John Maxwell Coetzee | Critical Essay by Allan Gardiner

This literature criticism consists of approximately 18 pages of analysis & critique of John Maxwell Coetzee.
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Critical Essay by Allan Gardiner

SOURCE: "J. M. Coetzee's Dusklands: Colonial Encounters of the Robinsonian Kind," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 27, No. 2, Autumn, 1987, pp. 174-84.

In the following essay, Gardiner explores the ways in which Coetzee's novella "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" resembles Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe in its textual codification of European imperialism.

Although post-colonial criticism has been primarily concerned with comparisons between the various post-colonial literatures, it has recently turned to establishing crucial differences between particular texts and their European analogues. The works of Cape Town author and scholar J. M. Coetzee have all subversively inscribed Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe with the deliberate aim of rejecting its canonical formulation of the colonial encounter. Coetzee's longstanding interest in Robinson Crusoe is overtly declared in his latest novel, where the connections between his work and "De/Foe's" themselves become the subject of the text. Entitled Foe, it is set on the island of the castaways Friday and Cruso and in the England of the writer Daniel Foe. Coetzee's earlier novels do not signal their engagement with Defoe's text quite so directly, but they have Robinson Crusoe as their "thematic ancestor" in their explorations of colonialism. This paper describes the South African "translation" of Robinson Crusoe that occurs in the first novel, Dusklands, and it is guided by Coetzee's assertion that his aim is to expose historical contrasts, and that his purpose is to criticize.

The title of Dusklands invokes a revealing metaphor traditionally associated with European imperialism. The "dusk" in question is that of the long "day" of empire. The "lands" are Europe's colonies and all places that exist in this symbolic time-frame. The time of empire, unlike concepts of temporality in other real or theoretically possible social arrangements, has a beginning and therefore, by definition, its span is finite. The forces which impose the beginning of the imperial period on each new "unconquered" place simultaneously invoke those that will bring about its demise. In this sense, every moment of empire since the first takes place at dusk. Consequently, moments in colonial history that are distant in time and space have much in common. Although Dusklands comprises two apparently separate narratives, set two hundred years apart, they are episodes in the same story of the playing out of the fatal contradictions within European imperialism.

"The Vietnam Project," set in the United States, is narrated by Eugene Dawn, a propagandist in a government department responsible for psychological warfare. He is employed in a project called "New Dawn" that has intentional similarities to the U.S.'s "hearts and minds" and "pacification" policies. Dawn's contribution to the project is a piece of writing, an analysis of the "mythic" status of the war in Southeast Asia. This report, which appears as the centrepiece of Dawn's narrative, casts the Vietnamese as rebel "sons" of the United States, itself conceived of as a deathless "father." Dawn recommends a terrorist campaign aimed at destroying what he sees as the pre-Cartesian, unalienated community of the Vietnamese, which is the sign of their alliance with a "mother earth" deity. The report is the expression of Dawn's own socially induced psychopathology, and he subsequently becomes "possessed" by his "text-child."

In the second story, "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee," a Boer farmer becomes an explorer, and hence an agent in the van of colonialism. In making the first European contact with the Namaqua tribe, Jacobus experiences deep humiliation, which leads to his insanity and to his massacre of the tribe on a return journey. I have limited my remarks to "The Narrative." My aim is not to show how these stories repeat a pattern, but to study the pattern itself and its relation to Robinson Crusoe.

Robinson Crusoe is characterized by its narrative techniques, which are the foundation of many of the codes of the realist novel, and by the allegorical and metaphorical significations that it gives to motifs of exploration. It is the first English novel that portrays the expansion of European capitalist arrangements into non-European, non-capitalist settings. As powerful tools in the hands of the European side of that encounter, texts such as Robinson Crusoe are themselves part of the colonization process, in that they capture the meeting within European ideology and thereby set the terms in which it will occur in future encounters. These terms reject, by assimilation or exclusion, the difference of the non-European by reacting to its alterity with a complex of processes which Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak has analyzed as "othering." The narrative and the allegory of Robinson Crusoe present the European version of the colonial situation, simultaneously silencing alternative versions by appropriating its terms as absolute or axiomatic.

A comparison of the narrative methods of "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" and Robinson Crusoe (a comparison Coetzee's text deliberately invokes) raises questions of history, truth, authorship and epistemology. The explanation of "The Narrative" given in the "Translator's Preface" by the semi-fictional "J. M. Coetzee" is as follows:

Her relaas van Jacobus Coetzee, Janszoon was first published in 1951 in an edition by my father, the late Dr. S. J. Coetzee, for the Van Plettenberg Society. This volume consisted of the text of the Relaas and an Introduction, which was drawn from a course of lectures on the early explorers of South Africa … The present publication is an integral translation of the Dutch of Jacobus Coetzee's narrative and the Afrikaans of my father's Introduction, which I have taken the liberty of placing after the text in the form of an Afterword. In an Appendix I have added a translation of Coetzee's official 1760 deposition….

So "The Narrative" comprises three accounts of the same journey. The first is in the form of a journal, told in the first person by Jacobus. The commentary of "S. J." is a third person narrative with exaggerated intrusions of the "authorial" consciousness, as in "I hope I have succeeded in conveying something of the reality of this extraordinary man." The last is a translation, apparently unmodified, of the genuine deposition dictated by the historical Jacobus Coetzee to a colonial secretary in 1760, and transcribed in the third person. With its bracketing of a central text by scholarly glosses and original documents, "The Narrative" recalls the format of a typical modern edition of Robinson Crusoe. It mimics the editorial practice of publishing Defoe's text with others inspired by Alexander Selkirk's experiences. Jacobus' official deposition corresponds to the report by Woods Rogers, Selkirk's rescuer (included in the 1983 Penguin) and there are further parallels between the various authors, editors and narrators in "The Narrative" and those in an edition of Robinson Crusoe. By combining objective and fictional discourses, an editor of Robinson Crusoe becomes a de facto collaborator with Defoe in his creation of illusionistic fiction. But where Robinson Crusoe encourages readers to comply in suspending their disbelief in the fictionality of the narrative and to construe the imaginative as the objective, "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" prevents this complicity by strategically inscribed paradoxes.

The official deposition was dictated, not written, by the real Jacobus because he was illiterate, so the first narrative is "unofficial" because it is the result of what "S. J." calls his "positive act of the imagination." He is not merely its editor but its author. That this is so is easily inferred from the statements of "J. M." and "S. J." but only if the reader steps outside of the mode for reading objective discourse. The paradox calls attention to the ways in which colonial literature involves an incest between the texts that record personal experience and those that gloss that experience, and between these texts and their readers.

Another paradox occurs in the treatment of the distinction between the written and the non-written. "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" and Robinson Crusoe are both presented as memoirs, each containing a journal as a text-within-a-text. Robinson Crusoe emphatically presents both the memoir and the journal as written, not spoken or thought, by the narrator. In the framing narrative, the old Crusoe is the writer of his story. He allows himself digressions but retains the linear, chronological structure of rationalist discourse. In the journal he is again a writer, one whose proximity to the events he describes is much greater, such that the descriptions appropriate the authority of empiricism. This narrative strategy which presents the narrating character as the author of the words on the page is another means by which European modes of perception are privileged and their objectivity over-determined in Robinson Crusoe. By contrast, Jacobus the illiterate (or "S. J." his creator) cannot make statements about where and when he writes. Other codes associated with the narrator-as-writer convention are used, but without explicit "lies" about the origin of the words on the page, they cannot consistently support the narrative superstructure. In the absence of an adequate formal boundary between the memoir and the journal, the single consciousness that underlies both of them and that speaks through Jacobus is unmasked. The inscription of Defoe's formal techniques within "The Narrative" exposes the narrative conventions of realism, showing their intentionally equivocal relation to factual discourse and their dependence on the complicity of a reading community that has a vested interest in accepting the validity of textual representations of colonialism, whether they are fictional or not.

As with narrative structure, so too with its treatment of the theme of exploration. "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" takes its cue from Robinson Crusoe and raises questions of the material function of the ideology of colonial literature. "If Defoe hadn't found and used Selkirk's story," says Angus Ross, "he would have found something of the same kind." In the context of slavery-based economics, European fiction is almost compelled to represent a culture hero lost in an alien landscape and contacting the unenslaved Other. Jacobus is a figure "of the same sort" as Selkirk, and Dusklands as a whole is an acknowledgement of the importance of the "explorer story" as a means by which the material realities of colonialism have been converted to literary myth and automatized thought.

The cosmology of Robinson Crusoe is established by the pronouncement on social class by Crusoe's father:

He bid me observe … that the calamities of life were shared among the upper and lower classes of mankind, but that the middle station had the fewest disasters….

Coetzee has commented on how the passive voice in this passage entrenches the proposition that social "stations" are, and always were, universal phenomena and that a purposive agent made them so. Crusoe becomes a special kind of rebel from this cosmological order. His transgression is to become a sailor-merchant, and thereby to enter a lower station than the one chosen for him within the pattern of class and commerce. His punishment, like that of Adam in the Christian allegory that underlies Robinson Crusoe, is to be sent out into "the World." It is this penitent state that Defoe associates with that of an explorer. But the Fall is fortunate because the explorer can contribute to the progress of the divine plan whose vehicle is commerce.

By using this allegory to convert exploration into fiction, Defoe makes exploration a matter of journey, fear and destiny. The presentation of a journey is not an inescapable motif of fiction about colonialism, but it is a mode frequently adopted. (As Chinua Achebe's and Olive Schreiner's fiction shows, however colonialism can be experienced and expressed as a static narrative of staying at home and being visited and annihilated.) The appeal of the journey motif is to a European audience that is predisposed to reading and decoding allegorical journeys. The motif of fear is consistent with these predispositions. Alien territories are seen not only metaphorically but literally as the realm of Satanic forces. But Defoe's presentation of "the World" and the terror that it contains is not a simple transposition of the Christian allegory, for it also incorporates Enlightenment ideas of the individual and his/her relation to others. In addition to its availability, the metaphysical system by which Defoe presents colonial exploration has the advantage of directing attention away from unpleasant facts. For example, when Crusoe makes his first trading voyages, the details of the missions show that they were slaving enterprises. Yet Defoe never gives this information directly, focusing instead on the details of profit and loss (and thereby, on the state of Crusoe's "spiritual development"). A similar occlusion results from the assumption that the economic and social arrangements of Europe were divinely ordained as static structures, altering only in the direction of improvement and increase. This myth elides the fact that a radical social upheaval associated with the plunder and exploitation of South America and Africa was occurring.

For Defoe, the propagandist of a period of expansion and change, humanity's climb back to the unfallen state of the first man was accelerating. The proof that his evolution of humanity was God's plan could be seen in the economic ascendency of bourgeois European culture over those races and classes who had remained in the unregenerate state.

The preamble of "The Narrative" performs the same operations as do the preliminary sequences of Robinson Crusoe. The difference is that Defoe's narrative works through its hidden assumptions, whereas Coetzee's re-invocation of a similar apparatus brings those assumptions, and the moments at which they become socially functional, into full view. "The Narrative" begins with Jacobus' reflections on his conditions of life as a colonist. These reflections form a kind of genesis story that identifies the primal elements of South African colonialism; the roots, so to speak, from which South African society grows.

The first primal element is a system of property that uses human beings as currency or as property itself. A rich man, for instance, is said to own land, cattle, and a "stable full of women." Dutch wives "carry an aura of property with them. They are first of all property themselves." Like Crusoe, however, Jacobus avoids explicit references to race slavery by describing selectively the mercantile practices of which it is a part. In effect, this means that slavery is the subject of the absences in Jacobus' preamble, but it exists in an uneasy balance with a second important element. This is the economic and geographical link that is forged between diverse peoples in a colonial context and which, in Jacobus' view, threatens to unite the whites and the detribalized blacks under the monopolist Company.

Detribalization is an atrocity of capitalist imperialism, but, after it has become a fact, capitalist forces in their early stages can seem to have some liberating potential. The interrelation of racism and capitalism is imperfect enough, in Jacobus' world of eighteenth-century southern Africa, to allow some blacks who follow the rules of capitalism to overcome the secondary forces of racism. At the same time whites may lose their position in a class with more privileges than blacks:

The days are past when Hottentots would come to the back door begging for a crust of bread while we dressed in silver knee-buckles and sold wine to the Company. There are those of our people who live like Hottentots, pulling up their tents when the pasture gives out and following the cattle after new grass. Our children play with the servants' children, and who is to say who copies whom? In hard times how can differences be maintained?

There are two answers available to Jacobus' question. Further expansion by whites offers the chance to repeat the process by which the original colonists escaped the limitations of a rigid class system. By finding new populations that can be conscripted into the lowest position in the European economic hierarchy and by finding new sources of land, wealth, and labour, a new wave of colonizers can transform all these things into property by the deployment of their weapons, chief among which are the gun and a special mode of thought. But until such material differences between the races are established, and by way of making the colonial form of capitalism a servant of racism, a symbolic separation can be enforced by means of the idea of destiny in a Christian framework; which is to say, the theological justification of apartheid. "The one gulf that divides us from the Hottentots," says Jacobus, "is our Christianity. We are Christians, a folk with a destiny."

In Robinson Crusoe the idea of destiny flows into concepts of individualism which in turn involve the conflation of blacks with "nature." Peter Knox-Shaw has noted how closely Defoe ties his story of exploration to the problem of maintaining the boundaries of the self. Crusoe nears the ultimate goal of Protestant history whenever his faith is strongest that everything external to himself exists to satisfy his needs. To show "the World" responding to Crusoe's "ventriloquism," Defoe carefully manipulates his depictions of natural phenomena, or which blacks and animals are indistinguishable examples. Jacobus also moves from the idea of destiny to an association of blacks with animals:

The Bushman is a different creature, a wild animal with an animal's soul … Heartless as baboons they are, and the only way to treat them is like beasts.

A captive escaping the basest slavery becomes, in Jacobus' mind, an animal manifesting its ability to take the stamp of civilization:

The only way of taming a Bushman is to catch him when he is young … not older than seven or eight. Older than that he is too restless.

Between the lines of Jacobus' descriptions of Bushmen it is possible to read an account of a people defending themselves against the genocidal whites, and doing so resourcefully and (despite the cowardice, the chilling ruthlessness and the superior technology of their enemy) effectively. But J. M. Coetzee's wider interest is in the terms of Jacobus' account and their patterns. Jacobus' belief in the animality of blacks leads him into adopting the novelistic codes by which the reader (conceived as a Cartesian subject) is encouraged to identify with the (Cartesian) hero. Thus, he says: "You have perhaps thirty yards to get your shot off" and "If there are two of you it is, of course, easier." And of the rape of native women: "Her response to you is absolutely congruent with your will."

As these quotations suggest, the link between black "animalism" and the affirmation of the white subject's individuality and superiority is violence, and again Robinson Crusoe is the model. As Crusoe oscillates between losing and regaining his moral will, the corresponding events on the level of plot involve violence to blacks. A case in point is Crusoe's lengthy consideration of the morality of murdering, en masse, a group of natives in order to procure a guide to take him off the island, and the consumation of these plans. Crusoe's effectiveness of will benefits from these violent meditations whether or not he acts on them. The fear of others, which plagues Crusoe from the moment of finding the footprint in the sand and which causes his loss of will, is reversed by his knowledge that he has the capacity to turn the lives and deaths of natives to his own purposes. The high moral tone of his deliberations is belied by the exuberant tone of his descriptions of the eventual slaughter. Each death is posed by Defoe with the imaginative care that is lavished on pornographic images, and the sequences are charged with an underlying Hobbesian fantasy of the uninhibited savagery of the isolated self in a "natural" or asocial environment. Earlier in Robinson Crusoe, Crusoe's behaviour towards Moley and Xury, his fellows in enslavement to a Moor, is also characterized by compensatory aggression.

This pattern, in which Crusoe oscillates between the loss of self through the intrusion of otherness and the independence of self through the negation of external phenomena, is formalized as a metaphysical law of exploration in the scenes of Crusoe's fevered delirium and Christian conversion. The conversion is presented as a direct imparting of knowledge to him by God through a vision, so the emphasis is on the absolute truth of the content of the vision. The "proof" is that it is an explanation of life that originates outside individual consciousness. What has been felt becomes the known absolute. Further to validate the vision, Defoe has Crusoe experience it during the time of his journal-keeping so that the objectivity of writing can be doubly invoked. The content of the vision is an interpretation of Crusoe's shipwreck, which, according to the angel of the dream, is a matter of his election by God as His agent. All the phenomena that Crusoe experiences (earthquakes, stormy seas and so on) are staged to prepare his soul for this purpose. That the purpose is to do the groundwork for the advance of European colonialism is left as an inference to be drawn from the subsequent events leading to the "taming" of Friday and establishment of a penal colony to take Crusoe's place on the island.

By the time Crusoe finds the footprint, and when Jacobus meets the Namaqua, their existential need to deny the subjecthood of others and their technological and metaphysical apparatus for doing so have been established. Common to both novels is the exaggerated shock of the first contact, and a response to the shock that involves questions of the nature of being and of perception, and the difference between "savagery" and "civilization." Jacobus' "sojourn" with the Nama leads him also into loss of self-containment and to a delirium in which metaphysical purposes for his "suffering," related to the role of the pioneer, dawn upon him as if from outside his consciousness. But is not "God" Coetzee suggests, but the structures of culture, embodied in the ideology of language and therefore reproduced in miniature in the consciousness of each speaker, that determine the revelations gained introspectively by these explorers. It is not "God's" independent intervention but the material pressures on the agents of colonial domination that trigger the "insights."

The Nama, however, refuse to adopt the role that Jacobus expects of them. Acting out of playfulness and an innocent greediness and curiosity, they turn Jacobus' heroic moment into farce. The true confrontation with radical difference occurs during the "minutes of confusion in which the paths of shamefaced friend, grinning foe and scrambling beast were forever confused." His tranquility gives way to a state of shock, in which he tries to maintain his belief in his manichean separateness from the natives by multiplying his self-delusions. At this point the eighteenth-century Boer suddenly has access to nineteenth-century fictions and twentieth-century jargon. Jacobus prepares himself for the meeting by "tracing in my heart the forking paths of the endless inner adventure … these forking paths across that true wilderness without policy called the land of the Great Namaqua where everything, I was to find, was possible." The four paths or scenarios that he outlines are amusing reductions of the plots of typical imperial adventure stories of the Haggard/Kipling kind. This anachronism is appropriate and suggestive because the fictional response to the moment of first contact is so predictable. It also suggests that this aspect of colonial discourse does not originate as a representation of actual colonial experience, but rather is generated from the (European) public symbolic order. Although the actions of the Nama do not fit into any of the four scenarios, Jacobus nevertheless finds a way in time of interpreting them in terms of his inner adventure.

Jacobus begins his sojourn with the Nama and is confronted with one proof after another of a world that does not conform to his metaphysical scheme. His feeling of God-imitating detachment and godlike superiority is evident only to himself. For the Nama, these concepts lack all meaning: "Perhaps on my horse and with the sun over my right shoulder I looked like a god, a god of the kind they did not yet have." Moreover, the smoke holes in their huts have no religious significance, at least in the binary terms of upper/lower or heavenly/earthly that Jacobus can recognize as religious. Their head-man bears no relation to the patriarchal symbol at the head of the explorer's cosmology. As the Nama continue, not to reject their inferior place within his scheme, but to disregard it completely, the foundations of Jacobus' sense of separateness are undermined. He experiences a "terror" of the "communal life" of the Nama that centres on their huts. Yet it is into one of these huts that Jacobus is swallowed when fever makes him dependent on the tribe's hospitality.

Significantly, it is a hut for menstruating women. The scenes of Jacobus' fever recall the free-associations with which he began his narrative: "Adam Wijnand, a Bastard … his mother was a Hottentot … Adam Wijnand, that woman's son, is a rich man." A powerful black, a half-caste whose very person signals the removal of absolute separateness on the level of race, and whose condition of conception and birth denies the primacy of paternity over maternity; this is the figure which prompts Jacobus to speak, which provides the point of generation of his narrative. As a symbol of the destruction of separateness, Adam Wijnand is functional in a manner similar to a rule of syntax from which many sentences may be generated. The social realities of Jacobus' colonial world continue to thrust such representations of relative, as opposed to rigid, values into Jacobus' story, and his need to deny them becomes the fuel that continues to generate the narrative. The pervasive presence of Robinson Crusoe in Dusklands is an invitation to the reader to see that the novel form itself is driven by this kind of motor; that its very nature and origin is in a textual response to the encounter with other cultures.

It is at this point that Jacobus experiences his Robinsonian vision. His fever brings on a state of mind in which he makes part visionary, part insane speculations on his being, using jargon and concepts that, again, were not available to an eighteenth-century Boer. By this means he maintains his delusions of manichean separateness from the Nama and of the existence of everything outside him as contingent upon his conceptions of it. These speculations are a means of naming the Other as harmless. His dependence on the Nama and the farcical scene of first contact are reconstructed by his speculative story of himself as an explorer, and declared to be unreal in comparison with the larger "reality" of his transcendent power. But to convince himself of his power he must, like Crusoe, meditate psychotically on his gun as he does in the story of hunting Bushmen. The only real superiority that Jacobus possesses is the superior ability to murder. He returns to the myth of Christian destiny to reinforce his delusions, and arrives at the conviction that "the transformation of savage into enigmatic follower" is a thing decreed from above which "we feel as a fated pattern and a condition of life." Significantly, this pattern is "felt" as fated. Dusklands shows how that sense of inevitability Hows from a power-functional mind set, manifested through texts such as Robinson Crusoe, which expresses the fear that others may "have a history in which I shall be a term." Ultimately, the gun can be the only hedge against the fear of equality or inferiority.

The motif of the gun in "The Narrative," then, is used to deconstruct the specific role of violence in Defoe's schema of exploration. In Robinson Crusoe the gun is the tool of the colonist hero, who uses it as an instrument of separation against the threat of the absorbtion of the one into the many. "The Narrative" situates this structure of aggression within a society that is marked everywhere by the exploitation of a majority by a minority and which therefore needs to make a distinction between the individual person and a plenum of humanity. Since Coetzee is dealing with Defoe's creation of a morphology of different kinds of violence, it is misleading to suppose, as some writers have, that he is depicting violence as an historical, universal, "categorical imperative." The link between the two stories in Dusklands is forged as much by the way that they illustrate a decrease in the effectiveness of imperialist tools of aggression over time as by their illustration of the continuity in the operation of those tools. In "The Vietnam Project" the active resistance by the Vietnamese people, even more than that of the Bushmen in "The Narrative," signals a refusal to be negated or captured within the terms of colonialist ideology, just as in history a signal victory was won over the technological weapons of imperialism. Eugene Dawn's mythography, like its thematic ancestor, Defoe's allegory, becomes startingly unconvincing in the late twentieth century.

For Jacobus (and S. J. Coetzee), the explorer myth of violence remains functional. Jacobus links violence and destiny by deciding that his role is not merely the exploration of land but the metaphysical entering and plundering of any interior. He overcomes his fear of being eaten/equal by fetishizing his eye, the instrument of exploration, and imagining its power to "eat" the other instead. Thus he can foil any "representative of that out there which my eye once enfolded and ingested and which now promises to enfold, ingest, and project me through itself as a speck on a field which we may call annihilation or alternatively history." His self-preserving rationalization for his work becomes the rationalization for his sadistic slaughter of the Nama. He wonders: "Are they not perhaps fictions, these lures of interiors for rape" but undercuts that possibility with: "… that the Universe uses to draw out its explorers?" Coetzee presents these sophistries to show how much the materiality of exploration and cultural contact can be and have been denied in favour of an allegory of its "deeper meaning." That it is one of the most pervasive metaphors in the English language is unintentionally illustrated by the publishers of Dusklands, who have printed on its jacket a quotation from a review: "J. M. Coetzee's vision goes to the nerve centre of being. What he finds there…." Such claims invoke those very assimilative metaphors of explorer stories that Coetzee's text attacks for their ideological validation of white minority rule in South Africa.

In spite of the continuing similarities in the nature of European imperialism, the world out of which Defoe wrote may be contrasted with the contemporary world. Defoe's account of the presence of European power in other lands and its role and function there was compatible with the philosophical currents of his time. Now, thanks in large part to the peoples against whom it becomes a weapon, this depiction of an "archetypal" relationship is threatened by the relativity of the truths which anchor it. The confidence of European thought has given way to desperation. Coetzee's "translation" of Robinson Crusoe exploits these contrasts as part of a critical exploration of the colonial encounter, but it also acknowledges the continuing relevance of the theme of isolation, and therefore of the motif of "the island," as the site of this exploration. Writing directly out of his South African experience, Coetzee confronts an intellectual environment that is tied to its stagnant place in colonial history. In their structures and metaphors, the literary expressions of this intellectual milieu frequently contribute to the textual colonization of which Robinson Crusoe is an example. While many liberal South African novels are willing to question the degree to which the culture of the ruling class is any more "civilized" than that of the black majority, even these retain the ethnocentric intellectual baggage that comes with the term "civilization," and hence they also tend to repeat the patterns of fiction that were pioneered by Defoe.

By taking as his subject the representations by which South African colonialism has interpreted itself to itself, Coetzee writes texts that are necessarily allegorical, but like similar post-colonial texts, they are direct engagements with, rather than escapes from history, reflexively "conscious" of their place within textual production, and of the supreme importance of texts in the capture and annihilation of "the others."

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