J. M. Coetzee

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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

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5603

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.


(This entire section contains 5603 words.)

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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 recognizableethnos 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 employment was rarely available to whites. At the University of Cape Town, Coetzee received what he calls “a conventional undergraduate training in English studies,” which he combined with an honours course in mathematics, receiving a B.A. degree with honours in English in 1960, and in 1961 a B.A. with honours in mathematics. He writes of this “patchy imitation of Oxford English Studies” as being “a dull mistress” from which he was happy to turn to “the embrace of mathematics.”16

Coetzee left South Africa for England at the age of twenty-one, “very much in the spirit of shaking the dust of the country from his feet,”17 he says. From 1962 to 1965, he worked in England as a computer programmer and married, in 1963, Philippa Jubber. In the same year, he was awarded an M.A. degree from the University of Cape Town, his thesis being on the novels of Ford Madox Ford. He claims that his interest in Ford stems from his observation that the latter wrote “as an outsider, and a somewhat yearning outsider at that.”18

In 1965, the Coetzees left England for Austin, Texas, where he registered for a Ph.D. in the graduate program of the University of Texas, teaching undergraduate English courses to support himself and his family. A son and a daughter were born to the Coetzees during their stay in America, in 1966 and 1968 respectively.

Coetzee says that he originally enrolled in courses in bibliography and Old English at the University of Texas, but his eventual doctoral thesis was on stylistic analysis, concentrating on the English fiction of Beckett. In “Remembering Texas,” he tells of how he fixed on this author and how Beckett's manuscripts affected him on his route to the writing of his own fictions:

In the manuscripts collection of the library I found the exercise books in which Samuel Beckett had written Watt on a farm in the south of France, hiding out from the Germans. I spent weeks perusing them, pondering the sketches and numbers and doodles in the margins, disconcerted to find that the well-attested agony of composing a masterpiece had left no other traces than these flippancies. Was the pain perhaps all in the waiting, I asked myself, in the sitting and staring at an empty page?19

Coetzee claims in the same essay that his major gain from the University of Texas was “having had the run of a great library,”20 and though he claims elsewhere that he was reading and making notes from the work of the explorer William Burchell as early as 1962,21 it is clear that his discoveries in Austin were important influences on the interest in the colonial process, which was to be vital to his project as a novelist. He writes of his discoveries there:

In the library I came upon books unopened since the 1920s: reports on the territory of South West Africa by its German explorers and administrators, accounts of punitive expeditions against the Nama and Herero, dissertations on the physical anthropology of the natives, monographs by Carl Meinhof on the Khoisan languages. I read the makeshift grammars put together by missionaries, went further back in time to the earliest linguistic records of the old languages of the Cape, word lists compiled by seventeenth-century seafarers, and then followed the fortunes of the Hottentots in a history written not by them, but for them, from above, by travelers and missionaries, not excluding my own remote ancestor Jacobus Coetzee, floruit 1760. Years later, in Buffalo, still pursuing this track, I was to venture my own contribution to the history of the Hottentots: a memoir of a kind that went on growing till it had been absorbed into a first novel, Dusklands.22

These descriptions of colonized peoples and the reports of the colonial administrators have equally informed his other works, especially In the Heart of the Country and Waiting for the Barbarians. His understanding of the concept of history “from above,”23 and its necessary imbalances is vital to his use of the monologue, which betrays that it is far from disinterested, the mode that he adopts in Dusklands,In the Heart of the Country,Waiting for the Barbarians,Foe, and Age of Iron. Others of his novels (Life and Times of Michael K,The Master of Petersburg and Disgrace), though they are not monologues, are either focalized24 through a single, fallible perceiver, or (Michael K is the example here) have passages of monologue.

The study of stylistics, which Coetzee pursued at the University of Texas in the late 1960s to early 1970s, seems to have been “relatively unrewarding,”25 at least in an immediate and direct sense. These years, however, produced in Coetzee an understanding of the technicalities of fictional discourse, and a consciousness concerning the position from which Coetzee himself, or perhaps his characters, might speak.

In 1968, when Coetzee's visa for study in the United States ran out, he left the University of Texas. He did not wish to return to South Africa, the only country to which he had right of entry, since he had two American-born children, and attempted to obtain permission to stay on a different basis. No permanent permission was granted him, but he went to the State University of New York in Buffalo to teach English. In an interview in which he describes the years that he spent in Buffalo, he says that he was “hanging on from month to month.”26 He was invited to offer a course on African literature, which did not at this stage particularly interest him but which led him to believe that if he wished to teach in an American university, it might have to be as an Africanist. His description of himself in Buffalo indicates his indecision about the future:

I cannot stress too much how directionless I was in those days. I was thirty years old and had published nothing. I had left England at a time when the war in Vietnam was getting more and more horrible, to voyage into the belly of the beast. The Americans I lived and worked among, fine people, generous, likeable, liberal in their values—I made some of my most enduring friendships among colleagues and students in Buffalo—were nevertheless as little able to halt the war machine as liberal whites at home were able to halt the forced removals.27 Whatever my private feelings, I was as complicit in the one case as in the other.28

This equation between conditions in Vietnam during the war with America and conditions in South Africa lies behind the two novellas which make up Dusklands. Coetzee explains that he is constitutionally unable to involve himself in violence: “[v]iolence, as soon as I sense its presence within me, becomes introverted as violence against myself: I cannot project it outwards.”29 Despite his reluctance he became involved in protest action on campus and was forced to leave the United States.

The return to South Africa was not entirely a forced one: Coetzee says that he was offered employment in Canada and Hong Kong, and speculates as to whether his last-minute refusal of both jobs might have been “a will to remain in crisis.”30 He accepted instead, in 1972, a post in the Department of English at the University of Cape Town, where he has taught ever since, with periods in the United States. He at present holds the Arderne Chair of English at the University of Cape Town. He has recently begun to spend extended periods in Australia.

All Coetzee's novels have appeared since his return to South Africa, and most are overtly concerned with life there. The exceptions are Waiting for the Barbarians,Foe, and The Master of Petersburg.Waiting for the Barbarians is set in an imaginary place and time, Foe in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, when Daniel Defoe was planning his works of fiction. It is not clear how seriously we are to take the fact that his name is still Foe, which would, strictly speaking, place the novel before 1795, when he renamed himself Defoe. The Master of Petersburg is set in Russia in 1869, the date of Dostoevsky's secret visit to Petersburg.

Coetzee's work has been strongly influenced by events in South Africa. Though his “history from the inside”31 has not been confined, as has Nadine Gordimer's, to the recording and interpretation of what he has himself witnessed, or might have done, he has been committed in his subject matter to the colonial process in South Africa, of which he has treated Apartheid as a special instance. The “anticipated revolution” of Waiting for the Barbarians is reminiscent of the mood of South Africa in 1980, when it appeared, and even Foe (1986), though it deals with the process of colonial settlement (as well as with the relationship between an author and his material) is deeply preoccupied with the recovery of the voice of the silenced indigene.32 Postcolonial studies,33 in which this recovery is vital, were becoming increasingly popular in the period in which Foe appeared.

Two of the novels, Age of Iron and Disgrace, deal with events contemporary with their writing, the violent disturbances in black areas of 1986 and the post-1994 adjustments to the new regime respectively. And though The Master of Petersburg, like Foe, is concerned with the author's relationship to his subject matter, the protagonist, a fictionalized Dostoevsky, who eventually decides that he must remain in Russia, with the horrors of a ubiquitous secret police and the murderous anarchy of extremists if he is to write, is surely to be taken as paralleling Coetzee himself in South Africa. The work was published in 1994 and presumably written between 1990 and that year, when Age of Iron appeared. The period was one of civil conflict in South Africa, as the newly legalized political parties of the new regime, the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party struggled for control, and the “third force” did its best to provoke violent conflict between them.

There are two important sources of information about the life of J. M. Coetzee that will be of use to the student: Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews,34 and Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life.35Doubling the Point includes, as well as critical work by Coetzee, eight interviews with David Attwell, an important Coetzee critic and a personal friend of the author. Detailed though incomplete accounts are offered of his life and the gestation of some of the novels, and the facts of the biography are closely related to the novels. Coetzee has emphasized the link between his fiction and his life by saying:

in a larger sense all writing is autobiography: everything that you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it. The real question is: this massive autobiographical writing-enterprise that fills a life, this enterprise of self-construction (shades of Tristram Shandy)—does it yield only fictions? Or rather, among the fictions of the self, the versions of the self that it yields, are there any that are truer than others?36

It must be recognized that Boyhood can only be a fictionalized account of Coetzee's childhood: it is necessarily highly selective, as any autobiography, or indeed any biography, must be. The principles of selection are those determined by the author, and the emphasis—on the immediate family situation, on the difficult and alienated relationship with the extended family, on attitudes to members of other racial groups—all these, and others, are those that the author has chosen. Boyhood is written in the third person, and the blurb on the cover of the hardback edition refers to the “young narrator,”37 presumably resisting a too-easy identification of author with protagonist. Later on in the same paragraph, however, the writer claims that in this work “Coetzee examines his young self with the dispassionate curiosity of an explorer rediscovering his own early footprints,”38 and within the work itself, the name John is used for the protagonist and Coetzee for his family. Nevertheless, Boyhood is not a biography, and the judgments implied in it are not objective.

Coetzee's intention in using the third person seems to be to avoid too close an identification with his child self, who is by 1997, when Boyhood appeared, remote in time and to some extent in his attitudes from the adult author. In an interview in Doubling the Point,39 written five years before Boyhood, he refers to an autobiographical account of childhood as autre biography, that is to say, an account of another, of one who the author no longer is. He uses the third person “he” instead of the conventional first person “I” in this interview, as he will five years later in Boyhood. He has commented:

The child is father of the man: we should not be too strict with our child selves, we should have the grace to forgive them for setting us on the paths that led us to become the people we are. We must see what the child, still befuddled from his travels, still trailing clouds of glory, could not see. We—or at least some of us, enough of us—must look at the past with a cruel enough eye to see what it was that made that joy and innocence possible.40

The reference to Wordsworth in the above passage, and the claim that it is childhood that makes the adult what he is, is Coetzee's justification for writing an autobiographical text that ends at the subject's adolescence. Boyhood is focalized entirely through the child protagonist; that is to say, people, events and physical context are rendered only as the child perceives them, though he records that others feel differently from himself. He does not falsify what he sees and hears, but, equally, he does not always understand what is happening. His critical detachment is a necessary condition, given the subject of the work, which is the development of a particular cast of mind, which Coetzee has called that of “alienness,”41 that is to say, a sense of being different and remote from the people who surround him. He has recently begun to spend extended periods in Australia.

The suggestion has been made that Coetzee's novels, up to 1993, can be described sequentially as beginning with:

aggressive imperialist violence in Dusklands followed by a settlement of uncertain standing and duration in In the Heart of the Country. A defensive phase of anticipated revolution is presented in Waiting for the Barbarians, and in Life and Times of Michael K there is a stage of open civil warfare. Foe departs from the sequence but is no less concerned with questions of power and authority under colonialism.42

Implicit in this claim, which could well be extended to Coetzee's novels after 1993, is an understanding that the great influence on Coetzee's fiction has been the events in South Africa. Though his “history from the inside” has not been confined, as has Nadine Gordimer's, to the recording and interpretation of what he has himself witnessed, or might have done, he has been committed in his subject matter to the colonial process in South Africa, of which he has treated Apartheid as a special instance. The “anticipated revolution” of Waiting for the Barbarians is reminiscent of the mood of South Africa in 1980, when it appeared, and even Foe (1986), though it deals with the process of colonial settlement (as well as with the relationship between an author and his material) is deeply preoccupied with the recovery of the voice of the silenced indigene. Postcolonial studies, in which this matter is vital, were becoming increasingly popular in the period in which Foe appeared.

Two of the novels, Age of Iron and Disgrace, deal with events contemporary with their writing, the violent disturbances in black areas of 1986 and the post-1994 adjustments to the new regime respectively. And though The Master of Petersburg, like Foe, is concerned with the author's relationship to his subject matter, the protagonist, a fictionalized Dostoevsky, who eventually decides that he must remain in Russia, with the horrors of a ubiquitous secret police and the murderous anarchy of extremists, if he is to write, is surely to be taken as paralleling Coetzee himself in South Africa. The work was published in 1994, and presumably written between 1990 and that year, when Age of Iron appeared. The period was one of civil conflict in South Africa, as the newly legalized political parties of the new regime, the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party struggled for control, and the “third force” did its best to provoke violent conflict between them.


Coetzee's work has been recognized from its first appearance as an able and serious contribution, first to South African literature, and later, in the 1980s and 1990s, to world literature in English. He has received the following prizes:

In 1977, he received the C.N.A Literary Award for In the Heart of the Country, which had appeared that year. This is a South African award. In 1980, the year in which Waiting for the Barbarians appeared, it was awarded the C.N.A Literary Award, the James Tait Black Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Award.

His fourth novel, Life and Times of Michael K, received in the year it appeared, 1983, his first Booker Prize, as well as the C.N.A Literary Award. The Prix Etranger Femina was awarded to Coetzee for this work in 1985.

In 1987, Coetzee received the Jerusalem Prize for Foe, which had been published the previous year. In 1990, Age of Iron, which had appeared that year, was awarded the Sunday Express Award, and in 1994 The Master of Petersburg received the Irish Times International Fiction Prize. The most recent major prize awarded to Coetzee was his second Booker Prize, in 1999, for Disgrace, which was published in the same year.


  1. J. M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, edited by David Attwell (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992) pp. 341–2.

  2. For a fascinating account of the policies of the Nationalist party, the reader should refer to Coetzee's essay, “Apartheid Thinking,” in Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996) pp. 163–84.

  3. Doubling the Point, p. 393.

  4. Ibid., p. 393.

  5. Boyhood, p. 69.

  6. “Speaking with J. M. Coetzee.”

  7. Ibid., p. 79.

  8. This term was used in South Africa in the past (and, in the absence of any other term, still to an extent is) to mean “person of mixed racial origins.” In the Cape Province, where Coetzee's “South African” fictions are set, it refers to people of mixed eastern, Khoisan, and European stock.

  9. Ibid., p. 79.

  10. Doubling the Point, p. 393.

  11. Boyhood, pp. 72–7

  12. Ibid., p. 37.

  13. Ibid., p. 37.

  14. Ibid., p. 51.

  15. Doubling the Point, p. 394.

  16. Ibid., p. 50.

  17. Ibid., p. 393.

  18. Ibid., p. 20.

  19. Ibid., p. 51.

  20. Ibid., p. 53.

  21. Ibid., p. 19.

  22. Ibid., p. 52.

  23. Coetzee uses this term to mean history written, not by members of the group whose past is the subject of the work, but by people who feel superior to or who claim the right to rule the group.

  24. Focalization is the technique by which a narrative is confined to the perceptions and understanding of a single person. In Boyhood, for example, the focalizer is the young J. M. Coetzee.

  25. Ibid., p. 1.

  26. Ibid., p. 336.

  27. “Forced removals” is the term used in South Africa for the compulsory movement of individuals and communities out of areas designated for occupation by other race groups. People moved in this way were usually inadequately compensated for the homes that they lost and found themselves compelled to live in far less desirable areas.

  28. Doubling the Point, p. 337.

  29. Ibid., p. 337.

  30. Ibid., p. 337.

  31. The phrase is Stephen Clingman's and is used by him in his book The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside (Johannesburg: Ravan) to describe her practice of setting her novels in the recent past and interpreting events that have taken place.

  32. An indigene is a member of a group believed to be the original inhabitants of the land, as opposed to a colonist, who comes from elsewhere to settle. The Khoikhoi and San peoples are the indigenous people of the Cape.

  33. Postcolonial studies are concerned with the arts and other cultural forms of countries that have been colonized. They tend to focus on the interaction between the indigenous culture and that of the colonists, and on the production and characteristics of a hybrid culture, influenced by both.

  34. Doubling the Point.

  35. J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, (New York: Penguin, 1997).

  36. Doubling the Point, p. 17.

  37. Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, (London: Secker and Warburg, 1997, front cover).

  38. Ibid., front cover.

  39. Doubling the Point, p. 394.

  40. Doubling the Point, p. 29.

  41. Ibid., p. 393.

  42. David Attwell, J. M. Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) p. 14.

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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5934


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 committed to a formal realism that is very different from the techniques adopted by Coetzee, who has argued against

a powerful tendency, perhaps even dominant tendency, to subsume the novel under history, to read novels as what I will loosely call imaginative investigations of real historical forces and real historical circumstances; and conversely to treat novels that do not perform this investigation of what are deemed to be real historical forces and circumstances as lacking in seriousness.3

This does not mean that he rejects any responsibility to or interest in the events of the past and present: he expressed his preference on the same occasion for

a novel that occupies an autonomous place … that evolves its own paradigms and myths, in the process (and here is the point at which true rivalry, even enmity, perhaps enters the picture) perhaps going so far as to show up the mythic status of history—in other words, demythologizing history.4

This demythologizing process is important in much of Coetzee's work and relates to the fact that official history, that is to say, the account of the past taught in South African schools, has always been partisan and has glorified the parts played by colonizing whites. In all his novels, but perhaps most obviously in the first three, he has been concerned to retell the happenings of the past and to demonstrate that the narratives of official history represent a distortion.

Coetzee's interest in history is, unlike Gordimer's, not restricted to the near-present. It has been claimed that Coetzee's novels form a history of colonialism,5 and Coetzee himself has said in an interview that his major interest is colonialism and that he sees “the South African situation as only one manifestation of a wider historical situation to do with colonialism, late colonialism, neo-colonialism”6 His major interest is in South Africa, and his statement suggests a willingness to imply comparisons between historical periods and different places to throw light on the situation there.

Foe is the novel which is most remote in time from the writer's present: all but the last section deals with the early seventeenth century, before 1719, and it is set on an unknown tropical island and in England. Both Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country deal with South Africa's past, the former with the remote period of the 1760s when white colonizers were pushing the boundaries of the Cape Colony northwards through Africa, and the latter, in all probability, with the early twentieth century. Boyhood, which, though it is an autobiographical work, follows many of the conventions of fiction and will therefore be dealt with together with the novels, is set in the 1940s and early 1950s and is a convincing picture of the paradoxical attitudes and behavior of provincial white South Africans in the period, especially in matters of race. Age of Iron and Disgrace are both set in the period in which they were written, 1986 and the late 1990s respectively, and each offers a picture of the times. Life and Times of Michael K is set in a future period—future, that is, in the period 1980–1983, when it was being written—in which revolution and civil war will have engulfed South Africa. It belongs to the special category of “future history,” which became popular in South Africa in the 1980s and which attempted from the tendencies of the present to construct a future. Another novel of this type was Gordimer's July's People,7 published two years before Michael K, in which, after civil war has engulfed the cities of South Africa, a white family takes refuge at their servant's rural home.

Waiting for the Barbarians is set outside of historical time, on the borders of an unnamed empire, towards the end of its period of dominance over surrounding territories. The Master of Petersburg is set in Russia in 1869. Both of these novels nevertheless bear on the South African situation.


These forms are considered together because in Coetzee's novels they often resemble each other, or the one blurs into the other. It may be claimed that Waiting for the Barbarians is pure allegory, but it depends for meaning, as allegory must, on the willingness of readers to make analogies between the situation in the novel and their own experience. The most obvious use of analogy is that which occurs in Dusklands, when the meaning and purpose of the two novellas that make up the novel, and which are apparently unconnected in their subject matter, depend on the willingness of the reader to make analogies between them. By placing them side-by-side in a volume, which is announced as a novel, Coetzee has strongly implied that he intends such an analogy, but the characters of the two narrators (each novella consists of a single monologue) also resemble each other. Both are self-obsessed and intent on the imposition of their own sense of self on others; both are completely insensitive to the rights or even to the pain of others. The effect of the analogy between the two narratives is that the reader is led to make a further analogy, this time between the process of colonial expansion in eighteenth-century South Africa and the racism, which was necessarily a part of that expansion, and the American campaigns in the Vietnam War.

In the Heart of the Country is formally the least realistic of the novels, since it is an inner monologue by Magda, a woman isolated on a remote Karoo farm, who frequently reveals herself as deluded. Early reviewers were almost unanimous in their astonishment at the choice of such a narrator-protagonist and few omitted the word “spinster” from their account of the novel. The reader is inevitably aware that if this is to be more than a Gothic tale of madness (and it is this as well), it must be read as analogous to a more generally felt South African situation. The novel was written in 1977, the year after the Soweto Revolt of 1976, when sanctions had been applied to South Africa by America and other nations and when South Africa was becoming increasingly isolated because of her Apartheid policies. Magda's errors and agonies can well be seen as analogous with those of South Africa in general, and the murderous violence that she either commits or fantasizes committing may be seen as representing that which was occurring in the process of the repression of the revolt.

Magda insists that in her loneliness she is comparable to thousands of “daughters of the colonies,” and her father is certainly the archetypal Afrikaner patriarch, dependent on the services of the daughter whom he despises and as far as possible ignores.

The third novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, has been recognized as an allegory, in which the different characteristics and roles of individuals in a society have been separated and allocated to fictional individuals who interact in a manner that demonstrates the effects of these characteristics. It is evident that this allegory is not merely free-floating, though it may be found relevant to any empire and its outposts. The increasing severity of imperial rule, the brutal torture of the “barbarians” (which is taken as proving that they deserve punishment), the impotence of the liberal-humanist Magistrate when these evils are taking place, and his reinstatement as the only available alternative to imperial tyranny, however unsatisfactory—all this has relevance to the post-Soweto situation in South Africa.

Life and Times of Michael K takes as its protagonist a man who is physically and mentally feeble, a “holy innocent.” K, identifying himself as a gardener who tries to keep gardening alive in a period of civil strife and destruction, is as much a figure of allegory as the Magistrate or Colonel Joll, and the severity of the deprivation that he survives makes the novel painfully unrealistic. The action is set in real-life South Africa: Seapoint, where it begins and ends; Stellenbosch; and Prince Albert are all real places. The characters are representative, as in an allegory they must be: they represent possibilities in South African society in collapse. The heartless officials who are indifferent to K's need to leave Cape Town with his mother, the hospital staff in Stellenbosch who are made callous by a sense of their inability to change the situation, the refugee camp doctor and its superintendent, the deserting Afrikaner soldier, the bergies8 who carelessly offer K succour—all are recognizably part of the South African scene. K himself is the only validly creative element in the situation, in that he continues to make the land fertile. The pessimism of the work consists in the reader's recognition that no real person could survive what K does.

Rosemary Jane Jolly explains in her introduction to Colonization, Violence and Narration in White South African Writing that she sees Foe as an allegory of narrative strategies. She goes on to point out that “Cruso can certainly be read as a representation of the colonizer, Susan Barton as a representation of the feminist novelist, Friday as a representation of the colonized subject, and Foe as a postmodern representation of the eighteenth-century master-writer”9 In all these cases, Jolly points out, the individual is much more than representative, but it can still be claimed that Foe is an allegorical work that reflects on the creative process. Equally, by retelling the plot of the prototypical fiction of colonialism, the novel demands that the reader make analogies between it and other stories of colonialism and see Foe as oppositional to the generally received history of colonialism. The Cruso whom the narrator, Susan Barton, encounters, is terrified of leaving his island, where alone he can be a kingly figure. He is king, however, of a desolate realm: the terraces that have been his lifework are useless, as there are no seeds of food crops on the island. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, his prototype, he has saved nothing but a knife from the wreck of his ship, and his crude house is almost empty of comforts. The comparisons that the reader must make between Coetzee's Foe and Defoe's Robinson Crusoe must have the effect of throwing doubt on the argument of the earlier work: could a castaway be as creative and determined as Defoe's Crusoe? Is it likely that an indigene enslaved would be as undemanding and devoted as Friday?

Age of Iron, set in Cape Town in the mid-1980s when the State of Emergency, which gave the police special powers of arrest and detention without charge, had been imposed, depends less on analogy than most of Coetzee's works and has a greater degree of realism. Its argument is that this is what it was like to live in the Cape in this period. Elizabeth Curren, dying of cancer but determined to understand the nature of South African black urban life before she does so, can be seen as an allegorical representation of the whole group of South African liberal whites.

The Master of Petersburg depends heavily on the reader's willingness to make analogies between the situation in Russia in 1869 and that of other places and times. It may be presumed that one of these places is South Africa, where the power-holders of a corrupt regime had already acknowledged, in the early 1990s, that their position was no longer tenable. In the interim between this acknowledgement and the actual hand-over of power after the democratic elections of 1994, an immense amount of intrigue was going on, murder and other kinds of violence were widespread, and there was uncertainty as to perpetrators and motives. A similar sense of a corrupt state and violent opposition to it pervades The Master of Petersburg.

The protagonist of Boyhood is most definitely a particular child, possessed of the characteristics as well as the name and family circumstances of J. M. Coetzee. Coetzee has written elsewhere10 of his sense of himself as alienated from his family and community from childhood onwards. What may be seen in Boyhood as generally applicable and analogous with other lives is the child's sense of his mother and father, the possessiveness and dependence on the mother, which co-exists with resentment of her, and jealousy of his father.

Disgrace, being like Age of Iron a depiction of contemporary reality, is a realistic work and depends on analogy only to the extent that the reader, especially if he or she is South African, must agree to recognize his or her reality in the world of the novel. The university in which Romantic poetry is seen as irrelevant, the eastern Cape farm that is invaded by thieves and rapists and the house that is ransacked and left empty in Cape Town must all be recognized as relating to South Africa in the 1990s.


The narrative mode that Coetzee has used most in his novels is monologue, that is to say, a single “voice” that tells the speaker's own story. This form differs from a first-person narrative in that the “voice” is uninterrupted; where dialogue occurs (as in In the Heart of the Country, #41, for example11) it is understood as part of the speaker's preoccupations, rather than a supplement to or contradiction of them. The speaker of a monologue is generally preoccupied with him- or herself, as opposed to a first-person narrator, who is preoccupied with his or her story. There is, of course, a degree of unrealism in the monologue: individuals do not address, at immense and uninterrupted length, an undesignated listener or listeners. Moreover, in at least two of the novels, Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country, the conceptual framework and the vocabulary of the monologue is not one that would have been available to the speaker. Jacobus Coetzee, an illiterate frontiersman, would have been highly unlikely to theorize about the subjection of the indigene to the colonizer. He is franker about his emotions than are most people who know their feelings are socially unacceptable: at one stage he describes himself as rejoicing like a man whose mother has just died.12 He reveals himself (as he must in terms of the subject matter of the novel) as a man who has become, because of the brutal process in which he is engaged, monstrous. His monologue is presumably therefore an interior one; the account of the travels of the real Jacobus, which he delivered orally to an official at the Castle of Good Hope and which the latter transcribed, is very different. Jacobus in the novel Dusklands seems to be recording and interpreting events as they happen. Yet, though he is frank, for example, about the people whom he kills, there is a censorship at work. He gives two different accounts of the death of his faithful servant, Klawer:13 on one occasion he is drowned in a river; on another he begs his master to abandon him so that one of them may reach the Cape. The implication must be that Klawer has been killed or allowed to die in some way that even Jacobus realizes is unacceptable, and he is trying out two other possible versions of his servant's death.

Eugene Dawn, the narrator of the first novella of Dusklands, resembles Jacobus in that he is willing to expose what others would conceal. In his document, the “Vietnam Project,” he proposes genocide and the laying waste of the land of Vietnam,14 and he is offended by his superior's sense that this is over-frank. He reveals that he has destroyed human feeling within himself to the extent that he feels nothing for his wife and is willing to stab his child when the latter's cries endanger him.15

Magda, the narrator-protagonist of In the Heart of the Country, is equally an unrealistic figure. Since she is without intimates, her father being a taciturn and authoritarian old man and the farm servants being prevented by convention from going further than brief and formulaic answers to orders, her monologue must be seen as a train of thought. But she uses a vocabulary that would not be available to an isolated woman with almost no formal education, and she makes wide references to European writers whose works are extremely unlikely to be available on a Karoo farm.

Since Magda is unable to distinguish between real life and fantasy, it appears that she must be mad, though J. M. Coetzee has said that he sees little point in so calling her.16 She is sometimes aware of the contradictions of her narrative: she seems to realize, in #36, that she has revealed that the description of her killing of her father and his wife was a fantasy. On the other hand, when at the end of the novel she tells of her care for her senile father, she seems unaware that she has earlier described his murder and burial. She has enormous powers of expression and considerable creativity in language. In her case, as in the narratives of Eugene Dawn and Jacobus Coetzee in Dusklands, the primary subject of the narration seems to be the pathology of the narrator.

The Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians, as a resident in an unknown territory in an undefined era, cannot be measured against any social or political norms known to the reader. He is revealed as frank by the fact that he is willing to report what is discreditable to him, and as naïve, at least with regard to the fashions of the metropolis, since he does not know what are the purposes of Joll's sunglasses.17 This prepares the reader for the fact that he does not know about other, and much more sinister, introductions into the practices of the metropolis. He is nevertheless possessed of a degree of integrity and compassion. His narrative is therefore “reliable,” in a sense that those of Eugene Dawn, Jacobus Coetzee, and Magda are not. He does not falsify his reports, nor is he seriously mistaken in matters of fact. His monologue is therefore less of a self-portrait and more of a report on circumstances than are those of the three earlier narrators. Like Jacobus Coetzee's monologue, his contains some degree of self-censorship: like the other citizens of Empire, he has learnt not to “know” the barbarians and only gradually and partially, through a series of dream visions, comes to understand the experience that he has undergone.

Susan Barton, a woman who has been a castaway on the island where Cruso (so spelt in the novel) was shipwrecked and who gives an account of him and Friday that is to be contrasted with that of Defoe, is the main narrator in Foe. The novel consists entirely of her monologues until the last section, where the narrator is an unknown, present-day intruder into the house once owned by Defoe in Stoke Newington. Section 1 is presumably her spoken account of the island; section 2 is a diary with dated entries, and section 3 seems to be an account of her conversations with Defoe.

Much of the point of her narrative comes from the fact that she is a woman and that she does not share the colonist's ethos that permeates Robinson Crusoe. In her account Cruso is a confused old man,18 afraid to leave the island, and the terraces that have been his lifework there are useless, because he has no seeds to plant on them.19 She is preoccupied with Friday, whom Cruso has regarded as a slave and who, he claims, cannot speak, and spends much time when she is in London trying to make him articulate and to find a role for him.

Elizabeth Curren's narrative is given what might be called an eighteenth-century type of realism20 by being described by her as a long letter to her daughter who lives abroad.21 The realism is somewhat strained by the fact that the narrative continues to the very point of death. Her characteristics are less striking than those of the narrators of Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country, and like the Magistrate, she is “reliable” in that she honestly reports what she sees. The account that she offers is that of a white liberal to whom the violent life of the black townships is suddenly revealed. She also tells of how that violence has begun to spill into the “white” centre and suburbs of Cape Town and how young black militants are now in open conflict with the police.


Free indirect discourse22 is a form of narration that is confined in its subject matter, and even in its vocabulary, to the perceptions of a particular character. It is used by Coetzee most notably in Boyhood, but also, at times, in Life and Times of Michael K. It implies that the text consists of what one character (called the focalizer23) knows or believes. Though the text contains the characteristic vocabulary and speech patterns of the focalizer, it is not his or her actual speech. The following passage from Boyhood may serve as an example:

At first he had thought it splendid that his mother should have her own bicycle. He had even pictured the three of them riding together down Poplar Avenue, she and he and his brother. But now, as he listens to his father's jokes, which his mother can meet only with dogged silence, he begins to waver. Women don't ride bicycles: what if his father is right? If his mother can find no one willing to teach her, if no other housewife in Reunion Park has a bicycle then perhaps women are indeed not supposed to ride bicycles. The memory of his mother on her bicycle does not leave him. She pedals away up Poplar Avenue, escaping from him, escaping towards her own desire. He does not want her to go. He does not want her to have a desire of her own. He wants her always to be in the house, waiting for him when he comes home. He does not often gang up with his father against her: his whole inclination is to gang up with her against his father. But in this case he belongs with the men.24

This form is closely related to monologue in that it offers a depiction of the consciousness of the focalizer as monologue does of that of the speaker. It can however offer access to thought that no individual would speak, and in the case of Boyhood, much of the point of the narration is the child's uniqueness and his sense of being isolated from his contemporaries and family. Michael K is equally isolated, though for very different reasons: his disfigurement (he has a hare lip) and the fact that he has been classified as feeble-minded have prevented him from relating to others.


The term is used here to mean the characteristic vocabulary and other habits of speech or writing that distinguish a person or group or that are generally used when dealing with particular subject matter. Coetzee's interest in discourse is presumably related to his work in stylistics, which he discusses in Doubling the Point.25

Coetzee has frequently used a particular discourse to identify, in an individual, characteristics of which the individual is unaware or that he would prefer to conceal. Jacobus Coetzee and Eugene Dawn, for example, recognizably use the discourse of colonialism and reveal as they do so the egotism and callousness of their personalities. Joll, in Waiting for the Barbarians, uses the discourse of oppression. The elderly farmer and his “Colored” employee Hendrik in In the Heart of the Country use a form of the discourse of master and slave in their conversations with each other. A recent and somewhat comic use of a distinctive discourse occurs in Disgrace, when, in the meeting with David Lurie to consider the charge of sexual harassment against him, his colleagues who form the committee use recognizable forms of academic discourse.26 In each case the speaker is rendering his actions or attitudes acceptable to himself by expressing them in a “respectable” or customary vocabulary; to the reader, that vocabulary may identify the speaker as part of a group that can be seen as evil or at least destructive.


This term refers to the practice of evoking within a work another, presumably earlier text, of which the reader may be expected to have knowledge, and of questioning or at times adding to the assertions made or implied within it. Almost all of Coetzee's novels make reference to other works, but “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee,” which forms the second part of Dusklands and Foe, is designed to question the truth of the account dictated by the real Jacobus Coetzee and the claims made by the protagonist-narrator of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. The Master of Petersburg is set in the period when Dostoevsky visited St. Petersburg in 1869 and is an imaginative reconstruction of the process in which his novel The Possessed was conceived.

Dusklands and Foe are both concerned to “correct” the earlier works on which they draw. Coetzee is asserting in Dusklands that the early explorer, the colonist, was in fact not the heroic figure that colonial histories have presented: he was cruel and grasping, and colonial expansion involved mass killing of innocent indigenes. In Foe, Coetzee is challenging the seminal text of colonialism, in which the protagonist-narrator presents himself as diligent, resourceful, capable of acquiring every necessary skill, and above all, deserving to rule his island and to make every other person who arrives there his subject. The Cruso of Foe is confused, unable to construct anything but the most rudimentary articles, and tries to give meaning to his life by building useless terraces on which nothing will ever grow. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, he does not wish to leave the island, since he is afraid of the world beyond his horizons.

In #51 of In the Heart of the Country, Magda, the narrator-protagonist, describes herself as spending evenings “humped over the dictionary,” and the quotations from European literature within the novel suggest that she has a large library of other works. As an antipastoral, that is to say, a work that asserts that life in the country is far from idyllic, the novel is a descendant of the first great South African novel, The Story of an African Farm,27 which also depicts life on a farm in the Karoo as troubled. In this earlier novel, the seminal texts of nineteenth century thought are also available to the central characters. Magda makes many literary references, notably to Blake and to Yeats (specifically to “The Second Coming”28) and, perhaps most importantly, to Hegel, whose comments on the relationship between master and slave she quotes.

The effect of The Master of Petersburg is not to question the assertions made in The Possessed as Dusklands and Foe throw doubt on the assertions made in their source texts; instead, it supplies a fictional account of how the work came to be written. The protagonist of Coetzee's novel is Dostoevsky, and the work depicts him as discovering, whilst visiting Petersburg after the mysterious death of his stepson Pavel, a nihilist organization. He decides, as he discovers that the leader, Nechaev, is willing to murder and to allow his devotees to kill themselves in his service, that to write about the Russia in which such organizations occur, he must live there.

The contention of Coetzee in Waiting for the Barbarians is that the belief that the “barbarians,” the outsiders to the empire, are enemies is promoted by imperial officials as propaganda to unify the citizens. The C. P. Cavafy poem29 from which the title of the novel is taken explicitly points out that the people of the declining empire need the idea that barbarians may attack, and the officials of the Empire of Coetzee's novel have a similar need.

The earlier text that is evoked in Age of Iron is Dante's Inferno,30 in which the protagonist, Dante himself, makes his way down to the world of the dead accompanied and guided by Virgil, the author of the Aeneid, in book 6 of which the protagonist Aeneas makes his way down to the world of the dead. The protagonist of Age of Iron is Elizabeth Curren, a former classics teacher, and her companion on the way to death is Vercueil, the vagrant who comes to live with her. The “dead” who address Dante and tell him of their shadow existence are represented in the novel by the black people who, for the first time, explain themselves and their lives to Curren: Bheki, John, Mr. Thabane, and Curren's servant Florence.

Disgrace, the latest of Coetzee's novels, is not written with a particular work behind it, but makes frequent and purposeful reference to the life of Byron. The protagonist, David Lurie, intends to write a chamber opera on the subject of Byron's life with Teresa Guiccioli, his last mistress. His focus changes several times, but he finally comes to the conclusion that his lyric gift is insufficient. The reader is presumably intended to see Lurie's interest in Byron, notorious for his many affairs with women, as related to his own womanizing, which he romanticizes by claiming that he is “enriched” by these contacts—he does not consider whether the women benefit or are harmed.


Although there was little critical interest in Coetzee's texts as possessing feminist elements until the end of the 1980s, considerable work in this area has been done in the area since Josephine Dodd's essay in 1987.31 Susan van Zanten Gallagher, Rosemary Jane Jolly, Judie Newman, and Sheila Roberts have all, in the 1990s, noticed Coetzee's interest in gender-related matters.

The novel in which this interest most obviously surfaces is In the Heart of the Country, where Magda, the protagonist, suffers from her father's neglect and knows herself to be powerless. She identifies herself as one of the many lonely “daughters of the colonies,” implying that patriarchy is present throughout the colonial process. Typically of characters in J. M. Coetzee's work, she has herself been corrupted by patriarchy to the extent that she believes herself to be inferior and that, in the unlikely event of her marrying, she would only give birth to girls.

In Foe the narrator is Susan Barton, who tells the story of life on the island, as well as other stories (these are seen as the inspiration for Roxana,Moll Flanders, and other texts). Though she describes herself, Cruso, and Friday as the three inhabitants of the island, it is significant, and painful to her, that in the writing of his fiction, Defoe not only gives Crusoe (the form of the name that he is to use in the fiction) heroic status but also edits out Susan's role. Friday survives in the fiction but is transformed into a willing slave. The role that the ethos of the eighteenth century in Britain allows to Susan is that of the Muse: she may inspire Defoe to write.

Other works, though they do not focus strongly on feminist issues, nevertheless have the effect of questioning the position allowed to women in South African society. This is especially the case in Boyhood, where the mother of the child Coetzee longs for the freedom of movement that a bicycle could give her. In the passage quoted earlier in this section, her husband jeers at her, and the child, though he realizes that he is betraying his mother, sides with the father, because he too fears the idea of his mother being free to come and go. The implied author, that is to say, that directing intelligence whose intentions are embodied in the text,32 is of course conscious of the painful restrictions on Mrs. Coetzee's freedom, and regrets them.

In Disgrace, the protagonist, David Lurie, who has grown up and lived the prime of his adult life under the intensely patriarchal Apartheid regime, feels free to exploit women sexually, and even to bring great pressure on a woman student, Melanie Isaacs, to oblige her to accept him as a sexual partner. He does not seriously consider her reactions and has to learn, from the brutal rape of his daughter Lucy, what terrible results can follow such coercion. He is angry when required by the tribunal that hears the case brought against him for sexual harassment to express regret for his actions, and the action of the novel thereafter is concerned with his re-education as a person who feels sympathetic involvement with others. Disgrace was written after the acceptance of the new constitution in 1995, which gave equal rights to both gender groups and all types of sexual orientation, and though the life which it seems that Lurie's daughter, Lucy, who is a lesbian, will have to accept will not be an easy one, the book has something of the spirit of this postconstitutional period.


  1. See J. M. Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, (Sandton: Radix, 1988) p. 81.

  2. See “About J. M. Coetzee,” Note 30.

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

  4. Ibid.

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

  6. Stephen Watson, “Speaking: J. M. Coetzee,” Speak 1(3), 1978, p. 23.

  7. Nadine Gordimer, July's People, (Braamfontein: Ravan, 1981).

  8. Vagrants who live on the slopes of Table Mountain.

  9. Rosemary Jane Jolly, Colonization, Violence and Narration in White South African Writing: André Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, and J. M. Coetzee, (Athens: University of Ohio Press; Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1996) p. 2.

  10. J. M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993), pp. 391–95.

  11. The text of In the Heart of the Country is divided into numbered paragraphs, to which reference will be made throughout this book.

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

  13. Ibid., pp. 99–100 and p. 101.

  14. Ibid., pp. 19–31.

  15. Ibid., p. 44.

  16. Doubling the Point, p. 61.

  17. Waiting for the Barbarians, p. 1.

  18. J. M. Coetzee, Foe, (New York: Penguin, 1987) pp. 11–12.

  19. Ibid., p. 33.

  20. The eighteenth-century novelist Richardson, for example, framed all his novels as series of letters. Age of Iron differs from these works in being a single, though episodic letter.

  21. J. M. Coetzee, Age of Iron, (New York: Penguin, 1998) p. 9.

  22. For an extended and helpful discussion of this kind of narrative, the student should refer to Shlomit Rimmon-Kenan's Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, (London and New York: Methuen, 1983), pp. 110–16.

  23. The term “focalizer” is used, and extensively discussed, by Shlomit Rimmon-Kenan in Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, pp. 71–80.

  24. J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood, pp. 3–4.

  25. Doubling the Point, pp. 17–30.

  26. J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace, (New York: Penguin, 2000) pp. 47–55.

  27. Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992 (1883).

  28. W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1967) p. 210.

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

  30. The Inferno is the first part of The Divine Comedy. A good modern translation is that of C. H. Sisson, (London: Pan, 1981).

  31. 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. 153–61.

  32. For a fuller discussion of the nature and functions of the implied author, refer to Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, pp. 86–9.

J. M. Coetzee And His Era

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7361

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 Coetzee's narrative takes place, to South Africa in the late nineties, which is the setting of Disgrace. Special emphasis will be placed on the period of the author's life, and the specific occurrences that led him to interest himself in colonialism, colonists, and oppressed indigenes.

The first novel, Dusklands, which appeared in 1974, makes explicit Coetzee's belief that instances of colonization in different periods and countries are comparable. The work consists of two novellas, one set on and beyond the frontiers of the Cape Colony in the 1760s and the other in the United States in the twentieth century during the Vietnam War. The second novel to appear was In the Heart of the Country, in 1977. It is set on a farm in the South African Karoo, a semidesert area, in an unspecified time period, probably the first third of the twentieth century. In Waiting for the Barbarians, published in 1980, Coetzee has set his novel on the fringes of an unspecified empire in decline. In Life and Times of Michael K, published in 1983, he has hypothesized what was, in the period of the novel's composition, a future revolutionary South Africa of civil war. This war was one that in fact never came about, but in the period between 1990, when F. W. de Klerk, then state president, announced the unbanning of multiracial political parties and the inception of negotiations that would lead to democratic elections, and 1994, when the first democratic election took place, civil war often seemed very close.

The next novel, Foe, published in 1986, is set in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, presumably before the writing of Robinson Crusoe, which appeared in 1719. It was followed in 1990 by Age of Iron, which is set in Cape Town in 1986, during the State of Emergency2. In 1994, The Master of Petersburg appeared: it is a fictionalized episode from the life of the Russian novelist Dostoevsky, who returns from exile in Germany in 1869 to visit Petersburg, in Russia. In 1997, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life was published. This work is an autobiographical fiction that tells the story of Coetzee's own childhood and adolescence, from 1948 (he was born in 1940) until his adolescence. It therefore opens in the small Cape town of Worcester; towards the end, the Coetzee family moves to Cape Town where Coetzee attended high school. Disgrace, which appeared in 1999, is set in the post-1994 period in South Africa, when debates about postrevolutionary “transformation,” including the transfer of land ownership to black peasant farmers and the reform of educational institutions, are current.

This section will therefore begin with an account of eighteenth-century South Africa, in which Jacobus Coetzee, who is fictionalized in the second novella of Dusklands and who is a remote ancestor of the author, undertook two expeditions outside the boundaries of the Cape Colony.3


Mariners from Europe, mostly Dutch, English, and Portuguese, had been stopping at the Cape of Good Hope, on the southern tip of Africa, to replenish their supplies of water and trade for cattle with indigenous peoples from at least the beginning of the seventeenth century. In 1652, an official of the Dutch East India Company, Jan van Riebeeck, led a party that established a permanent settlement, the purpose of which was to trade with the Khoikhoi, who were indigenous pastoralists, for cattle. The settlers also intended to establish a garden where fruit and vegetables could be grown to supply passing ships on their way to India and the Far East.

In 1657, nine men were released from the service of the Company, establishing the first group of “free burgers” who would farm lands previously considered by the Khoikhoi as the grazing lands of their own large flocks. The problems of a nonliterate society, where land is held informally and traditionally, when it confronts a literate and expansionist society, possessed of more advanced technology than its rival, are familiar to most Americans who have learnt of the expropriation of the indigenous peoples of America. The Dutch had firearms and horses; the Khoikhoi did not, and the result of competition between them for resources (land and herds) was therefore inevitable. The Khoikhoi in the Western Cape area had, within two decades of the establishment of the Dutch settlement, lost their lands and livestock and become laborers on Dutch farms.

The Cape is an area of summer drought, and Dutch farmers, especially those who pastured their herds in inland areas where rainfall was scanty and unreliable, were obliged to adopt a migratory lifestyle similar to that of the Khoikhoi whom they had supplanted or subjected. By the end of the seventeenth century, increasing numbers of free burghers were living seminomadic lives in frontier areas outside the control of the Company, which had little interest in anything beyond the production of supplies for passing ships. The officials of the Company were strict in their control of the population at the Cape, and it was partly to escape their control that whites moved northwards away from the settlement on the Cape peninsula. These free burghers were known as trekboers, a term that implies that they are nomadic. They employed—perhaps a better phrase would be “kept in their households”—Khoikhoi and San4 whom they or their parents had encountered and subjected.

The trekboers maintained a strong, though intermittent connection with the settlement at the Cape: they supplied it with meat from their herds and with ivory and skins, which they exchanged for lead, gunpowder, tea, and coffee. Limited social contact was kept up, largely through the regulation that compelled them to have their children baptized at the Cape. Though they were in some cases prosperous in the sense of owning large herds, their isolation meant that they had few opportunities to acquire formal education. Coetzee presents Jacobus Coetzee in Dusklands as illiterate, and since the deposition that the real-life Jacobus made about his journeys was written down by an official at the Castle of Good Hope, it may be assumed that this was probably true of the historical Jacobus, as it was of many trekboers. They remained nominally Christian, though in many cases this was probably because Christianity was, as Jacobus Coetzee points out in Dusklands, the distinction between a free man and a slave, a Khoikhoi or a San.

The fact that trekboers aspired to ever-increasing herds and that this tended to deplete the available grazing created a pressure on them to expand their territory northwards. As they did so, they came into conflict with the Khoikhoi and the San who inhabited these inland areas. The San people's understanding that animals existed to be hunted freely by those who needed meat made them difficult neighbors for pastoralists, and the Cape Dutch (as Coetzee shows in Dusklands) tended to regard the men as vermin to be exterminated, whilst they incorporated the women and small children into their households as servants, as they had those of the Khoikhoi.

Labor in the settlement at the Cape had almost from the first been supplied by slaves who were brought from other parts of Africa and the Far East by ship. Slavery continued at the Cape until 1834, when it was abolished throughout the British Empire, of which the Cape Colony was then part. Van Riebeeck, the first importer of slaves, was forbidden to enslave the indigenous peoples of the Cape, but the relationship between master and slave nevertheless offered a model that influenced the relationship between Dutch trek Boer and Khoikhoi servant. Though nominally free, the Khoikhoi servant of a trek Boer was contracted to remain in his service and was obliged to treat his master with great respect. Jacobus Coetzee, in Dusklands, is clear that his Khoikhoi employees owe him unconditional loyalty and that his life is at all times far more valuable than theirs. In Coetzee's second novel, In the Heart of the Country, the protagonist-narrator, Magda, the (white) Afrikaans daughter of the owner of the farm, tries to change her relationship with the “Colored” workers on the farm from that of mistress—serf—to one that will be nearer to equal friendship. She is unsuccessful. The implication is that the expectations on both sides concerning their relationship are too strong and too long established for any change to be brought about by an individual.


Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Dutch East India Company fell upon hard times as the naval power of Holland declined, and its interest in the settlement at the Cape, which had always been marginal to its concerns in the Far East, waned. In 1795, a British force landed at the Cape and captured it without difficulty, taking possession in the name of the ruler of Holland, the Prince of Orange, who was at that stage a refugee from the French conquerors of Holland and living in Britain. British rule at the Cape remained provisional and temporary until, in 1803, the colony was handed back to the Dutch in terms of the Peace of Amiens. As a vital reprovisioning port for ships on the way to India, it was important to Britain as an imperial power, and in 1806 British rule was reimposed.

It must be understood that the majority of whites in the Cape Colony and later, after the Act of Union of 1910, in South Africa, were either descended from Dutch settlers or had been absorbed into that group. This remains true at the present day. Descendants of the Cape Dutch are nowadays known as Afrikaners and their language, an offshoot of Dutch, is known as Afrikaans. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they were known as Cape Dutch or Boers. After 1806, a succession of British governors and their civil service attempted, with more or less tact (generally less), to impose the English language, together with British law and social customs on the Cape Dutch, who strongly resisted all three. The Cape Dutch were also divided from the British by religion: from the first, only Protestant, Calvinist settlers had been allowed by the Dutch East India Company, and until the present day almost all Afrikaners have remained adherents of the Dutch Reformed Church. The majority of British settlers were Anglicans.

In 1820, a group of British settlers from England, Scotland, and Ireland were brought to the eastern Cape to settle and formed a focus of British sentiments and loyalties thereafter. These “1820 Settlers,” as they are called, and other settlers who followed them, competed for land in the eastern Cape with the Xhosa, an Nguni5 people who were established there as pastoralists and agriculturalists. In the course of a series of wars in the nineteenth century, the British succeeded in subjecting the Xhosa and securing large expanses of territory for themselves. In his novel Disgrace, part of which is set in the eastern Cape, he writes of the anger and determination to repossess the land, which is still felt by the Xhosa people of the area. Petrus, formerly in the employ of the protagonist's daughter Lucy, has bought back a small piece of the land of his ancestors. He schemes to gain control of Lucy's small holding—and she tacitly grants that it is his right to do so.


In 1834, as has been mentioned earlier, the British central government in London decreed that slavery should be abolished throughout British colonies. Compensation for slave owners was allowed for in the Emancipation Act, but the amount was only a third of the slave's market value at the Cape and was payable in England. This obliged Dutch farmers to apply for compensation through agents, who charged a fee. The amount that finally reached the farmer was unrelated to the cost of the slave labor that he lost through emancipation.

Almost equally disruptive of the proper order, as the Cape Dutch understood it, was Ordinance 50 of 1828, which gave “Hottentots and other free persons of color” (theoretical) equality with whites before the law. Grazing was increasingly in short supply on the frontier, and the Cape Dutch farmers there had lost confidence in the British government's willingness to protect them against the Xhosa, whose territory lay to the north.6 All these conditions motivated considerable numbers of Cape Dutch to leave the Cape Colony and travel northwards. Between 1835 and 1838, loosely organized parties of farmers, together with their families, servants, and livestock, left the colony in a movement known as the Great Trek. Unlike the trekboers of the previous century, these trekkers intended to free themselves from British rule. One of their leaders, Piet Retief, published a manifesto in the Grahamstown Journal, in which he announced, “We quit this Colony in the full assurance that the British Government has nothing more to require of us, and will allow us to govern ourselves without interference in future …”7 By no means all of the trekker parties that left the colony succeeded in establishing settlements elsewhere. Mortality, through conflict with the African peoples with whom the trekkers were competing for land, and from disease, was heavy. Tiny republics were established by parties of trekkers whose isolation and resistance to compromise prevented them from forming alliances with other parties, but these ministates were for the most part short-lived. By 1852, however, the British had recognized that the Voortrekkers, now settled in the Transvaal,8 were no longer British subjects and might rule themselves as they liked. The land north of the Orange River, called Transorangia in the late eighteenth century, was divided into the northern Cape Colony (under British rule) and the Orange Free State (an independent trekker republic), in 1854.

A significant economic development in this period was the arrival in the 1830s and the rapid increase in numbers of merino sheep, which were thick-woolled and which replaced the fat-tailed but unwoolled sheep previously kept throughout southern Africa. Fat-tailed sheep could be used only as meat, but the wool of the merino sheep had considerable value as an export. Magda, in In the Heart of the Country, reflects on this as one of the conditions that has produced the lifestyle of the isolated sheep farms of the Karoo, on one of which she lives.


The discovery of diamonds in the Orange River region in 1867 and of gold in the Transvaal in 1871 changed British attitudes towards the independent trekker republics, now increasingly known as Boer (farmer in Dutch) republics. In both cases there was a rush of prospectors from all parts of southern Africa, as well as from Europe, to exploit the discoveries. This large influx of foreigners (known as uitlanders and largely without voting rights in the Boer republics, though heavily taxed) provided the British government with a pretext that allowed it to claim the right to govern these newly rich territories. In 1877, the South African Republic in the Transvaal was annexed by the British; in 1880–1881, in a conflict known as the first Anglo-Boer War, the Boers of the Transvaal, previously quarrelsome and divided, successfully united against the British to assert their determination to govern themselves.

By the last decade of the nineteenth century, however, pressure on the republics was building up from mining magnates and others ideologically committed to the development of the subcontinent through capitalism, as well as from imperialist British officials. The Boer republics resisted this development, knowing that it would mean that control of the country would pass out of the hands of its Dutch-descended citizens into the hands of the British government. In 1899, war again broke out between Britain and the Boer republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State. This fierce conflict, the Second Anglo-Boer War, lasted until 1902 and ended with the defeat of the Boers. Although it made way for the unification in 1910 of the separate states that make up South Africa, it estranged the Boer and British elements in the population from each other for generations. There was much bitterness concerning the large numbers of Boer women, children, and old people who died in concentration camps established by the British, who burned Boer farms to prevent the inhabitants from harboring or supplying guerilla groups. At least 42,000 people, all noncombatants, died in these camps.


Since Coetzee has not dealt in detail in his novels with the period between the end of the Anglo-Boer War and 1940, when he himself was born, it will be sufficient to summarize briefly the events of this period as they bear on his work. Two movements, the rise of Afrikaner nationalism and of black nationalism, are of great importance. The 1910 Act of Union, which united the Cape Colony, the Orange Free State, the Transvaal, and Natal into a single state, the Union of South Africa, ignored the rights of blacks, who remained voteless. In 1912, the South African Native National Congress, a forerunner of the African National Congress (A.N.C.), the present-day ruling party, was formed to press for extension of the rights allowed to black people. In 1913, the Natives' Land Act divided the country into “white” and “black” areas and restricted land ownership for each group to the area allocated to it. The black group, immensely larger (the proportions were about 80 percent to 20 percent), was allocated 13 percent of the land. The areas allocated to blacks were to be known as reserves, and black people were, in theory, intended to farm there and to regard them as their permanent homes. It rapidly became clear, however, that black people were required in the white, modern sector as laborers, and in 1923 the Natives (Urban Areas) Act was passed, authorizing the creation of “native locations,” that is to say, areas near to cities, where blacks might reside whilst employed in industry, though they might never own land there.

In 1914, the National Party was formed to advance Afrikaner interests. The twenties and thirties in South Africa were, as they were all over the world, a period of economic depression, but this was made more painful for South Africans by a long drought in the 1930s. Urbanization, which had been taking place since the last quarter of the nineteenth century, speeded up in the thirties when farms became unprofitable. Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country is arguably set in this period, when the protagonist-narrator can still imagine (if not remember) the rural Afrikaner culture of nagmaal9 meetings, neighborly visits between farm families, courtship customs, and the like, but is herself isolated on a lonely farm. Once resident in the city, Afrikaners tended to see themselves as competing with two groups, English-speakers and blacks, and the policies of the Nationalist party were devised to defend its members against both.

Although in 1934 the Nationalist party merged with other, less extreme elements to form the United party under General Smuts, it split from it on the outbreak of World War II in 1939, since some Afrikaners were reluctant to fight against Germany, with whose racial policies they sympathized. In 1948, the Nationalist party was elected to power, which it was to retain for more than forty years. This was the period of Boyhood, when the customary racism of the white community in South Africa was being incorporated and made more extreme in apartheid laws.


Coetzee describes in Boyhood the period immediately after the Nationalist government came to power, when pressure was being brought on families with Afrikaans names who had become English-speaking to return to the Afrikaner community. His own family was such a one: both his parents came from Afrikaans-speaking families, though they brought up their two sons to speak English as their first language. Coetzee, though he has spoken Afrikaans fluently since early childhood, has asserted that he is not a member of the Afrikaans group.10

It was the kind of assimilation into the postcolonial and hybrid identity of “South African” about which Coetzee has spoken that members of the Nationalist party felt should be strongly resisted. The party was concerned about dividing Afrikaans-speakers from English-speakers, but even more concerned about dividing all whites from all blacks. Segregation and racial discrimination had, since colonial days, been customary in South Africa. In Boyhood, which besides being a personal account of the author's childhood, is also, as its subtitle, Scenes from Provincial Life, suggests, a picture of small-town South Africa in the period, Coetzee shows that the “colored”11 people of Worcester are poor and oppressed and that they are despised by whites. These racist attitudes were beginning to relax somewhat in the postwar period, when industrial expansion was creating an increasing need for black labor. In order to reverse the trend towards racial integration, the Nationalist party embarked on a program of legislation that would as far as possible divide blacks and whites in every sphere of life.


One of the earliest laws passed by the Nationalist government, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, made all future marriages between whites and members of other race groups illegal. The following year, an amendment, Section 16, to the 1927 Immorality Act, forbade all sexual relations between members of different racial groups. This act was notorious for the misery it produced: police spied and reported on people's most private moments; citizens charged with offences against the act committed suicide. Coetzee, in his Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech in 1987, commented bitterly on the act, alleging that its intent was “to block forms of horizontal intercourse between white and black. The only sanctioned form of intercourse was to be vertical: that is, it was to consist in giving and receiving orders.”12

In the same year, 1950, two other acts were passed, the Population Registration Act, which stated that everyone must be registered as a member of a particular racial group, and the Group Areas Act, which empowered the government to proclaim particular areas for the exclusive use of particular racial groups. Communities and individuals who lived in areas reserved for occupation by other groups were forced to leave and go elsewhere. One of the results of this residential segregation was the establishment of large townships where blacks were compelled to live, and where the police made little attempt to maintain more than a semblance of order. Age of Iron focuses on the lawlessness of these areas and on the ignorance of whites concerning what goes on outside their own, segregated suburbs.


Since 1853 some “Colored” people in the Cape had had the right to vote.13 When the Nationalist party came to power, its members in the government were committed to removing these people from the common voters' roll. Their right to vote was entrenched in the South Africa Act, which gave the country the status of a dominion within the commonwealth, and to remove the right would require a two-thirds majority in the South African parliament. Eventually, in 1956, by packing the appellate division of the Supreme Court with Nationalist supporters and greatly increasing the numbers of senators under an arrangement that made it certain that almost all would be Nationalist, the government was able to force the legislation through. From 1956 until the first democratic election in 1994, no “Colored” voters could vote in general elections.

The importance of this struggle for Coetzee was that for a significant part of the author's youth, all South Africa was preoccupied with the question of what rights and status “Colored” people deserved. “Colored” people are important in Coetzee's novels, since Coetzee is a regional South African novelist whose interests are confined to the Cape province,14 where there is a large “Colored” population. The debate about their rights lies behind In the Heart of the Country; the protagonist in Life and Times of Michael K is a “Colored” man, though this is never stated, and it is likely that Vercueil, in Age of Iron, is also “Colored.” Melanie Isaacs and her family, in Disgrace, are probably “Colored.”


Other important pieces of legislation of the period for students of Coetzee's novels to understand were those relating to education, which had long been segregated, but which, in the case of the black and “Colored” groups, had often been in the hands of Christian missionaries, Catholic and Protestant. The Eiselen Commission, established in 1949, reported to Parliament in 1951 that the education of “bantu”15 people should be controlled by the central government and by the Department of Native Affairs within the government. This allowed a kind of syllabus to be devised and implemented that was different from the curriculum taught in white schools and seen as suited to the place in society that government intended blacks to occupy. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 stressed the need to educate black children in their own languages and to emphasize manual training, the purpose being to keep them within their own cultural group, unless they were needed as laborers outside it. Bantu Education continued to be resented until the system was abandoned after 1994: the Soweto Revolt of 1976, the first important rising against the government in almost twenty years, was motivated by dissatisfaction about the school system for blacks. In Age of Iron the boy Bheki, son of the protagonist's domestic worker, is involved in a school strike of the kind common in the 1980s.


Hendrik Verwoerd, who became Minister of Native Affairs in 1951, claimed that he had evolved an ideology of racial separation that, he continually emphasized, was to benefit blacks equally with whites. His Native Laws Amendment Bill of 1952 allowed the government to control the residence and movement of all black people in the country. For the first time, black women were forced to carry passes, and black people could not remain for more than seventy-two hours within an urban area without a pass that proved they had permission to do so. The effect of this was to criminalize, in many cases, the task of work-seeking in towns by rural people. The following year the obligation to carry a pass was altered to an obligation to carry a “reference book,” a document containing a record of its bearer's entire life, which black people of all classes were forced to produce on demand by a policeman.

In 1958, Verwoerd became prime minister. It was in the period of his rule that South Africa left the commonwealth and became a republic. He was the architect of the “homelands” plan for the black peoples of South Africa, in terms of which they were to become citizens of internally self-governing states within the borders of the country. The implementation of this policy involved massive removals of people: at least 1,820,000 black people were forced to leave the areas where they were living and settle in the areas designated for members of their tribal group. The first of these designated “homelands” (also known as Bantustans) to be established was Transkei, an area on the east coast that was allocated to the Xhosa people and given self-government (under a constitution devised by the Nationalist central government) in 1963 and nominal independence in 1976. By 1981, three other “homelands” had been given independence—none could ever challenge the South African government since they were economically dependent on it.


This rule of the majority by and for the benefit of a minority produced indignation amongst people of all groups, though Verwoerd tirelessly asserted that his policies were to the advantage of blacks as well as whites. It is impossible here to offer even an outline of the resistance to apartheid, which should be sought in one of the historical works listed in the bibliography. Only crucial moments in the struggle will be noted here. In 1960, a group of blacks went to the police station at Sharpeville to protest against the obligation to carry passes; the police seem to have panicked and shot without orders into the crowd, killing 69 people and wounding 180 others. All over the world, horror and strong disapproval were expressed; emigration from South Africa rocketed, and the stock market plummeted. Eighteen days after the massacre, the A.N.C. and its rival black political organization, the Pan-African Congress (P.A.C.), were banned. They were to remain illegal organizations until February 1990.

In 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested, and the other leaders of the A.N.C., Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Dennis Goldberg, Walter Sisulu, Rusty Bernstein, as well as the other A.N.C. leaders who had not gone into exile, were arrested the following year at Rivonia, near Johannesburg. In the “Rivonia” trial, all were charged with sabotage and all except Bernstein sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. Mandela and his colleagues disappeared to imprisonment on Robben Island and remained imprisoned and excluded from public life until 1990.16 Coetzee left South Africa in 1962—he has described his departure as “shaking the dust of South Africa off [his] feet.”17 He did not return until 1972.18

The response of government to opposition to its policies was to silence those who opposed it. The South African Broadcasting Corporation (S.A.B.C.) was obliged not only to support official policy in its broadcasts but also to suppress accounts of resistance. The powers of the police to arrest and detain people in solitary confinement without charging them with any offence were gradually extended: in 1963 they could do so for ninety days, in 1965 for a hundred and eighty, and by 1966 for an indefinite period if authorized by a judge. Torture of people being interrogated was known to occur, but the Prisons Act of 1959 made unauthorized reporting on prison conditions illegal.

In 1963, a Publications Control Board was established, the task of which was to prevent books and films that were harmful to public morals, blasphemous, or prejudicial to state security or good order from being imported from abroad or published within South Africa. Newspapers avoided government censorship by agreeing to the establishment of the Press Board of Reference in 1962, which was empowered to deal with complaints about misreporting. Journalists were put on trial, however, a famous case being that of Laurence Gandar and Benjamin Pogrund in 1967, who were accused (and acquitted on appeal) of publishing false information about prisons.

The South African literary scene in both English and Afrikaans had been a lively one for many decades, and the intervention of government to decide what might and might not be written was exceedingly unwelcome. Coetzee himself has written extensively on the subject of censorship, and his essays have been collected and published under the title Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship.19


In 1976, an obsolete directive that Afrikaans should be used in Bantu Education schools as the medium of instruction on a 50–50 basis with English was revived. As has been pointed out earlier in this chapter, Bantu Education placed great emphasis on education in the individual's home language, so this directive implied that the curriculum would be heavily burdened with languages. Moreover, Afrikaans was often seen by black people as the language of the oppressor, whereas English had the advantage of being a world language. The Bantu Education minister, M. C. Botha, refused to listen to arguments against the use of Afrikaans, and when, on June 16, 1976, a march of pupils to Orlando Football Stadium in Soweto to protest against the imposition of the language began, the police responded first with tear gas and then with bullets. It was the first incident a long series of conflicts, collectively known as the Soweto Revolt. For the rest of 1976 and the whole of 1977, schools all over South Africa continued to be burnt, and clashes between pupils and the police were frequent. Bantu Education, designed to teach black children that their place in the world was a menial one, was under fire. The outbreaks of violence in the aftermath of the revolt ceased only at the beginning of 1978, after hundreds of casualties had occurred. Despite the eventual quelling of the unrest, black people, especially the young, had learnt a new value for themselves. Large numbers of young people began to slip out of the country into neighboring states in order to train as guerillas. They returned to South Africa to fight an underground campaign against the Nationalist government.

In 1977, seventeen organizations and two newspapers were banned—all evidence of the government's loss of confidence in its ability to govern without extreme measures. It had become clear that when change came, it would be brought about by the actions of black people—and would probably involve violence. The fear that blacks have taken things into their own hands and that white attitudes and actions (and perhaps white writings) may be irrelevant permeates the critical discussions of the period.


The 1980s were therefore a period of increasing government repression and antigovernment violence. Since economic and other kinds of pressure were being brought by foreign countries on South Africa, token efforts were made by government to offer representation to “Colored” people and people of Indian descent. A “tricameral” parliament, in which the three chambers would house members of the white, “Colored,” and Indian groups respectively and in which members would be elected by their own racial communities, was proposed, and the first elections for it were held in 1984. Black African people, on the grounds that they already had voting rights in the “homelands,” were excluded.

The establishment of the tricameral parliament was an attempt to weaken resistance to government policies by dividing the peoples of South Africa, and one of the responses to this attempt was the establishment in 1983 of the United Democratic Front (U.D.F.), an extra-parliamentary organization formed to oppose this division. One of the results of its campaigns was that only 30 percent of “Colored” people and 20 percent of Indians voted in the elections for the tricameral parliament. In 1984, there were massive school stayaways and strikes in which workers and students demanded the withdrawal of the security forces then policing the townships and the release of detainees.


In July 1985 the state president, P. W. Botha, announced that a state of emergency would be imposed in thirty-six magisterial districts.20 The effect was not to quell the mounting violence in the townships but to cause it to spread, despite the fact that within three months the police had detained over five thousand people. Leaders of the resistance were mysteriously murdered, and chaos seemed to be endemic in South Africa.

The black townships in many cases had become virtually uncontrollable by police or by the troops brought in to reinforce them. The A.N.C. from outside South Africa was committed to making the townships “ungovernable” and advocated that they be administered by street committees, which would be answerable to area committees. In many cases this system worked well, but in others, especially when the leaders of the community had been arrested by government, there were excesses. Persons accused of being informers were sometimes put to death; thugs on occasion grabbed power over leaderless communities and instituted a reign of terror. In the Cape squatter community of Crossroads, a group of right-wing vigilantes seem to have been helped by the police to drive out the young radical activists known as the “comrades,” a situation that inspired much of the action of Coetzee's Age of Iron, in which an elderly white woman takes her black servant back to a squatter settlement and discovers the violence that prevails there.

On June 12, 1986, a nationwide state of emergency, even more strict than that of 1985, was proclaimed, banning all journalists from areas of unrest and insisting that all reports of unrest must be issued by the government-established Bureau of Information. This was the period in which Age of Iron was being written. The work is strongly influenced by the climate of time, in which the purpose of government was not to prevent violence (concerning which it had by this point despaired) but to prevent knowledge of it leaking into the white community and, even more, into the overseas press. The protagonist, Elizabeth Curren, resembles Dante in the Inferno in that she passes, under the influence of a guide, into another world of violence and despair, the black areas adjacent to Cape Town.


The period between 1986 and the resignation of the then state president, P. W. Botha, in 1989, was one of economic decline in the face of sanctions by America against South Africa introduced in 1986 and more limited sanctions imposed by the European Economic Community. Minor reforms were introduced, including the repeal of the Influx Control Act, which had prevented work-seekers from coming to towns, but it was not until P. W. Botha resigned as state president after suffering a stroke and was succeeded by F. W. de Klerk that negotiations with the still-banned A.N.C. began seriously to take place.

On February 2, 1990, in his speech at the opening of Parliament. F. W. de Klerk announced that the A.N.C, the P.A.C (Pan-African Congress) and the South African Communist Party (S.A.C.P.) would be unbanned.21 Mandela, still a prisoner, would be unconditionally released, political exiles would be allowed to return, and negotiations concerning a peaceful settlement of South Africa's conflicts would begin. The negotiations that followed and that led up to the first democratic elections of 1994 were difficult and took place against a background of violence of several kinds. Right-wing, white-against-black violence, A.N.C. versus Inkatha violence, and “third force” violence were widespread. This “third force,” the composition and motivation of which is still to an extent unknown, was responsible for apparently random and unmotivated violence against innocent people on trains and in the black townships.

The eventual elections, in April 1994, were peaceful and the A.N.C. secured 62.65 percent of the votes. Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president and Thabo Mbeki and the former president, F. W. de Klerk, as deputy presidents in May 1994. Their government was known as the Government of National Unity, and its task was to reorganize South Africa on a postapartheid basis. All kinds of matters—the ailing economy, labor relations, health care, and land redistribution were urgent amongst them—had to be reviewed and addressed in an entirely new way, informed by the principle that all of South Africa's citizens were equally important.

Mandela emphasized reconciliation as essential to the re-establishment of the South African state, and he himself made overtures to all kinds of persons, including those identified with the past regime. Two most important advances were made: the first, the compilation and acceptance by parliament of the new constitution for a nonracially based state, which would at the same time be nonsexist and protect the rights, including language rights, of all sections of the population, and the second, the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (T.R.C.). This was a process chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and conducted by a series of committees by which human rights violations of all kinds were investigated. Perpetrators of such violations were encouraged to confess their crimes in full and were in some cases offered amnesty if they did so.22

The period between the acceptance of the new constitution in 1996 and the present day in South Africa has not been without its problems. In particular, there has been a wave of crime of all kinds in cities and to some extent in the country, too. The necessity for health services and education to be equalized over the whole population, rather than offered very unequally to the different racial groups, has led to problems, and it has become necessary to introduce school fees, even in state schools, in order to provide anything more than the most basic facilities. The emphasis on community health has led to a decline in the availability of high technology medicine. Coetzee's last novel, Disgrace, set in the late 1990s, offers a bleak view of “transformation” in the universities and the consequent demoralization of the protagonist, David Lurie, as well as a violent assault on a farm and the schemes of a Xhosa farmer to get possession of white-owned land. Equally interesting is the incident of sexual harassment and the consequent expulsion of the protagonist, who has been guilty of it, from his university post. The new constitution, which guarantees equality between the gender groups, has allowed such matters to be for the first time a matter of discussion.


  1. Stephen Watson, “Speaking: J. M. Coetzee,” Speak 1(3), May-June 1978, p. 22.

  2. See illustration facing page

  3. The account of his travels dictated by the real-life Jacobus Coetzee, translated into English, is available in The Journals of Wikar, Coetsé and Van Reenen, edited by Dr. E. E. Mossop, (Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 1935).

  4. The San were hunter-gatherer people, physically resembling the Khoikhoi and also indigenous to the subcontinent of southern Africa.

  5. The Nguni peoples of southern Africa, who include the Matabele people of Zimbabwe as well as the Zulu and Xhosa of South Africa, are a group of black people whose languages are related. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they were pastoralists and agriculturalists.

  6. In 1834, the British governor of the Cape, Sir Benjamin D'Urban, had driven back a Xhosa invasion of the colony and had concluded his campaign by announcing the annexure of a broad band of land to the north of the colony which he intended to settle with peoples friendly to the Cape colonists. The British government was unsympathetic to this policy of expansion and forced him to hand back the land to the Xhosa.

  7. Quoted in Reader's Digest Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story, (Cape Town, London, New York, Sydney, Montreal: The Reader's Digest Association, 1995; p. 113).

  8. The name means “land across (i.e., north of) the Vaal River.”

  9. Quarterly gatherings in the nearest town to attend the eucharistic celebration of the Dutch Reformed Church.

  10. J. M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1992) pp. 341–42.

  11. See “About J. M. Coetzee,” note 8 for a discussion of the “Colored” people of the Cape Province.

  12. Ibid., pp. 96–8.

  13. None of the indigenous peoples of South Africa other than the “Colored” people had ever possessed the right to vote until the first democratic election of 1994.

  14. David Attwell, J. M. Coetzee and the Politics of Writing, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, p. 25).

  15. For Coetzee's sense of the “Colored” people of the Cape Province, see his review of Breyten Breytenbach's Dogheart in Stranger Shores, pp. 252–54.

  16. The completeness of this “disappearance” depended on the fact that they could not be quoted in print, nor could any photograph of them be published in the period 1964–1990. A whole generation of South Africans grew up knowing nothing of the men and women involved in resistance in the 1960s.

  17. Doubling the Point, p. 393.

  18. See Chapter One, “About J. M. Coetzee,”

  19. J. M. Coetzee, Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

  20. The illustration facing lists the special powers of the police in the State of Emergency.

  21. The S.A.C.P. had been banned since 1950, and its former members had worked, at first underground in South Africa and later in exile, in alliance with the A.N.C, to bring about political change.

  22. Readers interested in knowing more about the Truth and Reconciliation Committee should read Antje Krog's Country of My Skull, (Johannesburg: Random House, 1998; London: Cape, 1999). Krog was a reporter during the period when the T.R.C. was taking submissions from the public, and she includes in her text, besides the testimonies of victims and perpetrators, discussion of assaults on farmers and their families such as are described by Coetzee in Disgrace.

The Works Of J. M. Coetzee

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 24142

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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5388


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 considerably briefer than J. M. Coetzee's version. The latter has appended a shortened version of this original account, claimed to be translated by “the late Dr S. J. Coetzee,” as well as an introduction to the account, which is uncritically admiring of this trekboer ancestor of the present-day Afrikaner, presumably to provide a traditional version of the eighteenth century explorer's tale, with all its prejudices and unconscious or willful omissions. The introduction serves as an example of the uncritically admiring spirit in which such accounts were, until the last decade of the twentieth century, generally received.

Jacobus Coetzee's is not the only or the best-known account of travels in southern Africa to survive from the period. J. M. Coetzee's essay “Idleness in South Africa”2 lists many, of which the student will probably find Peter Kolb's3 and Anders Spaarman's4 accounts most useful. Kolb's travels took place somewhat earlier than Jacobus Coetzee's and Spaarman's a little later, but as J. M. Coetzee's essay points out, most travelers in the Cape hinterland were so strongly influenced by the European norms with which they had grown up, and by each other's accounts, that their descriptions of the Khoikhoi and the San resemble each other.

Two travelers, John Barrow and Henry Lichtenstein, are interesting because they consciously write in opposition to each other and their views on the treatment of the Khoikhoi and the San are diametrically opposed.5 Barrow, who published two volumes entitled Travels into the Interior of Southern Africa in 1802 and 1806 respectively, was an official of the first, temporary British administration at the Cape (1795–1803). Lichtenstein was a member of the staff of de Mist, one of the officials who came in 1803 to repossess the Cape in the name of the Dutch. His account of the period he spent at the Cape, also in two volumes, appeared in a German edition in 1810–1812, and was translated into English almost at once, in 1812, under the title Travels in Southern Africa in the Years 1803, 1804, 1805, and 1806. Barrow, whose underlying belief is that British colonists should come to the Cape and take permanent possession of it, claims that the Cape Dutch are unworthy colonists, inhuman in their treatment of the indigenous peoples. Lichtenstein, attached to the Dutch administration, on the other hand argues that Barrow is utterly mistaken: the Cape Dutch are the most generous and humane of slave masters, and the Khoikhoi and San are idle and ungrateful laborers. Together, the two accounts demonstrate how subjective the views of travelers were and how in all cases they judged indigenous peoples by the ease or difficulty with which they could be incorporated into the economy of the colonist. Jacobus Coetzee's fictional narrative in Dusklands shows him to have similar (if more extreme and self-centered) attitudes but focuses on what eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travelers omitted from their accounts and the motives that they would in most cases deny, or at least refrain from, recording.

Foe, as its title as well as its action makes clear, is “writing back” to what is generally considered the ur-text of colonialism, Robinson Crusoe.6 Defoe's fake autobiography—it was an essential part of the effect of the work in the eighteenth century that it should be presented, not as a fiction, but as an authentic account by a traveler of his experiences—is that of an Englishman of the merchant middle class. Both his gender and his class-placing are vital to the narrative in the period, when the public and economic sphere was reserved for men and British prosperity was founded on commerce. Robinson Crusoe is permeated by that strong value for thrift, ingenuity and Protestant Christianity that distinguished the merchant class. Crusoe is not particularly courageous, since courage is a virtue of the aristocracy as the military and governing class, but he is God-fearing, calculating, diligent, persistent, and resourceful. He saves everything possible from the wreck of the ship on which he was traveling and puts almost all of it to good use. After an understandable period of depression following the wreck, he recovers his faith in God and in himself and starts on the long struggle to turn the island into a flourishing colony. In the twenty-eight years that he spends on the island, most of them alone, he remains the same determined, optimistic man who came to the island. When he obtains company by rescuing a man who is about to be sacrificed, he at once names him (the characteristic act of the colonizer), and turns him into a slave. Indeed he never doubts his right to subject all who come to the island to his purposes. It is clear that human affections are relatively unimportant in his scale of values: when he leaves the island, after re-assuming conduct of his affairs, he mentions, amongst much discussion of his finances, that he marries, but his wife and the three children whom she bears him occupy only a part of one sentence.

Two other novels by Defoe are important in the reading of Foe: Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress7 and Moll Flanders.8 Perhaps the most haunting episode of Roxana is Roxana's daughter's finding of her mother, who has left the family and wishes to conceal herself and the way in which she lingers around the mother's lodging, insisting on seeing her. The narrator of Foe, Susan Barton, has also lost her daughter and has gone to Brazil in search of her; she is, however, disconcerted when an unknown girl, whom she believes to have been sent by Foe (so called within Coetzee's novel), claims to be her daughter. The implication seems to be that Defoe/Foe will distort the truth in the interests of his fiction. Foe himself tells Susan what seems to be the germ of Moll Flanders, in which a woman criminal continually confesses to more and more crimes.

The Master of Petersburg is not, as are the earlier works, a writing-back to its source novel but a work that draws on and adds to its source, Dostoevsky's The Possessed.9 Coetzee takes as the factual basis for his fiction Dostoevsky's return to Petersburg during the period when the police were rounding up the members of a student anarchist organization led by a man called Nechaev. Equally important in his novel is the investigation of the grief felt by a father on the death of an adult son; Coetzee's own son had died at the age of twenty-two in 1989.

The Possessed portrays Russian liberal and intellectual society of the nineteenth century, with its interminable but ineffectual discussions of the wrongs of the country, and shows that one of the reactions to this substitution of talk for effective action could be an embracing of violence and anarchy.

Age of Iron, in which the narrator is a former teacher of classics, contains echoes of Dante's Inferno, in which the protagonist, Dante himself, makes his way down to the dead and visits those condemned to eternal punishment. Like Dante, who is guided by the Roman poet Virgil, Elizabeth Curren, the protagonist of Age of Iron has a guide, the vagrant Verceuil, and like Dante again, Curren hears from those she meets about their fate and that of their fellows.


Coetzee has claimed that Nabokov, Beckett, and Kafka have been influential over him,10 and he has, in his essay “Farm Novel and Plaasroman,”11 considered the “antipastoral,” the mode in which Olive Schreiner, in The Story of an African Farm12 as he says, “follows the myth [of the pastoral] only negatively.”13 There can be no doubt that this “antipastoral” form and tone has been important to him in the writing of In the Heart of the Country.

Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm was not only the first important novel to be written by a South African, it was also boldly unrealistic in that Schreiner has inserted “meditations”—“Times and Seasons” is an example—into the narrative. The novel uses a remote farm in the Karoo and the people who live there or visit it to represent South African settler life—the indigenous peoples on the farm and elsewhere are relatively unimportant in Schreiner's view at this stage of her life. This contention, that settler society is the only significant one on the subcontinent, is taken up in “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee” in Dusklands, where a single trekboer is used to represent the whole expansionist colonial culture, but it is much more apparent in In the Heart of the Country, where Magda's farm is a microcosm of South Africa in its problems and in its peoples. Schreiner's novel has a strong feminist element: the heroine, Lyndall, feels stifled in the sexist settler culture in which she is obliged to live, as does Magda in In the Heart of the Country.

A later work by Olive Schreiner, Thoughts on South Africa14 is useful to the student of Coetzee in that its most important subject is the Cape Dutch, the “Boers” as Schreiner and her English-speaking contemporaries tended to call them. Coetzee has claimed that he himself is not an Afrikaner (the present-day term for the descendants of the Cape Dutch) but he is of Afrikaans descent and has been preoccupied with Afrikaners in his fiction. The chapters in Thoughts on South Africa entitled “The Boer,” “The Problem of Slavery,” and “The Wanderings of the Boer” are particularly important to an understanding of the social customs to which Magda makes reference in In the Heart of the Country and to an understanding of the relationship between the farmer and his employees. Schreiner lived in the time when rural Cape Dutch culture was still strong, as she shows in the chapter of The Story of an African Farm entitled “A Dutch Wedding,” and much of Thoughts on South Africa is concerned with what was valuable—and what was racist in that culture. Coetzee has said in an interview15 that rural Afrikaans culture is now dead, and In the Heart of the Country may be said to be a microcosmic chronicle of rural society after its demise. Because this culture belongs to the recent past of the narrator's family, however, Magda often reflects on it, and both feels nostalgia for it and dislikes its patriarchy. Schreiner's feelings for it—she had been a governess in a Cape Dutch family in her youth—seem to have been similar.

Although Coetzee has considered the language of Alan Paton's famous Cry, the Beloved Country16 at some length in his critical work, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa,17 and clearly respects both Paton's sincerity and the realism that allows him to face the fact that the old, feudal order has passed away forever, Paton's Christianity and liberalism are alien to him. Paton's later work, Too Late the Phalarope18 which vividly portrays the white racism and sexism of a small South African town, offers an unforgettable picture of an Afrikaans community, with all its qualities and defects, and may be useful as background reading to Coetzee.

In the first interview in Doubling the Point,19 Coetzee agrees that Beckett, whose English fiction was important in his doctoral dissertation, has “given [him] a sensuous delight that hasn't dimmed over the years.”20 He speaks of his pleasure in Beckett's English fictions, including Molloy and The Unnamable21 Both of these (and Beckett's Malone Dies) are highly crafted monologues, in which the narrators do not allow the reader to distinguish between speaker and subject matter, and it is never clear what is delusion and what actual occurrences. The pleasure in the rural scenery that the narrators express is great, and they do encounter and believe themselves to exchange with others, but the reader has no way of knowing what, if anything, is happening. The linguistic richness of the works as well as the mode must remind the reader of Coetzee's Dusklands and, even more, of In the Heart of the Country.

Coetzee has mentioned Nabokov's Pale Fire22 as a strong influence on his writing, as it was on that of many writers of the 1970s. It seems clear that he is thinking of the narrative technique of the work, in which a figural narrator offers a commentary on a poem written by a recently dead poet, John Shade. It gradually emerges that the narrator has forced his friendship on Shade, attempting to persuade him to write of his preoccupations rather than the poet's own. Though the reader is never sure how self-deceiving the narrator is—is he really the exiled king of Zembla, or is he an admirer of that king who gradually and increasingly identifies with him?—the commentary on the poem, in which the narrator constructs an interpretation that relates entirely to his own concerns, is a parody of literary criticism. By the end of the novel, a few facts about the situation are available to the reader, one of them being that the narrator is a madman, and most of his narrative is definitely discredited. But since that narrative can only be self-discrediting, since other than through the poem by Shade that precedes it, the reader has no access to the situation except through this unreliable narrator, the reader's ingenuity in assembling the facts of the situation is crucial.

Both Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country resemble Pale Fire in that their narrators are the reader's sole means of access to events, and in the cases of all three narrators, Eugene Dawn, Jacobus Coetzee, and Magda, it becomes increasingly clear to the reader that they are self-deceiving and cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Franz Kafka's works, especially perhaps The Trial23 and some of the short stories, seem to have been important to Coetzee in that they deal with consciousness and the way in which they offer a portrait of the individual as well as what he perceives. The figure “K” in The Trial (and despite Nadine Gordimer's assertion in her review of Life and Times of Michael K24 the reader seems to be justified in making some connection between them) is the innocent in the hands of an unjust state, a pawn in the hands of corrupt administrators of justice, who can only, whatever he does, make his case worse. At an early stage, however, he begins to act the suspect and comes to accept the treatment that he receives as inevitable, if not just. Distorted consciousness is a principal subject of Dusklands and of In the Heart of the Country.

Coetzee's main debt to Kafka seems to be his conviction that injustice and corrupt politics may well be represented cogently but indirectly through metaphor. Famous examples of Kafka's practice in this respect occur in his short stories, “Metamorphosis,” “Investigations of a Dog,” and “The Burrow.”25 In these stories the predicament of the focalizer or narrator is at times grotesque, but it is generally pitiable: the man who awakes transformed into a dung beetle in “Metamorphosis” is the perhaps the best example of this. In “Investigations of a Dog,” the “racism”—the coinage “speciesism” is more appropriate—of the dog, complacently reflecting on the many virtues of his kind, must evoke Jacobus Coetzee. “The Burrow,” in which a small animal reflects on what he has constructed to keep him safe from a determined predator, the Beast, has affinities in its pathos with Michael K. Kafka prefers in his stories this kind of use of metaphor to any attempt at realism, and Coetzee resembles him in this respect. Both authors are prepared to allow the impact of their work to depend on analogies made by the reader.

South African novels, contemporary with Coetzee's, which have influenced his, or which, by their differences from and similarities to his work, throw light on his practice.

Especially in the 1970s and 1980s, J. M. Coetzee's work was frequently compared with that of other South African novelists, like Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink, and Breyten Breytenbach, as well as with other, lesser-known figures.

The most important contemporary of Coetzee who has commented on his work, as he has on hers, and whose practice is very different from his, though her subject matter at times is similar, is Nadine Gordimer. Gordimer's first novel, The Lying Days, appeared in 1953, twenty-one years before Dusklands, Coetzee's first work of fiction, but during the period in which he has been writing novels, 1974 until the present day, she too has been continuously productive. All Coetzee's fiction is concerned with South Africa, either directly or indirectly; Gordimer's work deals overtly and realistically with South African matters, and she generally writes about the present or the immediate past of the country. Colonialism, in which Coetzee has declared his interest, is not a direct interest of hers, except in so far as Apartheid is a late and extreme manifestation of colonialism. Unlike Coetzee, Gordimer is unwilling to use allegory to reflect on the affairs of South Africa, and she has shown herself somewhat impatient with Coetzee, despite her admiration for his novels, when he has persisted in this indirectness.26

The texts that are most often compared are Gordimer's The Conservationist and Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country.The Conservationist, which appeared in 1974, has, like In the Heart of the Country, as one of its main themes the debate about the ownership of land. Coetzee has commented that it is “in every way a worthy follower of The Story of an African Farm in the antipastoral tradition.27” Gordimer, in The Conservationist, looks at what constitutes ownership of a farm for a white businessman whose actual income comes from the modern sector, from which blacks are excluded except as miserably paid laborers. She analyzes, as does Coetzee, the relationship between the black farm workers and the white owner, as well as the white owner's relationship with his son and his mistress—his capacity, in fact, to achieve real connection with his fellow human beings. Like Coetzee in his analysis of human relationships in In the Heart of the Country, she sees that all these relationships are based on power or the expectation of profit. Patriarchy, an important theme in In the Heart of the Country, is now debased into a simpler exercise of inherited power: Mehring, the protagonist, has used racial and gender-based privilege to make himself rich, and the reader comes to understand that the effect of his power and wealth has been to isolate him—as Magda's position as the white daughter of a white Afrikaans farmer has isolated her.

Gordimer's Burger's Daughter first appeared in 1979, two years after the Soweto Revolt, in the aftermath of which it ends. It is perhaps the finest of all Gordimer's novels, and in the overtness with which the author deals with political matters, perhaps the strongest contrast with Coetzee's. It contrasts two periods of resistance to Apartheid, the late fifties and sixties when the Treason Trial (1957–1961) and the Rivonia Trial (1963–1964) took place and white and black activists were equally involved in resistance, and the post-Soweto Revolt seventies, when the role of whites in the struggle had diminished to one supportive of black activists. This sense that white liberals or radicals are marginal to the struggle is prominent in Coetzee's work: it appears in Michael K, where the medical officer in the camp reflects on the irrelevance of his work, in Age of Iron, where it is made clear that the conflict is between the forces of reaction, in the persons of the right-wing police force and army and the black youths from the townships, and that liberals of the type of the protagonist are powerless. In Coetzee's most recent novel, Disgrace, the protagonist, David Lurie, is a victim of this feeling of political impotence.

Gordimer's next novel, July's People, appeared in 1981, after the Soweto Revolt had indicated the power of black resistance to Apartheid and when acts of sabotage and other kinds of urban violence were spreading throughout South Africa.28 This work, which deals with a family of middle-class whites who take refuge at the remote kraal of their domestic servant, July, after the collapse of the South African state, resembles in the time period that it speculatively represents Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K, which appeared in 1983. Both works are set in a future that the tendencies of the early 1980s suggested was close at hand, a period of civil war in which the cities would become uninhabitable. Neither novel is partisan in the sense of supporting one faction rather than the other: their interest is in what must happen after the inevitable collapse takes place. The obvious differences in mode between the two novels—Michael K comes close to being an allegorical romance, whilst July's People is committed to the realism which is characteristic of Gordimer—are suggestive of their authors' literary beliefs.

Gordimer's review of Michael K, “The Idea of Gardening,29” argues that allegory, which is Coetzee's mode in Waiting for the Barbarians as well as in Michael K, is a choice of mode made by Coetzee “out of a kind of opposing desire to hold himself clear of events and their daily, grubby consequences, in which, like everyone else in South Africa, he is up to the neck.” Allegory—and Gordimer believes that Dusklands is also allegorical30—is, she claims, “a stately fastidiousness” that renders Coetzee's work “the North Pole to which the agitprop of agonized black writers … was the South Pole.” Gordimer takes the matter further by questioning the idea, integral to Michael K, that there is “an idea of survival that can be realized entirely outside a political doctrine.”

In her disapproval of allegory and her belief that the South African writer ought to make formal political commitments in novels, Gordimer is defending her own practice in a way that is familiar in the literary criticism of creative writers. It is likely, however, that she was not entirely uninfluenced by Coetzee. Her next publication, Something Out There31 is a collection of stories together with a novella that gives the collection its name. This novella, a portrayal of several different areas of South African society, including a group of guerillas who are waiting for the moment when they can perform an act of sabotage, has her characteristic realism but is dominated by “something out there,” an unknown animal, possibly a species of ape, that appears to people when they least expect it. This allegorical figure of dread is silently equated to the presence of the guerillas on the periphery of the different social groups. Significantly, the volume contains a piece entitled “Letter from his Father,” conceived of as a reply to an unsent letter of Kafka's, which reproaches his father with his gross manners and inability to understand his son. It is clear that both authors have an admiration for Kafka as a modernist pioneer and that his metaphoric use of a focalizer or narrator to represent a human predicament has influenced both.

Directly comparable with Coetzee's Disgrace in that they deal with the problem of violence in South Africa in the 1990s are Gordimer's novels None to Accompany Me32 and The House Gun.33 Like Disgrace, they are for the most part set amongst whites, though, like that novel, they acknowledge that blacks and whites are moving closer to each other and that whites are being obliged to make way for blacks as authority figures. The acts of violence of None to Accompany Me take place for the most part between blacks and may therefore be comparable to those of Age of Iron in the passages that depict the violence between different factions in the black townships. The House Gun, in most ways inferior to None to Accompany Me, is important in that it focuses on the ways in which violence permeates through a society and affects the behavior of its members, a major theme of Disgrace.

A second author, André Brink, deserves mention in the group of Coetzee's contemporaries, though his work is more “popular” in the sense of “middle-brow” than is that of Coetzee or Gordimer. Brink too has seen himself as an historian of apartheid, and of his many novels, Rumours of Rain34 and A Dry White Season35 are probably the most important for Coetzee scholars. Rumours of Rain is directly comparable with Gordimer's The Conservationist in that both deal with corrupt businessmen in their relationship to a farm and therefore to land ownership and that both protagonists are self-absorbed to the extent of having no relationships based on the affections with others. Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country, which belongs to the same period as both these novels, equally has the theme of legitimate ownership of land and of the self-absorbed individual who has none but functional relationships with others. Given these similarities between their themes, it is the differences in mode that are interesting. As has been observed elsewhere in this essay, Coetzee has chosen to create in Magda a narrator who is metaphorically representative of the white South African, rather than a typical contemporary figure of the late 1970s.

A Dry White Season tells the story of a white man who, because of a minor involvement with a black family that has suffered the deaths of two members at the hands of the security police, decides to find out what has happened to these lost people. His investigations take him further and further into knowledge of the evils of repression and state violence. He gradually becomes estranged from his family—indeed, one of his children betrays him “for his own good,” and he presumably dies at the hands of the security police. The man, Ben Du Toit, is presented as an heroic common man, not particularly ambitious or talented, but with principles that oblige him to investigate evil when he is faced with it. Where the work bears on Coetzee's novels is in the way that it shows that whites under Apartheid had the option of remaining unaware of the nightmares of black life and of the murderous interventions of the Security Police. Though A Dry White Season is a post-Soweto novel, and the Revolt is a minor subject within the work (the eldest son of the black family is imprisoned and eventually killed because of his involvement in the Revolt) the larger theme, that of the semi-willful ignorance of whites, and the obligation on them to learn what is happening to their fellow-citizens, is Coetzee's preoccupation in Age of Iron, where the protagonist embarks on a journey into knowledge of black lives and therefore of the true nature of the society in which she lives.

Karel Schoeman's Promised Land,36 which had first appeared in 1973 and had been translated into English in 1978, is the first South African novel of the “fictions of the future” genre to appear, and one of the most interesting. Though it is much earlier than Gordimer's July's People and Coetzee's Michael K, it is clearly a member of the same group in that it deals with the fate of Afrikaners after a black takeover in South Africa. The Afrikaners continue to insist on living separately and have an exaggerated value for their “culture,” which the novel reveals as being worthless—the sentimental preservation of a few relics of a richer past. The young males of the small community, if they look as though they might give trouble, are culled by the real powerholders of the state. Coetzee's remark, referred to above, that rural Afrikaans culture is now dead, is amply exemplified in this work.

Though Coetzee, at least in the late seventies, felt that the work that was being produced by contemporary black writers was not of great interest,37 the writers who published “Soweto” novels, that is to say, novels that dealt with the events and aftermath of the Soweto Revolt, deserve to be studied together with Coetzee's work, if only because they were in the minds of critics who censured Coetzee for indirectness and elitism. Sipho Sepamla's A Ride on the Whirlwind38 and Mongane Serote's To Every Birth Its Blood39 are novels that will repay reading for the engaged and “committed” accounts that they give of the violence of black life. Call Me Not a Man, by Mtutuzeli Matshob,40 is a volume of short stories about black South African life, which has been compared by the critic Michael Vaughan41 to Coetzee's work. All of these authors exemplify the attitudes and practices that in the 1980s were preferred by many critics to Coetzee's intellectually demanding texts.


  1. This text, translated into English, is available in The Journals of Wikar, Coetsé and Van Reenen, edited by Dr. E. E. Mossop, (Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 1935).

  2. J. M. Coetzee, “Idleness in South Africa,” in White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, pp. 12–35.

  3. Kolb, Peter, The Present State of the Cape of Good Hope, translated by Medley; 2 vols. (London: Innys, 1731).

  4. Anders Spaarman, A Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope … 1772–1776. Edited by V. S. Forbes. (Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 1975)

  5. John Barrow, Travels into the Interior of Southern Africa, 2 vols. (London: Cadell and Davis, 1802 & 1806); Henry Lichtenstein, Travels in Southern Africa in the Years 1803, 1804, 1805 and 1806, translated by Anne Plumptre, (Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 1928 (1812)).

  6. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, (London: Penguin, 1988 (1719)).

  7. Daniel Defoe, Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (London, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1969 (1724)).

  8. Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978 (1722)).

  9. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Possessed, translated by Constance Garnett (London: Heinemann, 1920). First published in Russian in 1781–1782.

  10. See J. M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press), pp. 20–2.

  11. J. M. Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988), pp. 63–81.

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

  13. White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, p. 66.

  14. Olive Schreiner, Thoughts on South Africa, (Parklands, Johannesburg: Ad. Donker, 1992).

  15. Watson, Stephen. 1978. “Speaking with J. M. Coetzee,” Speak 1(3) May/June, pp. 21–4.

  16. Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country, (New York: Scribner's, 1948).

  17. White Writing, pp. 126–29.

  18. Alan Paton, Too Late the Phalarope, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1953).

  19. "Beckett,” in Doubling the Point, pp. 17–30.

  20. Ibid., p. 20.

  21. Samuel Beckett, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, (London: Calder and Boyars, 1959).

  22. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962).

  23. Kafka, Franz, The Trial, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972).

  24. Nadine Gordimer, “The Idea of Gardening,” New York Review of Books, February 2, 1984, pp. 3, 6. See “Critical Summary” for further discussion of this review.

  25. Franz Kafka, Collected Stories, (London: Everyman, 1993).

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

  27. White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, p. 81.

  28. See “J. M. Coetzee and His Era.”

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

  30. See “Preoccupations and Techniques: Analogy and Allegory” for further discussion of this matter.

  31. Nadine Gordimer, Something Out There, (Braamfontein: Ravan, 1984).

  32. Nadine Gordimer, None to Accompany Me, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1994).

  33. Nadine Gordimer, The House Gun.

  34. Andre Brink, Rumours of Rain, (London: W. H. Allen 1978).

  35. Andre Brink, A Dry White Season, (London: W. H. Allen, 1979).

  36. Karel Schoeman, Promised Land, translated into English from Afrikaans by Marion V. Friedmann (New York: Summit Books).

  37. In an interview, which he gave in 1978, he said of black writers, “There are a lot of unskilled, unpracticed writers working with models which I regard as very dubious. But it's a description which can be belied at any moment by the emergence of one or two black writers who can achieve the necessary distance from their immediate situation.” “Speaking: J. M. Coetzee.” Speak 1(3), May-June 1978, p. 23.

  38. Sipho Sepamla, A Ride on the Whirlwind, (Johannesburg: Ad. Donker, 1981).

  39. Mongane Serote, To Every Birth Its Blood, (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1981).

  40. Mtutuzeli Matshoba, Call Me Not a Man, (Johannesburg: Ravan Press. 1979).

  41. Vaughan, Michael. “Literature and Politics: Currents in South African Writing in the Seventies.” Journal of Southern African Studies 9(1) 1982, pp. 120–38.


Coetzee, J. M.