John Maxwell Coetzee | Interview by J. M. Coetzee with Tony Morphet

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of John Maxwell Coetzee.
This section contains 2,611 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
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Interview by J. M. Coetzee with Tony Morphet

SOURCE: "Two Interviews with J. M. Coetzee, 1983 and 1987," in TriQuarterly, No. 69, Spring-Summer, 1987, pp. 454-64.

In the following excerpted interview, which was conducted in 1983, Coetzee discusses his novel Life and Times of Michael K.

[Morphet:] The most immediately striking fact is the omission of "the" from the title [of Life and Times of Michael K]. I have puzzled over this, not without pleasure, but I cannot find a substantial answer to the riddle. Do you have any comment?

[Coetzee:] To my ear, "The Life" implies that the life is over, whereas "Life" does not commit itself.

The location of the story is very highly specified. Cape Town—Stellenbosch—Prince Albert—somewhere between 1985–1990. This puts it very close to us, closer than any of your previous work. Were you looking for a more direct and immediate conversation with South African readers? Or is it part of another strategy?

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?

How did you "find" Michael K? Where did he come from and how and why did he make his way into your mind as an heroic figure?

I don't remember how I found Michael K. I have no recollection at all. I wonder whether the forgetting is deliberate.

Did you at all feel that you were taking big risks by placing Michael at the center of your fiction? He has a very limited consciousness and it seems that it is for that reason precisely, that he becomes the central figure. It seems a very austere and risky procedure for a novelist to adopt. Are you happy with the result?

Yes, I certainly saw that I was taking a risk by putting K at the center of the book, or at least at the center of most of it. But then it didn't turn out to be a book about becoming (which might have required that K have the ability to adapt, more of what we usually call intelligence) but a book about being, which merely entailed that K go on being himself, despite everything.

You must not forget the doctor in the second part of the book. He is by no means a person of limited consciousness. But where does his consciousness get him?

Would it be fair and accurate to say that the novel is built on the structural opposition between "the camp" in all its hideous variety (from Huis Norenius through Jakkalsdrif, Brandvlei and the Kenilworth Race Course to the implied horrors of the penal camps), and "the garden," principally Michael's cultivation of the land around the pump in the Karoo, but including also De Waal Park and the Sea Point room?

I suppose you might say that there is an opposition between camp and garden. But I wouldn't lump De Wall Park and the Sea Point room with the garden in the Karoo. Nor, I think, should one forget 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. So, despite K's desires, the opposition that the garden provides to the camps is at most at a conceptual level.

Michael's harvest of and feast upon, the pumpkins provides us with something relatively rare in your work—a powerful positive celebration. It is a very moving and beautiful scene. Did you have anything like the ceremonies of the first fruits in mind when you composed it? Is there anything further you would like to say about it?

K discovers or recreates some of the rituals of agricultural life, if only because he has to live by the cycle of the seasons. As for positive celebration, isn't there a fair amount of celebration (of elementary freedoms) in Waiting for the Barbarians?

The great "given," or "taken-for-granted," fact in the story is the war. No South African reader will be able to take his eye off the details which the story gives. Did you see it as an important purpose of the novel to take South African readers into the knowledge of what war here will mean?

I am hesitant to accept that my books are addressed to readers. Or at least I would argue that the concept of the reader in literature is a vastly more problematic one than one might at first think. Anyhow, it is important to me to assert that Michael K is not "addressed" to anyone. But the picture of war given in the book is, I would hope, a plausible picture of what a state of war might be like.

The narrator in Part Two—the pharmacist turned medic at the Kenilworth camp—mythologizes Michael. He sees him as Adam, the gardener of paradise and in fantasy he follows Michael away from the camp, pursuing him for his "meaning." Is this figure the crisis-ridden liberal of the time? He participates in the camp system but does what he can to alleviate its horrors and stupidities. He is burdened with guilt and with a complex consciousness but he is unable to act on his understanding. He is important to the development of meanings in the novel but his fate is to be swallowed by the facts of war and the camps. Would you like to comment on this figure?

You say that the doctor is "unable to act." But of course he does act, all the time. He heals people, he helps people, he protects people. Does it matter that his actions don't satisfy him? Maybe the world would be a better place if there were more people like him around. Maybe. I put the question, anyhow.

Maybe it isn't helpful to think of the doctor primarily as "the liberal." First of all he seems to me a person who believes (or wants) Michael K to have a meaning. I don't think that K believes (or wants) the doctor to have a meaning.

The closing sequence in Sea Point seems in some ways gratuitous—particularly the sexual incidents. Michael's own interpretation that this is people's "charity" is unconvincing. Can you throw further light on your purposes in this sequence—leaving aside the wonderful closing pages in which Michael characterizes himself as a mole or an earthworm.

If the closing sequence doesn't work, that's a pity. Obviously it would be a cop-out for the book to end after Part Two. It is important that K should not emerge from the book as an angel.

The image of the teaspoon and the windmill shaft is so specific and potent that it is almost emblematic with the effect that it tends to displace the density of the preceding sequences. Did you feel you were taking particular risks in using it?

I thought that the prose had been subdued enough for 250 pages to earn that last gesture.

The novel clearly speaks to a range of literary texts—your own books first and foremost but also obviously through the letter K to Kafka. Would you like to comment on your use of Kafka?

I don't believe that Kafka has an exclusive right to the letter K. Nor is Prague the center of the universe.

The story resonates powerfully within the context of your own writing. To explore just one line of inquiry, can we focus on the mind/body split. In Dusklands in particular this is a powerful theme in which the mind is dominant. Jacobus Coetzee and Eugene Dawn each in their own way are engaged in raping the world to satisfy the imperatives of the mind. In Life & Times you appear to be reversing the dominance. Michael complies in his mind to the demands of the war/camp system—it is his body that will not submit. It yearns for its food—the food of "the garden." It is this dumb imperative which gives his claim to being a gardener such force—even to the point where the camp medic's invocation of paradise seems trite since Michael's experience with the pumpkins is the experience of which the Garden of Eden is an image. He is an ingester of the earth—literally an earthworm, whereas Jacobus is an exploder of the earth. The radical and profound nature of these fictions (if I am not wholly mistaken) imposes great pressure on your readers. Do you pursue the logic of the fiction for your own sake or your readers?

I hope that I pursue the logic of the story for its own sake. That is what is means to me to engage with a subject.

Setting your story in the near future will inevitably draw comparisons with Gordimer's July's People. I do not like her work but I wonder whether you were conscious of the comparison and what it meant to you.

Fortunately Michael K had been born and was living his own life by the time I read July's People, so I didn't have to worry about questions of influence. Also, Gordimer writes about a Transvaal which is practically a foreign country to me. I don't recognize important similarities between the books.

Does it make any sense to you to recall Marvell—the poet who in the midst of civil war wrote consistently of both the war and gardens?

I had forgotten that about Marvell.

Would you describe your work as structuralist and, if so, what meanings would you want to attach to the term?

No, I wouldn't describe my work as structuralist, mainly because I prefer to give a quite strictly delimited meaning to the word "structuralist." But obviously I have learned a lot from contemporary French thought about the mediations that systems of signs provide.

Your fiction is, you must be aware, vulnerable to critique from both the political right and left. Both are in effect saying "Don't interfere—allow us to finish our tasks and there will be a time for what you want later. The making of a society is a fierce and brutal business and requires conscience to be silent." How would you answer such a joint voice?

Yes, my work is certainly open to attack from right and left, though how vulnerable it is we have yet to see. But would the right really join the left in expressing the sentiments you have attributed to it? I think there are more telling attacks that might be made. But the question remains: who is going to feed the glorious opposing armies?

The left, which in one or another form shares with you a common perception of the life of "camps," is likely to be especially angry at Michael's implicit answer to the guerrillas "in the mountains":

There must be men to stay behind and keep gardening alive, or at least the idea of gardening; because once that cord was broken, the earth would grow hard and forget her children.

The left will charge you with furthering the liberal fantasy of the politics of innocence and so obstructing progressive action. They will, possibly, question the final clause of the quotation most closely, "How will the earth forget her children?," and accuse you of mystificatory categories. Do you have a sense of how you will answer the objection?

I have no wish to enter the lists as a defender of Michael K. If war is the father of all things, let the objection you voice go to war with the book, which has now had its say, and let us see who wins.

You have always taken unusual care in creating your reader and in managing your relations with him. (The double death of Klawer is not easily forgotten.) Whom are you seeking to create as the ideal reader of Life & Times? And has your sense of the readers changed as a result of achieving such widespread international recognition?

I wasn't aware that I have ever taken care over my readers. My ideal reader is, I would hope, myself. But I know something of the insidious pressures faced by South African writers to simplify and explain for a foreign audience.

Did you conceive of the novel as in any way a task presented to you by history—the history of South Africa specifically?

Perhaps that is my fate. On the other hand, I sometimes wonder whether it isn't simply that vast and wholly ideological superstructure constituted by publishing, reviewing and criticism that is forcing on me the fate of being a "South African novelist."

If we can take it that Dusktands records the interior imagination of colonial conquest, The Heart of the Country the intricate ferocities of the master-slave relationship, Waiting for the Barbarians the mind of an empire in decline, Life & Times of Michael K the meaning of war and resistance, then your total project appears to record the drama of the ruling South African consciousness. Would you accept this description?

I don't know. It sounds very grand, the way you put it. There never was a master plan, though obviously certain subjects get written out and one has to move on. But then, meaning is so often something one half-discovers, half-creates in retrospect. So maybe there is a plan, now.

I don't know what you mean by "the ruling South African consciousness." Is it meant to describe me? Is that who I am?

As a writer you are working in cultural terms. Your fictions however, as we have them, present a puzzling double face. They articulate intensely within themselves, and to each other, but they also have a dramatic referential capacity. Sometimes the impression is that you write to satisfy cruel and exacting "internal" criteria and that any references external to the work are arbitrary and the creations of chance—at other times, especially in Life & Times, one gains the sense that you are conducting a very precise dialogue with the South African reality. Would you like to comment?

You have half-asked the question before, in a different form.

I don't know what "the South African reality" is, but I suspect that you are unlikely to discover it by reading newspapers, if only because what you read in a newspaper (of whatever "orientation") has been mediated through the epistemological framework called "news." I have never found anything about Michael K in the newspapers. If I was conducting any dialogue in Life & Times, it was with Michael K.

..…

At points in the story—particularly for some reason when Michael is taken to work on the railway—it seems that you are writing your own way out of an intolerable realization. The structure of the book builds this sense. The opening sequences are exceedingly painful to read because one cannot deal with Michael's vulnerability to the horrors around him. But as the story proceeds, one begins gradually to realize the extraordinary strength and submerged purpose in Michael. As the terms "camp" and "garden" begin to deepen and clarify one realises that at a particular and intense cost there is a meaning deeper than, beyond, and ultimately more powerful than "the camps." Are you in a sense writing yourself (and your readers) into a future?

There is a sense in which Michael K cannot die.

Do you see yourself as exploring the deep structures of the South African imagination? (I can't think of a better phrasing to capture my sense of the meanings of Dusklands, Heart of the Country, Waiting for the Barbarians and Life & Times of Michael K.)

The imagination is my own. If not, I am really in the soup.

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This section contains 2,611 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Michiko Kakutani
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