J.M. Coetzee exemplifies the magnificence of despair

The Argument

The life work, thus far, of the newest Nobel laureate is a brilliant examination of the nature -- and elusiveness -- of freedom.


October 26, 2003|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

It would be best if this obscure chapter in the history of the world were terminated at once," the Magistrate says in Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians (Viking, 156 pages, $14). In nine novels and two memoirs, Coetzee has chronicled unflinchingly the death of apartheid South Africa and its chaotic aftermath. Coetzee's influences are Dostoevsky and Conrad -- the chain marks around Friday's neck in Foe (Penguin, 157 pages, $13) recall Heart of Darkness. Kafka inspired The Life and Times of Michael K (Viking, 184 pages, $13) with Michael becoming Coetzee's everyman and the government designated as the "Castle."

The Swedish Academy termed Coetzee "ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of Western civilization."

Nowhere better is this seen than in the pharmacist's unreliable narration included in Michael K, a Booker Prize-winning novel (Coetzee was the first author to win two). This "doctor" fails utterly to understand a man who does not think as he does, a man, unlike the whites, unsullied by participation in a brutal system.

"All that remains is to live here quietly for the rest of my life," Michael K hopes, "eating the food that my own labour has made the earth to yield ... creeping away in corners to escape the times." Instead, falsely accused of being "a staging post for insurgents," he is arrested, an old man at 30. The pharmacist-cum-doctor cannot understand him because of his own lack "of something to believe in," a key to Coetzee's perspective.

The hideous apartheid system (a word Coetzee does not dignify in the pages of his novels) runs its course inevitably. It has haunted those who profit by its power and participate in its daily atrocities, if only by silent acquiescence. From Dostoevsky in The Master of Petersburg (Penguin, 250 pages, $14), a brilliant study for The Possessed (Penguin, 702 pages, $12) to Mrs. Curren of Age of Iron (Penguin, 208 pages, $12.95), to the dry, unpleasant academic David Lurie of Disgrace (Penguin, 220 pages, $12.95), who seduces a student, and whose daughter is raped by three itinerant blacks, Coetzee's protagonists cannot avoid dreaming disquieting dreams.

Sexual imperialism and exploitation seem normal to these people. Character assumes the legacy of a deformed social order: "How natural a mistake to believe that you can burn or tear or hack your way into the secret body of the other," the Magistrate thinks. As in any empire enduring death throes, there are "closed trials they conduct under the emergency powers."

The administration of justice is now "out of the hands of civilians," warnings against the Patriot Act in America issued by Coetzee 20 years before Sept. 11.

That the barbarians are arming, that they are "a well-organized enemy," is disinformation issued to justify suppression, as Coetzee explodes the rationale for preemptive war. Only the "reasoning of a policeman" has people arrested simply because they are hiding. America, says Marilyn in "The Vietnam Project," is not big enough "to contain its deviants." She has not been proven wrong. "There will be no history," the Magistrate is informed, suggesting the embedding of journalists.

To the distress of the African National Congress, which took power in the wake of apartheid, Coetzee has exposed the moral chaos and indifference to civil order of the new government. The terrorist Nechaev in The Master of Petersburg, later transformed into Dostoevsky's Stavrogin, predicts a post-czarist Russia, where, as Ivan Karamazov feared, "everything is permitted." Coetzee reveals that the moral anarchy of Nechaev was born of a society in which the police had long themselves been terrorists, where nothing any longer is "of a private nature."

In Age of Iron, those waiting to take over are savage in their intensity, pitiless and "like iron." In Disgrace (Coetzee's second Booker Prize-winner), they are "debt collectors" seeking vengeance through rape, or confiscation of property, for "a history of wrong." The Magistrate, applauing the fall of the Empire, cannot help but dread the barbarian way soon to replace it: "intellectual torpor, slovenliness, tolerance of disease and death."

There is little cause to rejoice in the new South Africa. But Coetzee never allows us to forget that barbarians are both inside and outside the gate.

The times, he writes, call for "heroism," not merely being a "good person." He addresses this theme to the white liberals who appear in his novels repelled by the vicious apartheid regime, even as they are ineffectual, and continue to profit from its degradations. Where there is "jubilation" in Coetzee, it comes in moments like the Magistrate's setting himself "in opposition," and so feeling for the first time "a free man." There are no "higher considerations," he discovers, "than those of decency."

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