John Maxwell Coetzee | Critical Essay by Mike Marais

This literature criticism consists of approximately 25 pages of analysis & critique of John Maxwell Coetzee.
This section contains 7,270 words
(approx. 25 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Mike Marais

SOURCE: "'Omnipotent Fantasies' of a Solitary Self: J. M. Coetzee's 'The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee'," in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, 1993, pp. 48-65.

In the following essay, Marais argues "that J. M. Coetzee's novella 'The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee' … suggests as much about the ethnocentricity of early South African travel writing" as does early colonial literature.

Referring to early colonialist literature in general, Abdul JanMohammed makes the point that "Instead of being an exploration of the racial Other, such literature merely affirms its own ethnocentric assumptions, instead of actually depicting the outer limits of 'civilization', it simply codifies and preserves the structures of its own mentality". In this paper, I shall argue that J. M. Coetzee's novella "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee", which is presented as a travelogue from "the great age of exploration when the White man first made contact with the Native peoples of our interior" (emphasis added), suggests as much about the ethnocentricity of early South African travel writing. Being a profoundly metarepresentational work, it foregrounds those strategies by which Europeans represent to themselves their others. In arguing this case, I shall trace the novella's thematization of the mediation of the contact between the European self and the African other by language and the narrative systems of western culture. I shall also demonstrate the part played by the text's dislocated temporal structure in relating the consequences of this mediation to the contemporary South African reader.

When Jacobus Coetzee leaves "civilization" and ventures forth into the unsettled wilderness, he encounters a world of things, what he refers to as an "undifferentiated plenum" without polity. This world, elsewhere referred to as consisting of "interspersed plena and vacua", is depicted as a void, the antithesis of all human sign-systems. In order to comprehend this chaos of raw African matter, Jacobus Coetzee transforms it into human constructs, a transformation described as follows: "In his way Coetzee rode like a god through a world only partly named, differentiating and bringing into existence". The analogy here between colonization and divine creation ex nihilo suggests that the Africa which Jacobus Coetzee encounters and explores in the course of his expedition has been invented rather than found; instead of exploring a new world, he creates a discursive world on the base of a natural one. The linguistic terms in which this analogy is couched imply that the natural African reality is contingent and can only be rendered accessible to European minds by being settled conceptually through language. In relating the incomprehensible and inexpressible African space to European systems of order, language provides the European mind with purchase on this landscape. It follows, then, that in his account of his travels, Jacobus Coetzee does not represent Africa as much as present it for the first time and constitute it in his European reader's mind as a verbal construct, an artefact.

This act of linguistic and conceptual transformation is not just Empire's hubristic emulation of a divine feat: it forms the basis of an active scheme of mediation and settlement by other, secondary systems of social ordering. So, for example, Jacobus Coetzee, who describes himself as "a hunter, a domesticator of the wilderness, a hero of enumeration", comments on the imperial enterprise as follows:

We cannot count the wild. The wild is one because it is boundless. We can count fig-trees, we can count sheep because the orchard and the farm are bounded. The essence of orchard tree and farm sheep is number. Our commerce with the wild is a tireless enterprise of turning it into orchard and farm. When we cannot fence it and count it we reduce it to number by other means.

In this context, linguistic settlement can be seen as a covert form of colonization, the first step in a process of overt colonization aimed at containing the land, subordinating it to human will and rendering its infinitude finite by reducing it to an assortment of computable acres. Even the introduction of orchard trees and stock animals forms part of this scheme of settlement, since they constitute a means of Europeanizing the land which sustains them. Plantation is thus both an act of enclosure and an act of creation.

The African landscape, then, is perceived in terms of a scheme of social and economic use. This mode of perception is particularly evident in the following description of Jacobus Coetzee's "discovery" of the Orange River:

And so on 24 August Coetzee arrived at the Great River (Gariep, Orange). The sight which greeted him was majestic, the waters flowing broad and strong, the cliffs resounding with their roar … He saw that the banks, clothed in trees (zwartebast, kareehout), might furnish timber for all the wants of colonization … He dreamed a father-dream of rafts laden with produce sailing down to the sea and the waiting schooners.

As this mercantile reverie makes clear, the wilderness is not expressed in terms of its dasein but in terms of the human principles of profit and gain.

At stake here, though, is not simply the conceptual settlement of African territory through language and its mediation by European categories of trade and social use but the extent to which such mediation implies a certain conception of time and history. In being mediated, colonial space which is unordered in the present of observation is transformed and given a "prefigurative order", that is, it is codified in the terms of a Euro-expansionist, capitalist future. Thus it is clear in the examples cited above that for Jacobus Coetzee the future consummation of the colonial project and with it the victory of European order in Africa is always extant in the moment of observation: instead of seeing wilderness, he sees orchards; instead of a river, a channel of trade. The act of seeing, then, projects European hegemony into the future—hence Jacobus Coetzee's boast that his journey implicates the "discovered" world in history: "Every territory through which I march with my gun becomes a territory cast loose from the past and bound to the future". Upon being "bound to the future" in this way, the raw colonial matter, which is contingent and unapproachable on its own terms, becomes part of a larger pattern and process and accordingly gains significance. The colonial habit of perception evinced by Jacobus Coetzee thus narrativizes Africa and implicates it in the European plot of colonial history.

Once narrativized in this fashion, Africa becomes a term in a highly deterministic plot, since the syncopation of time which occurs with the conflation of present and future in the colonial mode of perception prospectively determines the course of history in predicating a fixed, teleological line of development. Since there can be no deviation from this narrative line, all possibility of change is eliminated and history becomes a relatively simple affair, an inexorably advancing narrative which seeks its own end, that is, its telos—the realization of imperial intention in Africa. Any colonial material which challenges this comic ending to the colonial story is consequently elided from the narrative.

Nowhere in the novella does this conception of colonial history emerge more clearly than in Jacobus Coetzee's encounter with the Khoi. Describing himself as a "tool in the hands of history", he makes it very clear that the Khoi threaten the European story in Africa with teleological disorientation and must therefore be removed from it: "If the Hottentots comprise an immense world of delight, it is an impenetrable world, impenetrable to men like men, who must either skirt it, which is to evade our mission, or clear it out of the way". African raw material which cannot be narrativized must thus be annihilated. Not having been absorbed into, and thus given significance by, the pattern of meaning formed by the European design in Africa, the murdered Khoi can be dismissed off-handedly by Jacobus Coetzee as "nonentities swept away on the tide of history". In other words, only a term in a history can be deemed an entity, a "thing that has real existence". The plot of colonial history does not only confer significance, then, but also reality; and since they are bereft of reality or mere insubstantial figments in his eyes, Jacobus Coetzee, agent of European order in Africa, can also assert of the Khoi that "They died the day I cast them out of my head".

So, in order to preserve the telos of the ideal European plot in Africa, Jacobus Coetzee resorts to prospective plotting, a process which culminates in the elision of corrosive material from the tale. The fixation with its own completion which the European plot in Africa manifests here, is foregrounded by the iterative structure of the novella. In the text, Jacobus Coetzee's travelogue is followed by an afterward in which S. J. Coetzee, a historian who is presented as a twentieth-century descendant of Jacobus Coetzee, repeats his ancestor's actions by effacing all rival views from his own account of Jacobus Coetzee's expedition:

The present work ventures to present a more complete and therefore more just view of Jacobus Coetzee. It is a work of piety but also a work of history: a work of piety toward an ancestor and one of the founders of our people, a work which offers the evidence of history to correct certain of the anti-heroic distortions that have been creeping into our conception of the great age of exploration when the White man first made contact with the native peoples of our interior.

By eliminating "anti-heroic distortions" from his record, S. J. Coetzee protects the colonial plot from dissenting histories which challenge its centricity. Where his forebear, the frontiersman, engages in prospective plotting by mapping out future events, S. J. Coetzee, the historiographer, engages in "retrospective plotting" by ordering events that have already occurred. In both cases the ordering process aestheticizes history by rejecting material which does not fall into the ideal pattern of European experience in Africa.

These exercises in retrospective and prospective plotting reduce the dialogic nature of history to a monologic story in which the subject of Empire acts upon and predicates docile colonial objects. The imperial syntax which underpins this story and which installs this binaric relation between the European self and the colonial other is laid bare in the novella by Jacobus Coetzee's following description of his allegorical journey:

I become a spherical reflecting eye moving through the wilderness and ingesting it. Destroyer of the wilderness, I move through the land cutting a devouring path from horizon to horizon. There is nothing from which my eye turns, I am all that I see".

The image of the travelling, disembodied eye and the pun on "eye" and "I" here, suggest that the collocations of subjects, verbs and objects in the text are thematically significant, and that the plot is informed by an imperial syntax in which the subject of the narrative sentences is the explorer, the journey the verb, and African matter the direct object. This imperial grammar is not only confined to the particular story of European reaction to African space which the novella recounts, but also informs a much larger process. After all, the story of Jacobus Coetzee clearly allegorizes the entire colonial project by presenting an explorer-hero as embodiment of European order on a journey of discovery which instead of "discovering" anything merely subsumes raw colonial matter into prior categories and so confirms and celebrates the ability of European cognitive structures to contain African events and objects. Since it contains the seed in which can be detected the outlines of the concluded story, the imperial syntax could be said to constitute the narrative formula which informs the entire colonial effort. If adhered to, this formula regulates colonial history by excluding mordant matter from its plot and by placing those events which it does subsume in an acceptable relation to others, thus making them part of a single, inclusive line of action which leads inexorably to the telos of European success in Africa.

J. M. Coetzee's point here seems to be that colonial representations of Africa and aestheticizations of history are dictated by this imperial grammar of narrative. The iterative structure of the novella, for example, shows that it is the basic formula to which both Jacobus and S. J. Coetzee reduce the infinite variety of Africa. Moreover, the temporal gap of two centuries with which J. M. Coetzee separates the documents of this explorer and historiographer in the novella is calculated to show that this formula has been re-enacted in various permutations over the centuries in European representations of Africa. The novella's shifting temporal perspective therefore focuses the reader's attention on the processes which have mediated these representations. Accordingly, it becomes clear that the imperial syntax and systems of language in general create their referent rather than offer direct access to it. In other words, rather than represent the actual Africa, they systematize it, constitute it in the European's mind as a verbal construct with a specular function, namely to reflect the cognitive framework of his/her own language and culture and thus affirm his/her experience of that culture.

In producing Africa and its indigenous population as Europe's other, the imperial narrative sentence thus enables Europe to imagine itself into being, that is, to secure its own representation in its communal consciousness. This self-constituting function of narrative strategies of representation is parodied throughout the novella, the putative documents of which construct their assumed readers as Europeans. While ostensibly a travelogue from the "great age of exploration", Jacobus Coetzee's account for instance, presupposes the inscription of an encounter between European and African cultures intended for, in Mary Louise Pratt's terms, the "domestic audience of imperialism". Indeed, by opening with a description of the differences between Khoi and colonial societies, it appeals to the reader to align him/herself with the subject of the enunciation: "The one gulf that divides us from the Hottentots is our Christianity. We are Christians, a folk with a destiny. They become Christians too, but their Christianity is an empty word" (emphasis added). While othering the Khoi, this description valorizes the identity contained in the subject position which it inscribes, namely white, European. In this way the text engages the reader, the "domestic subject of Empire", in a ritual of ideological recognition through which his/her apprehension of European superiority and African inferiority is sustained and reinforced.

Although S. J. Coetzee's historical document serves a similar ideological function, its construction of its reader suggests that the European colonialist's conception of selfhood has changed slightly in the two centuries which separate this document from that of Jacobus Coetzee. So while the reader is, in Louis Althusser's sense of the word, "hailed" by the text and created as a subject in the references to the land that "we had inherited" (emphasis added), "our early history" (emphasis added), and our people" as opposed to "the native peoples of our interior" (emphasis added), the identity implicit in the subject position here is not simply white European but, more specifically, white republican Afrikaner. In this regard it is significant that the Afterword is presented as a series of lectures delivered by S. J. Coetzee between 1934 and 1948 and first published in 1951—dates which coincide with that period of Afrikaner nationalism which culminated in the National Party's accession to power in 1948. The suggestion in this parody of foundational historiographical texts is that European colonizers are in the process of imagining themselves as citizens of a southern African republic, in other words, Europe now conceives of itself as being indigenous. At the same time, however, tangled constructions like "the native peoples of our interior" (emphasis added) expose the ironies inherent in this attempt at naturalizing colonial relations and racial hierarchy by insinuating that the "Afrikaner" has possessed the southern African interior by dispossessing the true "natives", and that s/he, even while establishing a purportedly independent South African society and culture, still retains and relies on European-based assumptions of white supremacy, power relations and strategies of self-invention.

Ultimately, then, S. J. Coetzee's document implies that, rather than collapsing during the Afrikaner's attempt to found a decolonized culture and conception of selfhood, the imperial syntax informs this attempt at negotiating new modes of self-understanding and therefore still mediates the dynamics of self-representation in the supposedly post-colonial society. The Afrikaner founding vision thus produces no new self. On the contrary, the colonialist's self-image is bolstered by S. J. Coetzee's aestheticization of history, his invention of a national narrative of origin for the nascent Afrikaner nation. As the repeated appeals to a common language, past, and race in this document show, the reader is invited to become, through identification with the unified subject of the enunciation, part of a coherent narrative which is self-sustaining to the extent that it makes the individual part of some larger set of projects which includes the past and the future. The telos which inscribes this coherent and continuous subjectivity, however, is merely a minor variant of the European expansionist telos of colonial history as a whole.


In focusing on self-sustaining aestheticizations of south African history and on the way in which they routinely re-enact the narcissistic narrative sentence, J. M. Coetzee directs his reader to the repression of another aesthetic, one governed by another syntax. The structural juxtaposition of Jacobus Coetzee's document with that of S. J. Coetzee, for instance, foregrounds the historiographer's elision of the explorer's "sojourn" with the Khoi from his account of the expedition. Upon closer examination, the reader is able to see that S. J. Coetzee's dismissal of this episode as an "historical irrelevance" can be ascribed to the fact that it constitutes a momentary departure from the grammar which informs the rest of Jacobus Coetzee's travelogue. As has already been established, Jacobus Coetzee, the putative author and hero of his account, is for the most part the subject and his journey the verb of the imperial sentences which form the document. That section of the report which recounts his "sojourn" with the Khoi, however, constitutes a hiatus in which the journey is suspended and the subject loses control over the world of objects which surrounds it and which it hopes to order. Ignored by both the villagers and his servants, Jacobus Coetzee spends his time convalescing from illness in a hut reserved for menstruating women. This passive position inverts the highly active, heroic role he assumes in the various scenarios he imagines upon first meeting the Khoi:

Tranquilly I traced in my heart the forking paths of the endless inner adventure: the order to follow, the inner debate (resist? submit?), underlings rolling their eyeballs, words of moderation, calm, swift march, the hidden defile, the encampment, the graybeard chieftain, the curious throng, words of greeting, firm tones, Peace! Tobacco!, demonstration of firearms, murmurs of awe, gifts, the vengeful wizard, the feast, glut, nightfall, murder foiled, dawn, farewell, trundling wheels.

This scenario and the ones which follow it are easily recognizable as standard variations on the formulaic plot which characterizes frontier writing, a plot in which the imperial syntax clearly manifests itself. Jacobus Coetzee thus positions himself in relation to the Khoi according to expectations created by European colonial discourse. In this regard it is significant that the entire encounter between explorer and native is described in aesthetic rather than existential terms, a description which constructs a reflexive analogy between the colonial encounter and the literary encounter of reader and text: just as the reader's approach to the text is conditioned by the codes and conventions of the literary intertext, so too is the colonizer's contact with the native conditioned by the corpus of colonial discourse. Given this mediation, no direct contact takes place when Jacobus Coetzee meets the Great Namaqua. Instead of the actual Khoi, he encounters the verbal construct constituted in his mind by colonial discourse, a construct which occludes them. It is therefore quite obvious that he expects his meeting with the Khoi to ritualistically re-enact the classic plot of European expansionism.

In marked contrast to this expectation, however, Jacobus Coetzee is reduced by this encounter to a figure of endurance rather than one of achievement, a process which starts when the Khoi do not adopt the position of submissive colonial objects. Rather than confirming the expectations contained in the various interaction he imagines, they act contrarily to them and therefore undermine them. Thus, when he addresses the Namaqua "as befitted negotiations with possibly unfriendly powers", they merely become bored and drift "out of [his] firm but friendly line of vision"; when he anticipates an attack, he finds that they display "no organized antagonism"; when he thinks that they probably regard him as a god and pictures himself as "an equestrian statue", he finds that they call him "Long-Nose"; and, instead of the "greybeard chieftain" of his expectations, he finds that the Khoi have "only perfunctory reverence for authority" and can only show him a dying man quite incapable of according him the ceremonious welcome that he expects. Finally, the epic flight which he envisages in one of his scenarios, becomes an abject scramble in which he is debased to a caricature of the intrepid "tamer of the wild" that he imagines himself to be: "Held in position by Klawer I evacuated myself heroically over the tailgate". The incongruous use of the adverb "heroically" in this context advertises Jacobus Coetzee's transformation from active agency and hero of the report to passive nonentity.

This disjunction between the treatment he expects from the Khoi and that which he actually receives is a measure of the extent to which Jacobus Coetzee's encounter with the Khoi differs from the ideal plot of European success in Africa, from the ritualistic celebration of the victory of western order over African space. Instead of confirming the heroic themes that it sets out to affirm, his journey threatens the colonial plot with teleological disorientation. Not, surprisingly, then, S. J. Pretorious, despite the fact that Jacobus Coetzee's eventual annihilation of the Khoi village reasserts the imperial syntax and thus constitutes a return to the original design of European intentions in Africa, deems it necessary not only to exorcize this evidence of radical discontinuity in the coherent colonial plot, but to rewrite the record in such a way that it reproduces the imperial syntax:

On the fifth [day] he emerged upon a flat and grassy plain, the land of the Great Namaqua. He parleyed with their leaders, assuring them that his only intention was to hunt elephants and reminding them that he came under the protection of the Governor. Pacified by this intelligence they allowed him to pass.

Thus rewritten, this episode becomes syntactically identical to the formulaic plot which generates Jacobus Coetzee's expectations in his encounter with the Khoi. So, through the historian's intervention and artifice, that which did not match and promote the ideal plot in fact, is made to do so in fiction.

Although the original pattern of the colonial narrative is reasserted following Jacobus Coetzee's encounter with the Khoi, this momentary lapse from its imperial syntax is enough to foreground a dissonance between the contingent space of the African wilderness and the imported schema of European order. For a moment, the resistance to reification of the Khoi, whom Jacobus Coetzee refers to as being "representative of that out there", transforms the plot of history from one that represents Africa as a realm of imperial success to one that speaks of an-other Africa which blocks artificial, European designs and which denaturalizes the seemingly seamless connection between the verbal construct "Africa" constituted by colonial discourse and its referent. The consequence of this frustration of European intention is that the appearance of totality produced by the system of language and the teleology of colonial history disintegrates, discovering that which has been misrepresented and repressed, namely the unconfined world in which the Khoi live. Jacobus Coetzee describes this complex plural reality as "an immense world of delight" without polity: "What evidence was there, indeed, that they had a way of life of any coherence? I had lived in their midst and I had seen no government, no laws, no religion, no arts". It is only after he fails to comprehend them narratively, fails to "find a place for them in [his] history", that Jacobus Coetzee is able to see and describe the Namaqua in this way. Since it is unmediated by the schemes of European order, this is his first contact with the actual Khoi and thus his first real discovery.

The consequence of discovering this world of unconfined Dionysian flux is the exposure of the artificiality of the Apollonian forms of order which repress and seek to contain it. Once demystified in this way, the European plot in Africa collapses. And since Jacobus Coetzee's sense of self depends on the subject position which he occupies in this plot, its failure reduces him to a "pallid symbol", an unrealized nonentity. Ultimately, then, the Khoi's passive resistance to being reduced to malleable objects in a foreign plot decentres the subject of the imperial narrative sentence, discovering it as a construction of a textualized world.

Thus denarrativized, the explorer who requires a temporal world for the realization of his dreams of empire, one in which he can set teloi and commit himself to a certain continuity over time, is forced to occupy a wholly uncharacteristic, passive and inert position in a seemingly timeless realm completely antithetical to western conceptions of selfhood and history. In the context of such temporal deprivation, Jacobus Coetzee's desperate longing to be killed by the Khoi could be read as a desire for renarrativization. Thus he indulges in the following fantasies in which he is a term in a Khoi history:

I would gladly have expired in battle, stabbed to the heart, surrounded by mounds of fallen foes. I would have acceded to dying of fevers, wasted in body but on fire to the end with omnipotent fantasies. I might even have consented to die at the sacrificial stake … I might, yes, I might have enjoyed it, I might have entered into the spirit of the thing, given myself to the ritual, become the sacrifice, and died with a feeling of having belonged to a satisfying aesthetic whole, if feelings are any longer possible at the end of such aesthetic wholes as these.

Apart from pointing to the irony of having a character in a narrative seek narrativization, the self-reflexive references in this passage indicate that a coherent identity is rooted in narrative continuity. Thus Jacobus Coetzee comes to see that that which he initially feared, namely that the Khoi "have a history in which [he will] be a term", is far preferable to being treated as a mere "irrelevance". His desire to be taken "more seriously" is therefore underpinned by the hope that, as a term in their history, he would recuperate a sense of identity.

Since such an interpolation in a Khoi "history" would lead to a radical restructuring of his identity, Jacobus Coetzee's apparent willingness to submit to an alterior syntax initially suggests a readiness to rethink old imperial forms. Indeed, his fantasies of narrativization by the Khoi initially seem to involve a reversal of roles in which the Khoi adopt the subject position and reduce him to an object of antagonistic verbs in their plot of history. Ultimately, though, these "omnipotent fantasies" point to a desire to reassert the subject-object cognition of the imperial syntax. In this regard, it is significant that Jacobus Coetzee is the author and therefore actual subject of what he presents as Khoi plots. Thus, although he depicts the Khoi as subjects who reduce him to an object, the role he constructs for them in these narratives eventually affirms rather than challenges his culturally-conferred sense of self. The reason for this, of course, is that he represents not the actual Khoi, but reproduces their image in colonial discourse. This emerges when it is considered that their projection in these fantasies of an alternative plot is no different from that in the various scenarios he imagines upon first meeting them. In other words, it is the standard representation of the colonial native as barbarous other that occurs in frontier writing, a representation which negates the native but allows the colonizer to position himself in opposition to it and thus affirm his experience of his own culture, his sense of European superiority. Ultimately, then, that which is presented as a Khoi history proves to be just another aestheticization of Africa from the European point of view.

Since the Khoi eventually oust rather than narrativize him, it goes without saying that the content of Jacobus Coetzee's omnipotent fantasies is ironic. Furthermore, these fantasies are also ironic in shape for, as Jacobus Coetzee realizes, the Khoi live in a world to which a narrative form is entirely inappropriate: "To these people to whom life was nothing but a sequence of accidents had I not been simply another accident?" This world does not recognize the oppositions, such as that between subject and object, from which history erects itself, and therefore treats European man seeking his telos as an irrelevance. The Khoi's resistance to Jacobus Coetzee's imperial endeavours is therefore not premised on adopting an oppositional position, as his omnipotent fantasies suggest. The corollary is that they do not see him as an object and this, in turn, suggests that their structures of perception are informed by an alterior grammar, one entirely different to the imperial syntax. In this regard, J. M. Coetzee's description of a middle-voice practice which situates itself between the active and the passive voice is of interest. According to Coetzee, middle-voice practice does not construct the sharp divisions "between subject and verb, verb and object, subject and object" that transitive and active voice syntax does. The importance of this difference is that the blurring of these divisions prevents the self from assuming the subject position necessary to predicate the other. This distinction between a syntax based on a clearly differentiated subject and object and one based on their interconnectedness also emerges in the novella when Jacobus Coetzee, in an attempt to define himself in opposition to the Khoi, does so by singing the following ditty: "Hottentot, Hottentot, / I am not a Hottentot". He tells his reader that he chooses Dutch as the medium for this exercise in self-affirmation because "It was neater in Dutch than in Nama, which still lived in the flowering-time of inflexion". Since it erects divisions between subject verb and object, the syntactical structure of the European language accommodates notions of cultural superiority and inferiority more readily than does the highly inflected structure of Nama.

If Jacobus Coetzee's encounter with a syntax and structure of perception appropriate to Africa, such as that of the Namaqua, were to culminate in a rejection of the imperial syntax, Africa would become a site of regeneration; instead of being filled with the recognizable forms of European understanding by the European mind, it would prompt a decolonization of that mind, a restructuring of its cognitive character and so induce a new epistemology, a new way of seeing, understanding and imagining. Following his expulsion by the Khoi, it at first seems that Jacobus Coetzee will accept the rhetorical challenge of devising an alterior syntax. Alone in an open, limitless world vastly disproportionate to himself, he realizes that his self is fading; "In a life without rules I could explode to the four corners of the universe". Indeed, his stance in relation to colonial matter indicates that the divisions between subject, verb and object are collapsing and that he is dissolving into the wilderness:

I was alone … Here I was, free to initiate myself into the desert. I yodelled, I growled, I hissed, I roared, I screamed, I clucked, I whistled …

However, the very existence of his travelogue, in presupposing his agoraphobic retreat to European society and re affirmation of its social orders, indicates that rather than

set[ting] out down a new path [and] implicat[ing] [him]self in a new life … the life of the white Bushman that had been hinting itself to [him],

he suffers a failure of the imagination. So while the metafictional play at this stage of this novella suggests that Jacobus Coetzee, in a world "without rules", a tabula rasa, becomes an author of sorts: "I played [my games] against an indifferent universe, inventing rules as I went", the nature of these "games" and "rules" shows that rather than being an auctor, in the sense of an originator who devises a new aesthetic and identity, he is an author in the demystified post-structuralist sense, one whose choice is dictated by the closures of the form of narrative history and who is consequently not a creator but a function of discourse. This becomes apparent when he itemizes as "games" four possible endings for the plot of his journey of discovery. It soon becomes clear that these "games" are all designed to restore his sense of identity by once again making him part of a narrative and therefore enabling him, in his own words, "to translate [him]self soberly across the told tale". As he puts it, "In each game the challenge was to undergo the history and victory was mine if I survived it".

The content of the third section of Jacobus Coetzee's narrative, that is, the genocide of the Namaqua tribe, indicates that he eventually chooses the second of the four possible endings to the plot of his journey, namely "to call up an expeditionary force and return in triumph to punish [his] depredators and recover [his] property". Furthermore, the success of this endeavour to recuperate his self narratively is suggested by the stylistic features of this section. Grammatically speaking, the difference between it and the previous section dealing with his "sojourn" with the Namaqua could hardly be more marked. While his presence as an agent in the first section is virtually effaced and he becomes a receptor rather than initiator in a static account in which passive constructions abound, in the second he constructs himself as the hero of an epic account in which he reduces the Khoi to the object of aggressive verbs. Indeed, the following citation invites the reader to read the genocide of the Khoi tribe as an epic battle in which Jacobus Coetzee is the hero: "WE DESCENDED on their camp at dawn, the hour recommended by the classic writers on warfare". This section thus clearly constitutes a syntactical transformation of the previous one, it rewrites Jacobus Coetzee's encounter with the Namaqua according to the dictates of the imperial syntax. In so doing, it reconstitutes him as a subject and eliminates all "anti-heroic distortions" from the account.

This reassertion of the imperial idiom obviously means that Africa's potential for becoming a site of regeneration which could stimulate the dialogic ideal of a re-negotiation of western conceptions of culture and identity is repressed by the monologic colonial plot. Accordingly, Africa remains a site of conquest and the critical historical juncture at which its unconfined and complex plural reality presents itself is relegated to a minor episode in the eventual success of European intention. It is, of course, precisely through this occlusion of the actual Khoi and construction of them as his barbarous other, that the imperial syntax reconstitutes Jacobus Coetzee as a subject. As the following passage makes clear, the image of the Khoi as a fiendish, indigenous horde enables him to re-imagine his self into being:

Through [the Khois'] death I, who after they had expelled me had wandered the desert like a pallid symbol, again asserted my reality. No more than any other man do I enjoy killing; but I have taken it upon myself to be the one to pull the trigger, performing this sacrifice for myself and my countrymen, who exist, and committing upon the dark folk the murders we have all wished. (emphasis added)

The fact that Jacobus Coetzee should ultimately account for his choice in terms of a reassertion not only of his own identity, but also that of his "countrymen" indicates that he exercized the imperially correct option. Any deviation from the predetermined plot of his journey would undermine not simply his own enterprise but the entire European plot in Africa as well. And when an old plot fails, the identity of its postulated community is lost or, in terms of Jacobus Coetzee's assertion of his reality and that of his countrymen, unrealized.


The point of the novella is not only that Jacobus Coetzee's failure of the imagination before the void of colonial space determines his identity and that of his countrymen in the present, but also that it attempts to determine that of future white South Africans since it constitutes an act of prospective plotting which strives to ensure the realization in future history of the original design of the colonial plot of history. By rehabilitating the imperial syntax, he entrenches a single, inclusive, converging action which cuts through the centuries and leads to the present. The suggestion here that Jacobus Coetzee's actions may provide the narrative germ or blueprint for the twentieth-century South African reader's times and identity and that he, in a sense, "authors" the reader challenges the latter's ontological reality. In a metaleptic reversal, the reader is confronted with the thought that s/he may be a character in the narrative of Jacobus Coetzee, a product of his "father dream" and "omnipotent fantasies".

The novella's temporal and genealogical structure contributes to this metaleptic effect. For the most part the text consists of a succession of documents purportedly written by members of the Coetzee family over a period of two centuries. The fact that these characters all share the same name does not simply signify a familial affinity, it also indicates that the corporate identity which Jacobus Coetzee restored by reinstating the colonial plot has remained stable and intact over the centuries. The name "Coetzee" thus comes to signify the white, European identity inscribed in colonial history. Indeed, Dorian Haarhof, in referring to the recurrence of this name in the text, contends that "These Coetzees constitute the family frontier lineage of white South Africa incorporating space and zone over three hundred years of colonisation". Significantly, in this regard, Jacobus Coetzee is referred to by S. J. Coetzee as "one of the founders of our people". The question which the genealogical structure of the novella poses for the white South African reader in the late twentieth century is therefore whether his/her identity forms part of the genealogical line established by Jacobus Coetzee, that is, whether s/he is a character inscribed in the plot of white conquest.

In a final metaleptic manoeuvre calculated to implicate the ever-shifting present of reading, J. M. Coetzee allows the reader to assume that the date of the Translator's Preface which frames all the other documents is also the date of publication of the novella, that is, 1974. This period in South African history was distinguished by the rise of the Black consciousness movement, a movement which, as Stephen Biko's following words show, was intensely aware of the extent to which discursive practices inform oppression: "attention has to be paid to our history if we as blacks want to aid each other in our coming into consciousness. We have to rewrite our history and produce in it the heroes that formed the core of our resistance to the white invaders". The fact that this novella, which emphasizes the importance of narrative continuity to the national plot, should ostensibly both originate and conclude in the early 1970's, a period which constituted the emergence of a threat of discontinuity to that plot, should be deemed significant. In intimating a departure from the ideal plot of colonial history, it suggests that this plot may be a truncated tale, a tale which, given its obsession with its own completion, is therefore ironic in form. Ultimately, however, the novella, in an ateleological gesture, leaves it to the reader to determine the outcome of this dislocation of the telos of the colonial plot. In so doing, it positions him/her as the author of history—his/her actions or lack thereof in the arena of history will decide whether this deviation from the original design of the European plot in Africa constitutes its ultimate perversion and collapse or whether it is simply another minor episode in the eventual success of white intention. With regard to the white South African reader, the novella thus places him/her in a position which is analogous to that of Jacobus Coetzee, that is, s/he is prompted into making a choice which will help determine the future course of history. If this parallel between Jacobus Coetzee and the white reader were to hold and s/he were to re-enact Jacobus Coetzee's failure of the imagination by rehabilitating the monologic plot of colonial history, s/he would answer the question posed by the novella's structure by becoming part of its genealogy. Like Jacobus and S. J. Coetzee, s/he would be an author (in the post-structuralist sense) engaged in the preservation of the colonial plot, an interchangeable "tool in the hands of history". And since history plays a constitutive role in the text, this authoring of history, if successful, would provide an ending for the novella, an ending which would continue its iterative structure, its seemingly endless replication and therefore validation of the imperial syntax.

Another ending, however, is possible, one to which the course of the South African national narrative over the nineteen years since 1974 has tended. In a manner of speaking, then the rest is history. Rather than being a momentary lapse in the teleological momentum of the white plot, the trends of the early 'seventies led to Africa's sustained obstruction of the apartheid State's unreal designs. So, for example, they were followed by the Soweto uprising of 1976–78 which initiated a period of low intensity guerilla warfare in South Africa in the 'seventies and 'eighties. The State's response to this period of teleological disorientation was, of course, to attempt through physical and verbal exorcism to recuperate the telos of white history. Thus, in successive states of emergency, black political organizations were banned, their leaders detained, tortured and in many cases killed. A concerted effort was made to stifle black expression in general by banning the work of black writers, by restricting their publishers, by closing down newspapers directed at a black audience, and by silencing the media in general—restricting in particular their coverage of political unrest in the black townships. In effect, then, these material realities of apartheid point to a discursive intent, that is, to delete competing stories from the coherently single plot of the national narrative.

These other tales, however, have proved inerasable and, following the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the African National Congress and Pan-Africanist Congress in 1990, the potential for a vastly different national plot has become evident. In responding to the novella's ending from the perspective of 1993, one can therefore say that white history is indeed a truncated tale, an unfulfilled design, for the present is clearly a time of interregnum in which the old plot is dying and a new one is struggling to be born. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the contours of a better and alternative tale can be detected, a failure of the imagination is still possible. After all, an interregnum is, by definition, an open period with numerous aesthetic possibilities. Confronted with a large, diverse and complex order in which competing views abound, it remains for the contemporary South African reader and his/her compatriots to originate an aesthetic which represents the multiplicity of centres in southern African experience instead of replicating yet another exclusionary scheme of cultural dominance. In other words, a truly different nationhood and identity have yet to be imagined. And that is another journey, a difficult one along which alter Africa still awaits discovery.

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Critical Essay by Mike Marais from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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