The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 9, 2002

South Africa’s voice of the people
Manju Jaidka

J.M. Coetzee
J.M. Coetzee

MY personal association with J. M. Coetzee dates back to the early ’nineties. I was then at Warren House, the English Department of Harvard University, on a postdoctoral Fulbright Award. It was my first trip to the USA and I confess, I was somewhat disoriented. And then I befriended two visiting professors from South Africa: Dorothy Driver and John Coetzee.

John Coetzee. The name meant nothing to me then, but rummaging around at the Widener Library and the Harvard Book Store, I discovered that Coetzee was an acclaimed South African novelist whose awards included the CNA Prize (South Africa’s premier literary award), the Booker Prize, the Prix Etranger Femina, the Jerusalem Prize, and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize. Oh, well, did that take my breath away!

A dinner at their flat was the beginning of a brief but pleasant relationship. I am indebted to John and Dorothy for the warmth they extended in an otherwise cold and indifferent environment. At the end of their three-month assignment, they returned to Cape Town and I stayed on for another few months at Harvard. Before leaving, John presented me two of his books with a warm inscription on the title page.


Since the Harvard days, even though there has been infrequent correspondence between us, I have become something of a Coetzee-watcher and have been keeping a close tab on his works. If I were to describe his writings, I would perhaps begin with a reference to his remarks on Salman Rushdie: "Identity… has hovered as a problem over Salman Rushdie’s head for most of his life. India is where his imagination lives. Yet as a British citizen of Muslim ancestry and, since Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, of indeterminate residence, it has become less and less easy for him to assert, when he writes about India, the country of his birth, that he writes as an insider." In Coetzee’s case, such an identity problem does not exist. South Africa is where his imagination lives and where he himself resides, teaching at the University of Cape Town, taking time off occasionally for various academic assignments in the USA. So his South African identity is never in doubt.

A white man from South Africa, Coetzee is deeply rooted in his environment, he belongs to the land and people, can commiserate with their sufferings and feel the deep pain of social chasms caused by the country’s political history. He writes as an insider, presenting the true story of South Africa to the world. It is not simply the story of a nation emerging from the throes of colonial rule, but goes far deeper. How does the white settler feel when authority resides in other hands? What is it like for the oppressed when they finally break free and come into power? Coetzee’s novels tell us that there is no turning your back on a nation’s history, for history continues to live in the present, and into the future, moulding the character and actions of the people it involves.

This theme enters all his novels mutatis mutandis. The action invariably takes place in Dusklands (the title of a 1977 novel) and yet, something in them transcends spatial boundaries, making the experience palpable even to readers far removed from the locale. Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and Life and Times of Michael K (1983), for instance, have a specific chronotopic situation, yet the reverberations of their stories can be felt and understood by readers across the globe. Coetzee’s sympathies are for the underdog, the meek and the downtrodden.

It is his ability to see the other’s point of view that informs Foe (1986), a revisionist and experimental novel. Based on the story of Robinson Crusoe, Coetzee’s novel focuses attention not on the castaway but another character who is inserted into the well-known story to view it from a totally different perspective. A woman called Sue Barton is brought into the eponymous hero’s exclusive domain in such a way as to make the story relevant to the present times – times when the academia prefers to view a text not from the conventional centre but from the point of view of the ‘other.’ So the familiar story is presented from the standpoint of a woman placed in an all-male scenario, a woman representing the minority, the marginalised, or the silenced other.

The Age of Iron (1990), takes the form of a letter-diary from Mrs. Curren, a former classics professor facing imminent death from cancer. The horrors of Apartheid are revealed through her descriptions of events that turn the social fabric topsy-turvy. The same theme is explored from a different angle in the recent Booker-winning Disgrace (1999), which begins as the story of a Professor of English driven into professional disgrace after experiencing physical intimacy with a student, but ultimately unfolds as the tale of the white man in South Africa. Racial hatred is laid bare and the harsh, ugly realities of post-apartheid South Africa, are foregrounded. There is no doubt that apartheid is horrifying, but the post-apartheid condition is equally vicious, substituting one form of social malaise for another.

Coetzee is not a writer given to confessional outpourings. He insists on keeping the private out of his writings. Yet, he is capable of recreating personal experiences, as seen from his Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997) which gives a graphic description of his growing years. Strictly speaking, the novel is not autobiographical as it uses the third person instead of the first person singular. But the insights are deeply personal and there is little doubt that it is the young Coetzee we encounter in the narrative.

While childhood is generally seen as an idyllic time when trailing clouds of glory come from the heaven that is our home, Coetzee gives us an unusual account, stripping childhood of its glamour, presenting it as "a time of gritting the teeth and enduring". Here, again, interwoven into the personal narrative, is the writer’s favourite theme of inter-racial relationships between the white coloniser, the local Afrikaan, and the white settler. Coetzee’s loyalties are divided and he straddles different worlds. He is not judgmental since he is capable of a multi-perspective appreciation of his milieu. So he simply presents reality, no matter how disquieting, before the reader without any dogma or moralising.

No matter what his subject, John Coetzee is undeniably a formidable writer today. He has to be taken seriously for there is no nonsense or flamboyance about him: each sentence, each phrase is deliberately chosen and falls like the stroke of a hammer. As a writer, he stands head and shoulders above other contemporary writers. True, he has received recognition for his works, including two Bookers and the Commonwealth Prize, but I’d like to think – and I’m confident – that the best of Coetzee is yet to come. Perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future, the Nobel Prize for Literature will go to another South African novelist – my friend, John Coetzee.