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991).

  90. The Ballistic Bard.

  91. Sue Kossew, Pen and Power: A Postcolonial Reading of J. M. Coetzee and André Brink, (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA, 1996).

  92. The Ballistic Bard, p. 91.

  93. Regina Janes, “On J. M. Coetzee” Salmagundi 114/115, 1997, pp. 109–20.

  94. J. M. Coetzee, In the Heart of the Country, (New York: Penguin, 1983), #3, p. 3.

  95. The first democratic elections in South Africa took place in April 1994. See “J. M. Coetzee and His Era.”

  96. In the 1950s, an important group of black writers (Ezekiel Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane, Alex La Guma, Can Themba, Nat Nakasa, and others) had written for Drum magazine. Many of their stories were set in Sophiatown, the multiracial suburb of Johannesburg where some of them lived. With the removal of the inhabitants and the bulldozing of Sophiatown in the early 1960s, these writers were driven into silence and left South Africa for various forms of exile. In 1966, eleven distinguished South African black writers in exile were “listed” in South Africa under the Suppression of Communism Act, which meant no more than that they were opposed to the Apartheid regime. Until 1971, when the first volume of Soweto poetry appeared (Oswald Mtshali's Sounds of a Cowhide Drum, (Johannesburg: Renoster Books, 1971), almost no books by black authors appeared.

  97. Michael Chapman (ed.), Soweto Poetry, (Isando: McGraw-Hill, 1982) p. 11.

  98. The first editorial of Staffrider claimed that it was the object of the magazine to respond to “the great surge of creative activity,” which was “one of the more hopeful signs of recent times. A feature of much of the new writing is its ‘direct line’ to the community in which the writer lives.” “About Staffrider” (The First Editorial, Volume 1 Number 1, 1978); republished in Ten Years of Staffrider, 1978–1978, edited by Andries Walter Oliphant and Ivan Vladislaviæ (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1988).

  99. Three of the best known of these are Sipho Sepamla's A Ride on the Whirlwind (Craighall, Johannesburg: Ad. Donker, 1981), Mongane Serote's To Every Birth Its Blood (Braamfontein, Johannesburg: Ravan, 1981), and Miriam Tlali's Amandla (Braamfontein, Johannesburg: Ravan, published in 1980 and banned until 1985).

  100. Michael Vaughan, “Literature and Politics: Currents in South African Writing in the Seventies.” Journal of South African Studies 9(1), (1982), pp. 118–38.

  101. Ibid., p. 136.

  102. Paul Rich, “Tradition and Revolt in South African Fiction: The Novels of André Brink, Nadine Gordimer, and J. M. Coetzee,” Journal of Southern African Studies 9(1), October 1982, pp. 54–73; Rowland Smith, “The Seventies and After: The Inner View in White English-Language Fiction,” in Olive Schreiner and After: Essays on Southern African Literature in Honour of Guy Butler, (Cape Town: David Philip, 1983) pp. 196–204.

  103. Nadine Gordimer, “The Idea of Gardening.” New York Review of Books, February 2, 1984, pp. 3 and 6.

  104. Stephen Watson, “Colonialism and the Novels of J. M. Coetzee,” Research in African Literatures 17(3), 1986, pp. 370–92; republished in Critical Perspectives on J. M. Coetzee, edited by Graham Huggan and Stephen Watson (Houndmills and London: Macmillan, 1996), pp. 13–38.

  105. William Plomer, Turbott Wolfe, (Parklands: Ad. Donker, 1993).

  106. Robert Scholes, Structuralism in Literature, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974) p. 9.

  107. J. M. Coetzee, “The Novel Today,” Upstream: A Magazine of the Arts 6(1), 1988, pp. 2–5.

  108. J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing, p. 1.

  109. Ibid., p. 3.

  110. Ibid., p. 13.

  111. Teresa Dovey, The Novels of J. M. Coetzee: Lacanian Allegories, (Craighall, Johannesburg: Ad. Donker, 1988).

  112. J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing, p. 2.

  113. Dick Penner, Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee, (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989).

  114. J. M. Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, (Sandton: Radix, 1988).

  115. Susan van Zanten Gallagher, A Story of South Africa: J. M. Coetzee's Fiction in Context, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991).

  116. Students should be particularly careful to verify accounts of Coetzee's life and the backgrounds to his various novels offered by non-South African critics. Probably because exchange of scholarship between South Africa and the rest of the world has been impeded by political and economic problems, inaccuracies have been common. Linda Hutcheon, for example, in an otherwise illuminating discussion of Foe in A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, calls the author Michael Coetzee. Errors may be more serious when they are less obvious: Regina Janes, for example, claims that in the Soweto Revolt, “black children rioted and died to learn English” (“On J. M. Coetzee,” Salmagundi, 114–15, 1997, p. 109). The truth is that government was attempting to force their teachers to use Afrikaans as the medium of instruction, which is a different matter.

  117. Sue Kossew, Pen and Power: A Postcolonial Reading of J. M. Coetzee and André Brink, (Amsterdam & Atlanta, GA: Rhodopi, 1996).

  118. Critical Perspectives on J. M. Coetzee.

  119. Peter Knox-Shaw, “Dusklands: A Metaphysics of Violence,” Critical Perspectives on J. M. Coetzee, pp. 107–19.

  120. Stephen Watson, “Colonialism and the Novels of J. M. Coetzee,” Critical Perspectives on J. M. Coetzee, pp. 13–36.

  121. Derek Attridge, “Oppressive Silence: J. M. Coetzee's Foe and the Politics of Canonisation,” in Critical Perspectives on J. M. Coetzee, pp. 168–90.

  122. Dominic Head, J. M. Coetzee, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

  123. Ibid., pp. xiv-xvi.

  124. Ibid., p. 15.

  125. Also known as The Devils. Head mentions that a recent translation is entitled Demons.

  126. Dominic Head, J. M. Coetzee, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) p. 145.

  127. Derek Attridge, “Boyhood: Confession and Truth,” Critical Survey 11(2), 1999, “South African Writing at the Crossroads,” pp. 77–93.

  128. See, for example, his review of Breyten Breytenbach's Dogheart in Stranger Shores, pp. 249–260.

  129. J. M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, edited by David Attwell (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 50–3.

  130. See Doubling the Point, p. 337.

  131. Compare, for example, Nadine Gordimer's volume of short stories Something Out There (Braamfontein: Ravan, 1984), especially the stories “Crimes of Conscience” and “A Correspondence Course” and Andre Brink's A Dry White Season, (London: W. H. Allen, 1979).

  132. This matter is discussed at length in the section “Preoccupations and Techniques in J. M. Coetzee's Novels: Intertextuality.”

  133. See “J. M. Coetzee and His Era: The Suppression of the Mission Schools and the Imposition of ‘Bantu Education.’”

  134. For further discussion of the status of Boyhood as autobiography, see “About J. M. Coetzee.”

  135. See “J. M. Coetzee on His Life and Work: The Making of an Outsider.”

  136. The whole of this section should be studied in conjunction with “J. M. Coetzee and His Era,” in which an account is offered of the historical events that form the background to some of his novels and that affected his preoccupations and interests whilst they were being written.

  137. Coetzee has claimed in “Speaking: J. M. Coetzee” in Speak 1(3) that his interest is more generally in colonialism and its aftermath.

  138. See “Critical Summary: Feminism.”

  139. See “J. M. Coetzee and His Era: Divide and Rule; Unite and Resist.”

  140. The phrase “writing back” probably had its origin in W. A. Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin's The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures, (London: Routledge, 1989).

  141. See Nadine Gordimer, “The Idea of Gardening.” New York Review of Books, February 2, 1984, pp. 3 and 6, where she deplores the fact that Michael K's resistance to the regimes that attempt to co-opt him does not imply commitment, on his part or that of his author, to a political party.

  142. See “Other Authors and Works Frequently Studied with J. M. Coetzee's Novels.”

  143. See “Critical Summary: Intertextuality.”

  144. The relationship between The Master of Petersburg and Dostoevsky's The Possessed is discussed in “Other Authors and Works Frequently Studied with J. M. Coetzee's Novels.”

  145. See “The Works of J. M. Coetzee: In the Heart of the Country.

  146. See “Critical Summary: South African Debates of the 1980s.”

  147. See “Critical Summary: South Africa and Postmodernism.”

  148. See “Critical Summary: Postcolonialism” and “Imperialism, Indigeneity and Hybridity.”

Other Authors And Works Frequently Studied With J. M. Coetzee's Novels

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Several of Coetzee's novels—Dusklands, Foe, and The Master of Petersburg—clearly respond to earlier works. They evoke, draw on, or reply to a specific earlier text or group of texts.

The second part of Coetzee's first novel, Dusklands, which is entitled “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee,” is a rewriting of an eighteenth-century account of a journey into the interior of southern Africa, beyond the boundaries of the Cape Colony, undertaken by Jacobus Coetzee, an ancestor of the author. This eighteenth-century document1 dictated by its presumably illiterate author, is...

(The entire section is 5388 words.)