South African author wins Nobel Prize for literature

Reclusive writer Coetzee little known in homeland

October 03, 2003|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, South Africa - The reclusive South African writer J.M. Coetzee, whose novels explore his country's painful history of apartheid and continuing anguish since the end of white supremacy, was awarded this year's Nobel Prize in literature yesterday by the Swedish Academy.

The academy cited Coetzee's writings, including the novels Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace, for "their well-crafted composition, pregnant dialogue and analytical brilliance." It described him as "a scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of Western civilization."

Coetzee, a visiting professor at the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought, told wire services that the award "came as a complete surprise - I was not even aware that the announcement was pending."

Coetzee, 63, became the second South African writer to win a Nobel Prize for Literature. Like Nadine Gordimer, who won the award in 1991, Coetzee is a white author writing about a country with a black majority.

"A fundamental theme in Coetzee's novels involves the values and conduct resulting from South Africa's apartheid system, which, in his view, could arise anywhere," the Nobel committee noted.

`Not a big seller'

Oddly, it is here in the country of his birth and the setting for nearly all his novels that Coetzee remains an enigmatic figure, beloved by some, reviled at times by others and unknown by most.

"I don't think in South Africa he is a popular writer. He's not a big seller," said Stephen Watson, head of the University of Cape Town's English Department, where Coetzee worked as a professor. "I think he is a very painful writer for readers."

Last year, Coetzee resigned from his post at the University of Cape Town and quietly left for Australia.

"I don't think the majority of South Africans know who he is," David Attwell of the University of Witwatersrand, a specialist on Coetzee's works, told wire services yesterday.

"He is highly respected in academic circles, and he is regarded as South Africa's finest novelist, but we have a very small readership ... even amongst those who are literate, very few of them are serious readers of literature."

That may explain the muted response the prize received in the South African media yesterday afternoon. On the government radio station SAFM, news of Coetzee's award was announced after a story about the arrest of a suspected rapist and a surge in September car sales. Then came a brief story that "a South African writer" had won the Nobel Prize.

Although grouped with many anti-apartheid writers of South Africa, including Alan Paton, Athol Fugard and Gordimer, Coetzee was never active on the political stage, preferring to let his novels do the talking.

A slight man with soft eyes and a tidy gray beard, Coetzee has always craved solitude, rarely communicating with journalists. He declined even to show up to collect his Booker prizes and was hesitant to speak to reporters yesterday after winning the Nobel.

`The darkest side'

His most popular work in recent years was Disgrace, a novel about a discredited middle-age professor at the University of Cape Town who struggles to survive in post-apartheid South Africa. In one of the novel's most haunting scenes, the professor's daughter is raped by three black men. Instead of fleeing the country, his daughter stays, believing the brutal attack is the price she must pay as a white person living in South Africa after decades of black oppression.

The novel won Coetzee a second Booker Prize, an achievement no other writer has matched, but in South Africa it received a cold reception by some readers.

"It was very controversial," says Maureen Isaacson, book reviewer for South Africa's Sunday Independent newspaper. "Many people felt he had let down the hopeful vision of a new South Africa. It revealed the darkest side of white fear."

The ruling African National Congress slammed the novel as racist and reportedly filed a complaint to the nation's Human Rights Commission.

Some critics believe that's what drove Coetzee to move to take a teaching post at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

"His departure left us with a sense of loss. We are very proud of his writing," Isaacson said, adding it was not clear why he left.

"We don't know this. Many people thought as a South African it would have been great if he said adieu or made some an nouncement."

But, as is often the case with Coetzee, the public received no information about his decision to leave. Officially, he left South Africa for personal reasons.

Praise from ANC

Whatever the past criticisms of Coetzee, the African National Congress, which led the fight to bring down apartheid, was one of the first South African organizations to praise the Nobel committee's selection.

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