John Maxwell Coetzee | Critical Essay by T. Kai Norris Easton

This literature criticism consists of approximately 25 pages of analysis & critique of John Maxwell Coetzee.
This section contains 7,204 words
(approx. 25 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by T. Kai Norris Easton

SOURCE: "Text and Hinterland: J. M. Coetzee and the South African Novel," in Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 21, No. 4, December, 1995, pp. 585-99.

In the following essay, Easton suggests that Coetzee places his novels in settings other than South Africa in order to symbolically emphasize himself as a "regional" writer, highlighting as he does the feelings of displacement of most South Africans.

There is a certain paradox in placing a writer in a national or regional context, especially a writer like J. M. Coetzee who has distanced himself from such a reading. However, as much as his novels and scholarly criticism range well beyond a South African terrain, they also track this course—at times—quite deliberately. Think only of 'The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee' in the second half of Dusklands or his collection of essays, White Writing. This article will explore the ambivalent space of Coetzee's fiction with particular reference to Life & Times of Michael K and Age of Iron. His novels retreat and roam; like Michael K, they root themselves 'nowhere'. But the South African base is there—in the Cape, from which his stories emigrate. As such, Coetzee's oeuvre might be seen as a series of 'travelling texts' which reinscribes, by dislocation, a South African topography. Indeed, Coetzec's work carries a double tendency towards the South African landscape: one which is concurrently removed and engaged. If it draws heavily from a European tradition, it also drifts in and out of a local one. The question I wish to pose is this: Is there a way to discuss Coetzee's narratives as 'South African' without reducing his novels to a reading of the 'nation'? Or to phrase it differently, can his novels be read as 'national' texts precisely for their fragmented South Africanness—a 'nationality' which presupposes diversity and a mingling of cultures and forms? The discussion which follows makes use of a dispersal of spatial terms. They are not, in any way, meant to contain Coetzee's fiction in a South African context, nor to imply that his fiction is self-containing. Rather, it will be argued that—perhaps against all intentions—his novels offer a new kind of mapmaking which opens up the space of South African fiction.


J. M. Coetzee's fiction-writing career spans two decades and seven novels. Since the publication of Dusklands in 1974 to The Master of Petersburg, released last year, Coetzee has consistently written against the grain, purposefully evasive of commitment to any particular mode of discourse—be it academic, political, intellectual, or literary. Instead, his fiction has crossed boundaries, twisting and bending South Africa's literary frontiers. He has parodied the explorer narrative, the farm novel (or plaasroman) and the traveller's tale, interrogating in his fiction, as well as in his criticism, colonial and apartheid mythologies of land and settlement, possession and ownership.

What is significant is the way in which Coetzee's textual practices and literary landscapes are constantly on the move. His most recent work, for example, published in the year of apartheid's collapse, is set in the late years of tsarist Russia.

That Coetzee steers clear of a South African setting at the height of its most historic political reforms is not surprising, considering that while his sixth novel, Age of Iron, gave us a realist locale—Cape Town in the 1980s—Foe, as its predecessor, had taken on Daniel Defoe's eighteenth-century England and Robinson Crusoe's island. In terms of the South African literary debate, then, where exactly do the novels of J. M. Coetzee fit in?

The Times Literary Supplement marked South Africa's first all-race elections with a special issue focussing, as one might expect, on the anticipated changes to come, on the new politics and the new literature. On the latter, Elleke Boehmer wrote, 'What South African fiction could use more of is narrative structure that embraces choice or, if you will, stories that juggle generic options'. A decade earlier, Njabulo S. Ndebele had called for writers to be 'storytellers, not just casemakers'.

Many others have echoed Ndehele's words. Bessie Head tried to imagine worlds beyond, writing in Tales of Tenderness and Power: 'Possibly too, southern Africa might one day become the home of the storyteller and dreamer…'. It was Albie Sachs, however, in his revolutionary 'Preparing Ourselves for Freedom' address to the ANC in 1989, who made the debate popular—or, at least, controversial—in his proposal that writers should refrain from saying, 'Culture is a weapon of the struggle' for a minimum period of five years. More recently he tells Christopher Hope in a BBC Radio 3 programme, 'There are things to celebrate now, as well as to decry'. But there are writers on the other side of the debate, like Mongane Wally Serote and Keorapetse Kgositsile, who argue that a direct engagement with South African realities is absolutely crucial. The writer and critic 'must be steeped in reality', says Kgositsile, for this is the 'point of departure for any hardnosed imaginative search or exploration'.

How then to decide what aesthetic criteria should be, what the level of relevance? How do realism and postmodernism accommodate a changing society—and is either mode more suitable than the other? In a 'new' South Africa, after so many years of apartheid, of banning and censorship, the question is whether now isn't the time, as Ian Steadman says, to move into 'new terrain'. But if this new terrain is to embrace all cultures, can writing be subject to prescription, can there be a single form and a single view? J. M. Coetzee rejects the notion that there is a certain role the writer should play. 'The alternative which he would have us consider is "whether there might not be a whole spectrum of valid literature open to Africa"'. Within this debate, then, Coetzee would seem to occupy a more inclusive middle ground. In terms of his own work, however, he would have a closer affinity with the first group of writers. A remarkable craftsman, Coetzee is careful and deliberate in his writing, candid and provocative in his interview responses. What we see is a very self-conscious, highly allusive, and playful approach to language and literature—playful in irony and understatement, his dry humour subtly pervading his texts and commentary—but there is an utter seriousness and attentiveness there as well. As Debra Castillo notes in an article on Dusklands:

Thus this game theorist clearly, casually, and brutally articulates the underlying theoretical debate about the role of fiction in South African reality and suggestively positions the novel within that debate.

Not everyone, however, is enamoured with Coetzee's style or technique. A writing which tends towards the metafictional and the non-specific, his 'aesthetics of ambiguity' has disgruntled some critics, who see his work as overrun with 'strategies' and 'gaming'. James Booth applauds Paul Rich's article, 'Apartheid and the Decline of Civilization Idea' for its 'definitive debunking of Coetzee's self-indulgent and grossly overrated book' (i.e. Waiting for the Barbarians). In his view Coetzee has 'absolutely no conception of any positive values outside his own "civilisation"'.

Is Coetzee caught up in his own 'civilisation'—is he too removed from civilisation at large? In an interview with the author, Richard Begam asks a question regarding the state of the novel today: 'The effect—so the argument goes—is a literature which has cut itself off from a general reading public, a literature which is of interest only to the academic'. Both Begam's question and Coetzee's answer are given in general terms; Coetzee's response, though not directly related to his own work, is interesting for its implications. His words are typically provisional:

I suppose that … writers ought to be wary and ask themselves every now and again whether they are not cutting themselves off from real human concerns. But, when we look around who are in fact the writers who have lost themselves in narcissism? Few that I can name. And to take the point one step further, I think it is possible to ask oneself that very question and come back with a perfectly serious answer: yes, I may indeed be cutting myself off, at least from today's readers: nevertheless, what I am engaged in doing is more important than maintaining that contact.

The engagement Coetzee is describing here may sound, on the surface, elitist, but at the basis of it seems to be a moral code. The suggestion is for a more lasting type of relevance, for something more substantial, for something which goes beyond the immediate present. Mazisi Kunene's maxim might apply: one should write, he says, 'as though reporting to somebody who will be here in a thousand years from now…'. David Attwell positions Coetzee's work as an attempt to project a 'post-humanist, reconstructed ethics'. Indeed, there is an ethical underpinning to Coetzee's work, and an arguably conscious effort not to follow 'established' codes of liberalism and fiction; he chooses instead to cross or redefine the boundaries, maintaining, at the same time, the distance of doubt. Bessie Head once asked, 'If one is a part of it, through being born there, how does one communicate with the horrible?'. The answer given by Coetzee's character, Mrs Curren in Age of Iron, suggests the near impossibility of that communication: 'To speak of this', she says, 'you would need the tongue of a god'—or, perhaps, the missing tongue of Friday in Foe.

Each of Coetzee's novels, through its play on land, language, and identity, interrogates—to use Susan Barton's term in Foe—the 'father-born' epistemologies of history, geography, and categorisation. In the Foucauldian sense, the question is, 'What rules, for instance, allow the construction of a map, model, or classificatory system?'. And as Said reminds us in Orientalism:

We must take seriously Vico's great observation that men make their own history, that what they can know is what they have made, and extend it to geography: as both geographical and cultural entities—to say nothing of historical entities….

'rival Topographies'

As Coetzee's discussion in White Writing delineates, the white South African literary landscape consisted of two rival 'dream topographies': one which was 'a network of boundaries crisscrossing the surface of the land, marking off thousands of farms, each a separate kingdom ruled over by a benign patriarch …'; the other which portrayed South Africa 'as a vast, empty, silent space…. The imperial-born myth of the 'unsettled' land is thus the origin of a literature which is just as empty: white pastoral inscribes itself on the colonial South African imagination, but exhibits only a superficial topography—an economic one where black labour is but a 'shadowy presence' to the settlers' farms.

Evoked through the genre of the Afrikaans plaasroman (and to a lesser extent its English counterpart, the farm novel), the literature of white pastoral, with its idealised rural order and insularity, gave rise to nationalist sentiment. Published in 1883, Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm was perhaps the first work of fiction in white South African literature to reject the pastoral. She initiates a more sceptical vision of white settlement in South Africa, putting the terrain, a 'merciless' and 'monstrous' one, at the centre of her narrative.

A century after Schreiner's story was published, South African literature showed signs of a different kind of settlement. Writers were struggling not against colonial modes such as the white pastoral, but against the modes imposed on the imagination under an increasingly brutal system of apartheid. As Coetzee described it in his 1987 Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, South African literature was 'a literature in bondage'; it was 'exactly the kind of literature you would expect people to write from a prison'. In an article published the same year, Neil Lazarus called it an 'obsessional literature…. It tracks relentlessly and more or less pitilessly over the ever more restricted terrain to which, by virtue of its situation, it is condemned'.

What we keep seeing, in historical and literary representations of South Africa, are boundaries, in effect, that confine geographies, people, fiction. At the time of this speech, as an author of five novels, J. M. Coetzee had fully established himself as a writer. Of these five novels, the first two, Dusklands and In the Heart of the Country, can be seen 'as deliberate revisions of two of the most common South African genres: the travel narrative and the farm novel'. His fourth novel, Life & Times of Michael K, roams around the southwestern Cape—from Cape Town to the Karoo and back again, while his sixth novel, Age of Iron, is set in a Cape Town suburb in riot-ridden late 1980s South Africa.

The third, fifth, and seventh novels situate themselves elsewhere: Waiting for the Barbarians is an invented, non-specific landscape (a remote frontier 'oasis' of Empire); Foe's location moves from an unnamed island to Bristol and London and other bits of England in between; and The Master of Petersburg travels back in time to Dostoevsky's nineteenth-century Russia.

Despite Coetzee's obvious engagement with ideas, theories, and literatures of the West, as well as his reluctance to take on the label of a 'South African novelist', the influence of the country is clearly there: it is enough so that Attwell actually refers to him as a 'regional writer'. Certainly, in the Jerusalem address, Coetzee is speaking for himself as well as other South African writers: 'How we long to quit a world of pathological attachments and abstract forces, of anger and violence', he says, 'and take up residence in a world where a living play of feelings and ideas is possible …

In a different address at the 1987 Weekly Mail book festival, Coetzee's response was less one of lament, more a certain kind of call to literary action. In this speech, he proposed the freedom of the novel, the novel to 'rival history':

… a novel that operates in terms of its own procedures and issues in its own conclusions, not one that operates in terms of the procedures of history … a novel that evolves its own paradigms and myths … perhaps going so far as to show up the mythic status of history—in other words, demythologising history.

'Cape Inscription'—Coetzee's Altered Geographies

The Cape of Good Hope was one of the few places in Africa where Northern Europeans had access to the continental interior. It was a magnet both for settlers and for explorers eager to make their mark.

Coetzee's demythologising tackles history and its colonial mappings, most notably in the region of the Cape. On 'writing' the Cape, the following example from Paul Carter's excellent study, The Road to Botany Bay, makes for an interesting comparison.

In 1801, the name 'Cape Inscription' was given to a spot on the north-west coast of Australia by a Captain Emmanuel Hamelin, who found on this particular piece of earth a pewter plate. On the plate were inscriptions of two explorers, both Dutch, who had 'discovered' this Cape on separate excursions. Hamelin's name for this bit of coast is surprisingly apt, linking as it does with the act he is performing. As Carter writes, '… Such a name … belongs firmly to the history of travelling … It suggests a kind of history which is neither static nor mindlessly mobile, but which incorporates both possibilities'.

Carter creates his own use for the name 'Cape Inscription', saying it is emblematic of the approach he took in writing his book. His discussion of Captain Cook's naming process observes a similar notion, describing the names Cook offered as 'means, not of settling, but of travelling on'. Carter has hit on a crucial question: Is there a way to 'write' the Cape (or any place) without replicating a colonial 'script of possession'? And, if so, what is behind the writing?

J. M. Coetzee's reinscription of the Cape reveals a cartography closer to Carter's. As Rita Barnard writes:

What is at stake for him is not place or landscape as an object of mimesis, but the discursive and generic and political codes that inform our understanding and knowledge of place. There is a deliberate analytical unsettledness in Coetzee, which deconstructs, rather than assimilates to, any South African literary tradition, or any South African 'sense of place'.

Two of Coetzee's novels are set in Cape Town itself. But while Age of Iron situates itself definitively there, Life & Times of Michael K resists complete enclosure. One striking geographical detail is omitted from this text: the name of the country itself. As such, it might be read, to use Attwell's term for Waiting for the Barbarians, as a 'pivotal' one in Coetzee's corpus: its ambiguous space and shifting narrative, not to mention the elusiveness of Michael K himself, are in many ways representative of Coetzee's narrative practice as a whole. Coetzee places himself geographically, but only provisionally—although consider his comments below:

I do believe that people can only be in love with one landscape in their lifetime. One can appreciate and enjoy many geographies, but there is only one that one feels in one's bones. And I certainly know from experience that I don't respond to Europe or the United States in the same way as I do to South Africa. And I would probably feel a certain sense of artificial background construction if I were to write a fiction set in another environment.

This statement made by Coetzee in a 1984 interview holds up Susan VanZanten Gallagher's theory—perhaps South Africa influences Coetzee's fiction more than he (otherwise) admits. For what is it except a certain kind of 'artificial background construction' in his third novel Waiting for the Barbarians? And what does this say for his response to Tony Morphet regarding the geography of Michael K? When asked whether the 'highly specified' location of this novel was an attempt for a 'more direct and immediate conversation with South African readers' or, indeed, 'part of another strategy', Coetzee replied:

The geography is, I fear, less trustworthy than you imagine—not because I deliberately set about altering the reality of Sea Point or Prince Albert but because I don't have much interest in, or can't seriously engage myself with, the kind of realism that takes pride in copying the 'real' world. The option was, of course, open to me to invent a world out of place and time and situate the action there, as I did in Waiting for the Barbarians; but that side of Waiting for the Barbarians was an immense labor, and what would have been the point, this time round?

It is very appropriate that Coetzee invents his imperial landscape in Waiting for the Barbarians, for it represents both the artificial (i.e. imaginary) war that the 'barbarians' are engaged in and the artificial possession by Empire of their land. Rosemary Jolly, in her article, 'Territorial Metaphor', demonstrates the central place that the setting has both in Coetzee's purpose for the book and in critics' reception of it, including this comment by Leon Whiteson:

The geography is garbled; there is desert and snow, lizards and bears. The story is told in that most awkward tense; the historic present. The dialogue is stiff, the writing has the air of translation…. Coetzee's bad dreams have not been earned by any truth…. The heart of this novel is not darkness but mush.

Whiteson's idea of a novel involves a geography as superficial as that marked by settler colonialism: a geography of sameness rather than variety, of the identical rather than the diversified. Coetzee's fiction puts this uniform space into question. In so doing, his maps do not duplicate what is already there—but neither are they as patchy as Whiteson seems to indicate. As Jolly notes, 'The geography of his fiction may not correspond to an identifiable geographical political entity, but its depiction is both detailed and comprehensible'. In a comment Coetzee himself makes to David Attwell more recently, he acknowledges that 'Barbarians is more accommodating toward nature description' than either of his first two novels: 'But of course what is "described" in Barbarians is a landscape I have never seen; whereas I know the landscape of the other two books, to say nothing of Michael K, all too well'.

Life & Times of Michael K

Life & Times of Michael K, his fourth novel and winner of the 1983 Booker Prize, is indeed more familiar terrain for Coetzee; it is set in what is not only a recognisable South Africa, but returns to his home region—Cape Town and the Karoo. But the Cape Coetzee comes back to is no longer the site of imperial narratives, as in the 'Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee' in Dusklands, where the archetypal hunter-explorer treks through the wilderness, naming it and claiming it as he goes along; nor is it the numbered entries of the 'locked diary' of Magda, the lonely spinster and reluctant 'daughter of the colonies' in In the Heart of the Country, who lives out a stultifying existence in the aridity of this desert. In each of his first two novels we have protagonists who are left on a surface, exterior Cape landscape. But in Life & Times of Michael K, the main character is neither trying to explore nor settle, mock nor imitate the pastoral. Michael K's relationship is one of affinity with the stony ground; he is virtually 'lodged within the landscape' as he burrows himself into the soil.

From Waiting for the Barbarians, the 'Other' has moved into the forefront: K is the primary focus of the thoughts of two separate voices: one unnamed 'limited omniscient' narrator; the other, in part 2 of the novel, by the medical officer at Kenilworth. In this dual address to K's story, what comes across is a resistance to the fabrication and objectification of the 'Other'. Unlike the 'Hottentots' in Jacobus Coetzee's narrative, or the servants Hendrik and 'Klein-Anna' in Magda's diary, Michael K is hardly in the background. Even within these 'Other' narratives, K is self-defined; and his assertiveness comes through in his frequent escapes, in his suggestive silences, in his crafting and cleverness, in his unyielding to any type of colonisation, either mental or physical.

Sea Point is the site with which the novel begins and ends. The narrative travels full circle, following Michael K on a journey to take his ill mother, by the wheelbarrow cart of his own invention, from Cape Town to the rural home of her childhood in the Karoo. The structure of the book consists of three parts, the first and third of which are told in style indirect libre. Part 1 comprises the bulk of the story with the life and times thus far of Michael K, a gardener for the municipal parks, and his mother Anna K, as they try to escape to the country.

The flat desert Karoo over which K travels is cut through by the 'national road'. Like Jacobus Coetzee's 'devouring path' in Dusklands, the road is the symbol of the state's occupation and defence line during war-time; it is full of roadblocks and checkpoints—barriers which prevent Michael and his mother, who do not have the required permit, from travelling beyond Cape Town on their first expedition to Prince Albert. K imagines there must be less controlled spaces: '… next time we'll go by the back roads. They can't block every road out'. K's travels are not unencumbered, but the possibility is posed: has the mapping out of national roads and blockades left any areas unoccupied? Have they crisscrossed the entire country or are there areas yet uncontained, unclaimed—areas not yet 'parcelled and possessed'?

On his second expedition, K does manage to counter the bureaucratic barriers, travelling without a permit and getting as far as Stellenbosch, but he later refers to it as a 'place of ill-luck', for it is where his mother dies in hospital. From here, K's devotion will be to his mother earth: he will continue the journey to Prince Albert and occupy himself in a new garden, beginning with the cultivation of his mother's ashes at what he thinks is the farm of her birthplace. 'Now I am here, he thought, Or at least I am somewhere'.

The war landscape, if not explicitly descriptive, is more pronounced in this novel than in Waiting for the Barbarians. The epigraph from Heraclitus immediately defines the opposition: the war in Michael K has been constructed by the 'founding fathers'—the founding colonisers:

     War is the father of all and kind of all.
     Some he shows as gods, others as men.
     Some he makes slaves, and other free.

In this war, however, the enemy is no longer the Empire's construction. Here the state is having to battle with a real enemy, the majority population whom they have thus far controlled and oppressed. Nöel's reply to the medical officer in part 2: 'We are fighting this war … so that minorities will have a say in their destinies', is the only hint we have of the politics of this war. The symbolism, which Stephen Clingman speaks of below, points to an apocalyptic vision:

In Life & Times virtually the entire setting is symbolic—a symbolic landscape as much as a real one traversed by Michael K. Here the function of the symbolism is also specific, having to do with the confrontation of various choices in the landscape of the future.

Security measures have intensified. Military jeeps, riot troops, police vans, looters and guards, shots and sirens, shuttered windows and abandoned houses are the signs of the 'local' war in the city. As K and his mother huddle together in the Buhrmanns' devastated flat in Cape Town, 'the conviction grew in them that the real war had come to Sea Point and found them out'.

But the real war, the scenes of warfare, are very much left in the background. The focus is rather on this fringe character, Michael K, who keeps to the sides of the road, to the slopes and mountains. Disfigured by his hare lip, and described by others as a 'simpleton' or an 'idiot', Michael K is nevertheless a clever and adaptable person, who creates space for himself as he ranges over the landscapes of Cape Town and the Karoo.

He thought: Now surely I have come as far as a man can come; surely no one will be mad enough to cross these plains, climb these mountains, search these rocks to find me; surely now that in all the world only I know where I am, I can think of myself as lost. (Life & Times of Michael K)

Unlike Magda in In the Heart of the Country, K does want to be one of the 'forgotten ones of history'. In his makeshift existence at the dam, when he returns for the second time, he wishes to leave no trace of himself; and thus he will not inscribe history like a castaway or a prisoner, for '… his life by the dam was not a sentence that he had to serve out'. He uses materials and tools that will disintegrate into the earth; and, unlike the 'founding fathers', K refutes the idea of patrimony: '… I am not building a house out here by the dam to pass on to other generations', for 'The worst mistake, he told himself, would be to try to found a new house, a rival line …'.

But the garden spot does rival the farmhouse: precisely because K's existence by the dam is not an imitation of that structure, but one which is based on completely different terms. And when the guerrillas come to the farm, there is that much-quoted moment when he considers joining the war effort:

Yet in the same instant that he reached down to check that his shoelaces were tied, K knew that he would not crawl out and stand up and cross from darkness into firelight to announce himself. He even knew the reason why: because enough men had gone off to war saying the time for gardening was when the war was over, whereas there must be men to stay behind and keep gardening alive, or at least the idea of gardening….

The garden is thus a site of resistance, for K is defining his own role. He is not a fighter, but a cultivator. One must also remember that he makes the 'deserted farm bloom', which, when he arrived, was simply a 'rockery garden in which nothing was growing'. Additionally, in order to make these pumpkins grow, K must work in a very disciplined and strategical fashion: he is not cultivating an open and abundant garden. He uses the pump sparingly and only at night; he has only a certain number of seeds, and only two kinds: pumpkins and melons. Having to hide out from the enemy as it were, he camouflages his existence. And realising he could be betrayed by his pumpkins, which he first piled 'in a pyramid near his burrow; it looked like a beacon', he than goes through elaborate measures to disguise them, painting 'each shell in a mottled pattern' with a mud paste. Earlier, when a helicopter flies above him, he realises the absurdity of cultivating such visible vegetables. He muses: 'They can see everything from the air, everything that by its nature does not hide underground. I should be growing onions'.

But lest we start to glorify Michael K and his garden, and write our own version of the pastoral or an adventure tale, it is clear that his existence is minimalist; it is not romantic: '… a man must be ready to live like a beast', he says; and then, 'One cannot live like this'. Coetzee himself emphasises 'how terribly transitory that garden life of K's is: he can't hope to keep the garden because, finally, the whole surface of South Africa has been surveyed and mapped and disposed of'.

At odds with Voltaire's romantic credo from Candide: 'Il faut cultiver le jardin', is the reality of Michael's lot. As a member of the 'multitude in the second class' (as the medical officer calls him), K lives within certain restrictions. In what seems to be a South African landscape, we have a character who seems to be a member of the majority oppressed class. But, with the exception of the medical officer's reference above, and his charge sheet designation of 'CM', which may or may not refer to 'Coloured Male', Michael K is classified, within the first paragraph of the text, not by his race, as Kelly Hewson notes, but by his disfigurement.

K will be put in his first 'camp' at Huis Norenius, an orphanage for afflicted children, for his supposed simplemindedness, at the expense of the state. Now, during war-time, the state will fund other camps for Michael K. After his one-day stint in a labour gang on the railroad tracks near Touws River, he will have more extended stays in Jakkalsdrif, a 'resettlement camp', (what he had thought, from his view in the mountains, was a 'construction site') and then at the old racecourse Kenilworth, the 'rehabilitation camp'/hospital in part 2. They try to contain K within these bits of barbed wire, the guards on duty; and others try to contain him with euphemisms, renaming the sites: 'This isn't a prison', said the man. 'Didn't you hear the policeman tell you it isn't a prison? This is Jakkalsdrif. This is a camp', even going so far as to say, 'You climb the fence … and you have left your place of abode. Jakkalsdrif is your place of abode now. Welcome'.

Throughout the text, Michael K is creating his own environment. He is a resilient figure, despite his bouts of hunger and fever and confinement in various camps. But is his garden life a 'rival topography' in this state of civil war?

There is first the distinction, which K himself makes, between the garden he cultivated in Cape Town at Wynberg Park and the garden he cultivates in the Karoo: '… he was no longer sure that he would choose green lawns and oak-trees to live among…. It is no longer the green and the brown that I want but the yellow and the red….'. Secondly, there is Coetzee's reply to Tony Morphet that if there is a 'structural opposition' between 'camp' and 'garden', it is 'at most at a conceptual level'.

Coetzee's answer is based on the ephemeral nature of K's garden existence; but perhaps K's own 'dream topography', which closes the novel, closes down the camp sites as well.

Fences and Fictions

He could understand that people should have retreated here and fenced themselves in with miles and miles of silence; he could understand that they should have wanted to bequeath the privilege of so much silence to their children and grandchildren in perpetuity {though by what right he was not sure) … (Life & Times of Michael K)

As Michael K's movements show, fences are simply signs of an outward, exterior story: they cannot, in the end, enclose him. Moreover, K proves himself to be both good at escaping them and, ironically, talented at making them. As the farmer in one of his Jakkalsdrif work gang assignments tells him, he has 'a feel for wire' and 'should go into fencing. There will always be a need for good fencers in this country, no matter what'. Later, running through the 'almost empty' landscape upon his escape from Jakkalsdrif, he feels a 'craftsman's pleasure' in the taut wire of the fences he is ducking. But K has never been the entrepreneur, never the proprietor, and 'he could not imagine himself spending his life driving stakes into the ground, erecting fences, dividing up the land'.

Fence posts, barbed wire and the national roads dot the landscape—within these enclosures are the farms captured by settlers. The fences both exclude and isolate, and Magda, in the heart of the country with too much land, is sceptical of her inheritance: 'But how real is our possession?… the land knows nothing of fences, the stones will be here when I have crumbled away….'

The interior of the land resists capture, finally, like Michael K. It insists on identification, not exploration, so that even Jacobus Coetzee questions in his narrative whether he is truly able to penetrate the interior, 'Are they not perhaps fictions, these lures of interiors for rape which the universe uses to draw out its explorers?'

Age of Iron

Age of Iron (1990), Coetzee's sixth novel, is an even more identifiable and contemporary South Africa then Life & Times of Michael K, where, as Cynthia Ozick writes, 'Except for the reference to Cape Town and to place-names that are recognizably Afrikaans, we are not even told that this is the physical and moral landscape of South Africa.' Indeed, there is no textual reference to 'South Africa' in Michael K, although the back cover blurb of the Penguin edition designates the setting as a 'South Africa torn by civil war'.

In Age of iron, there are not such geographical gaps: we know this is South Africa, but the topography has shifted—both in Coetzee's narrative style and in the novel's landscape. Not since Dusklands (the dated narratives of both Eugene Dawn and Jacobus Coetzee) have any of Coetzee's novels been assigned such a particular time and place. And from the imagined apocalyptic vision in Life & Times of Michael K, here is something even more tangible: the 'emergency years' of 1986–1989, during which Coetzee was writing the novel, are the context for the novel itself.

The desert Karoo of much of Michael K has given way to the seascape of Cape Town; K left us in Sea Point, but Mrs Curren's sea brings us to False Bay, and it is just as empty as the sea which surrounds Susan Barton's desert isle in Foe. It is neither a source of inspiration nor a site of activity, but a symbol of the 'sluggish, half asleep' minority population. Here, South Africa is not a land of beauty or mystery, but is 'Fixed in the mind as a place of flat, hard light, without shadows, without depth'. As Benita Parry says in her review of the book, '… the drably named False Bay is redesignated a "bay of false hope"; and a land renowned for its scenery and sunshine … is derided for its "uninspired name"'.

Mill Street of the suburbs is not described for its comforts or its opulence, but for its slow decay. Mrs Curren's own house 'is tired of waiting for the day, tried of holding itself together'. The sagging of the gutters, the clogging of pipes—the house itself represents the country's malaise:

A house built solidly but without love, cold, inert now, ready to die. Whose walls the sun, even the African sun, has never succeeded in warming, as though the very bricks, made by the hands of convicts, radiate an intractable sullenness.

Constructed by the labour of prisoners, the house is not a home, nor a landmark of history, but a 'site without a human past…'. The orders of the 'patricians of Cape Town' a hundred years earlier that 'there be erected spacious homes for themselves and their descendants in perpetuity …' are thus empty of promise. In this 'age of iron', white patrimony and pastoral no longer have a place. Echoing Coetzee's 'failure of love' theme in his Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, Mrs Curren's words, this time, carry some weight:

A land in the process of being repossessed, it heirs quietly announcing themselves. A land taken by force, used, despoiled, spoiled, abandoned in its barren late years. Loved too, perhaps, by its ravishers, but loved only in the bloomtime of its youth and therefore, in the verdict of history, not loved enough.

The landscape itself recoils, rendering Mrs Curren's own version of the pastoral obsolete. She has rested her roots in South Africa on her mother's story of the early days of settlement—'in the age of ox-wagons'. But the site of her 'natal earth', the Piesangs River, 'Such a lovely golden name! I was sure it must be the most beautiful place on earth', becomes—in Mrs Curren's own adulthood—'Not a river at all, just a trickle of water choked with reeds…. Not Paradise at all'.

Pastoral is seen to be an old, old story—the old story of the 'shadowy presence', like the gardener who is missing from her family photo: 'Who are the ghosts and who the presences?… No longer does the picture show who were in the garden frame that day, but who were not there'.

'after [the] Bigger Game'

The feel of writing fiction is one of freedom, of irresponsibility, or better, of responsibility toward something that has not yet emerged ….

In an 'emerging' South Africa, Coetzee's literary landscapes are landscapes in the making; boundaries are renegotiated, erased, or ever-shifting. Like Michael K, who 'wondered whether there were not forgotten corners and angles and corridors between the fences, land that belonged to one yet', Coetzee's novels speak from spatial margins which question—rather than reclaim—notions of space.

Since territory, in the South African context, is such an explosive term, the seemingly 'marginal' concerns in his fiction have in the past provoked charges against him of 'evasiveness' and 'ambivalence'. These very positions or conditions of Coetzee's work, however, are the nature of his commitment: contestation rather than rigid fixity and unthinking acceptance; arbitrariness and alternative narratives instead of confining literatures and methodologies.

Taken together, the terrain of Coetzee's fiction shows movement: there are gradations in the landscape as well as gradations in his fictional technique. But the 'ruptures' within his novelistic corpus demonstrate a dual concern: there is a commitment to craft, to the play of writing; and there is a deeper, ethical sense which is not bound in liberal-humanism, but which might be more accurately recognised as the 'rational humanism' to which Neil Lazarus refers in terms of T. W. Adorno's model of modernism: '… however problematical and problematized—[it] might well exist as the only aesthetic on the side of freedom.'

Coetzee's aesthetic preferences would indicate a need to find different approaches, imagine new scenes—and new scenery, perhaps. For not only is he not interested in 'copying the "real" world', as he tells Morphet, it would appear that he is not interested in copying himself. Regarding the change-over in Michael K to a more 'specified' location as compared with the 'invented' landscape of Waiting for the Barbarians, he says (as quoted earlier): '… and what would have been the point, this time round?'

Coetzee is, however, consistently wary of language and entrapment. His attitude toward literary discourses—academic and fictional—are, as with his politics, non-committal. There is a tendency to subsume him under a 'postmodernist' heading, it seems, because he writes in a postmodernist fashion. Attwell also places him as 'working within the culture of postmodernism',but with the qualifier that 'he certainly does not do so in the spirit of abandonment that seems to typify much of what goes on under the name'.

His attitude towards realist modes of fiction is generally known, and otherwise evident, for the most part, from his novels. In a 1978 interview with Stephen Watson, he commented that he admired Nadine Gordimer's work but 'would like to think that today the novel is after a bigger game [than the critical realist type]'. This 'bigger game', however, doesn't simply carry the label of 'postmodernism'. Despite the fact that he sometimes plays within it, 'pilfering' and 'adapting' what he can, Coetzee is sceptical of the trend—or at least some of its conventions. As he tells Attwell:

Anti-illusionism—displaying the tricks you are using instead of hiding them—is a common ploy of postmodernism. But in the end there is only so much mileage to get out of the ploy. Anti-illusionism is, I suspect, only a marking of time, a phase of recuperation, in the history of the novel. The question is, what next?

What is to emerge, rather, in Coetzee's own fiction?


If, as a writer, Coetzee has placed himself outside a narrowly defined 'national' field, it could also be argued that the progressions and digressions in his oeuvre are essential to the multivocality of a 'new' South Africa. Through parody and irony, plays on genre and geography, and elaborate intertextuality, Coetzee's novels perform cultural leaps. One could say that the 'South Africanness' of his narratives comes only from this '"doubleness" in writing'. That is, as Homi Bhabha has discussed in his seminal piece, 'DissemiNation', referring to an essay by John Barrell '… a discourse that was at the same time obsessively fixed upon, and uncertain of, the boundaries of society, and the margins of the text'.

In his paper, 'Reading for the Nation', Anthony Vital says he chose to focus his discussion on Michael K and Age of Iron

because of all Coetzee's novels to date, by drawing conspicuously on conventions of realism, they insist on their South African location. Through techniques of both naming and plotting, each constructs a space that is identifiably Cape Town and surrounding regions.

Interestingly, what follows each of these novels—Foe and The Master of Petersburg—are revisions of earlier texts from other empires. If Coetzee is sceptical about the 'newness' of South Africa as a nation, his fiction proves that the 'South African' novel is far from being exhausted. Rather, it shows, as Graham Huggan and John Noyes have used the term, vivid signs of 're-territorialisation'.

Long ago begun by Jacobus Coetzee and his ilk, 'the outward story', in an ironic twist, has been reclaimed by a descendant, who shows a different sort of exploration at work. It belongs not to the colonial trek of possession, but to the post-colonial route of configuration. Through his migratory maps, Coetzee contributes to a radical remaking of South African literature and history—a nomadic discourse—which works to displace any static notion of what constitutes (or has constituted) South Africa as a space.

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