J. M. Coetzee (born 1940) was a white South African novelist whose writings reflected strong anti-imperialist sentiments.
John M. Coetzee, the son of a sheep farmer, was born in Cape Town in 1940 and was educated in both South Africa and the United States. He earned his B.A. at the University of Cape Town, and his Ph.D. from The University of Texas. After the Sharpeville crisis in South Africa in 1960 he spent ten years outside the country as a student, a lecturer, and an employee in a multi-national corporation. Returning to teach English at the University of Cape Town in 1971, he had a highly cosmopolitan outlook which tended to set him apart from most white South African writers. Indeed, he felt that his writing fit into no recognizably South African literary tradition and was more influenced by the vogue of postmodernist writing in Europe and America of the 1960s, which was also fired by a strongly anti-imperialist commitment, prompted by opposition to the Vietnam War. Thus, though he listed his interests as crowd sports, "apes and humanoid machines," and images such as photographs "and their power over the human heart," he remained a rather isolated figure in Cape Town, separated from his wife and tending to shun human company. In 1984 he did not travel to London to receive in person the Booker Prize for his novel The Life and Times of Michael K.
Coetzee's cosmopolitan outlook helped shape his first novel, Dusklands (1974), which consists of two separate stories which skillfully interweave fact and fiction. Exploring the theme of the western imperial imagination, the novel contrasts the experiences of Eugene Dawn, an American government official put in charge of the New Life project to transform Vietnamese society, who eventually goes insane, and the account of the travels of Jacobus Coetzee into the interior of the Cape in the 18th century. The novel embraces, however, a binding thread in the mental dualism between mind and body prompted by imperial expansion and conquest and, through the ancestor figure of Jacobus Coetzee, the author's search for his own roots in South African society and history.
The publication of Dusklands caused a considerable stir in South African literary circles, as the novel broke with many of the traditions of the colonial novel. Some radical critics, however, charged Coetzee with only partially undermining the colonial conventions of literary realism and taking the western vogue of exploration of the individual self to its extremes.
The publication of Coetzee's second novel, In the Heart of the Country, in 1976, however, confirmed his proficiency as a writer and developed especially the theme of the violence and alienation at the roots of western white colonialism. The novel is the first person account of a lonely white spinster, Magda, and of her solitude and incestuous relationship with her father on an isolated Cape farm, sometime in the 19th century. There are many allegorical features to this story, which strips away the thin western veneer behind colonial society to reveal its culturally rootless quality. After being raped by the colored servant, who also kills her father, Magda is left alone on the farm and invents her own metaphysical skygods to worship in the absence of any other meaningful cultural symbols. The author's rejection of the traditional mode of linear and teleological mode of writing was reflected in the numbering of individual paragraphs, and there was no obvious progress through time, but rather a state of mental and emotional timelessness. The novel was received with considerable enthusiasm in both South Africa and Western Europe and North America. It established Coetzee as a writer of international repute.
In 1980 Coetzee published his third novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, which continued his allegorical examination of the imperial theme through the eyes of a benevolent liberal imperial official on the frontier of an empire on the verge of collapse. An amateur collector of historical records, the official is concerned to retain a memory of the empire's history before it disappears at the hands of nameless and faceless barbarians who progressively intrude over the empire's borders. Though he tries unsuccessfully to form a relationship with a blind woman barbarian taken prisoner, the official fails in this endeavor and, after returning her to her society, is tortured by new militaristic imperial rulers who are trying to shore up the empire before its final collapse. The novel clearly embraces many themes at the heart of the South African condition, as well as universalizing the dilemma at the heart of imperial conquest generally.
Coetzee was received as a writer who had, in some measure, stepped outside the tight limits of his own society, and his fourth novel, The Life and Times of Michael K (1983), was eagerly awaited.
Life and Times marked in some respects a new departure for Coetzee, for the story had far more naturalistic qualities than his previous novels. The setting in Cape Town, in a near future of riots and breakdown of law and order, had a strongly realistic quality and was undoubtedly shaped by the unrest in South Africa. Michael K, the central character, is a typically Coetzee character: lonely, isolated, and stigmatized with a harelip. Interspersing Michael K's own thoughts within the narrative, the novel follows the progress of its character away from Cape Town, back into the rural terrain, as Michael K flees with his ill mother (who dies on the way) and tries to survive in a situation of social breakdown. The novel was significant for refusing to recognize any racial identities and was concerned with the suffering and redemption of humanity as a whole. Michael K, though, cannot escape the clutches of the disintegrating society and is captured on an abandoned farm and accused of aiding guerrillas. Returning to Cape Town, Michael is left alone, though finds solace in some human company and in the idea that he is a gardener and has in some manner returned to the roots of his society. Concerned to the end with revealing the essential truth about existence, the novel manifested a more puritanical commitment to humanity in the abstract than any particular contemporary political creed or ideology.
In 1987 Coetzee released his next novel, Foe, a clever reinterpretation of Daniel Defoe's classic, Robinson Crusoe. Critics were divided in their assessment of this somewhat unusual work from Coetzee. Some contended that the material seemed a stylistic departure from his previous works, while others held that the new novel was on a continuum with material such as Michael K. In Southern Humanities Review, Ashton Nichols wrote, "Like all of Coetzee's earlier works, Foe retains a strong sense of its specifically South African origins, a sociopolitical subtext that runs along just below the surface of the narrative."
Whereas Foe dealt with South African political issues symbolically, Age of Iron was Coetzee's first novel to address the South African political situation directly. It is the story of Mrs. Curren, a retired teacher, dying of cancer, who for the first time faces the reality of apartheid in her home country. At the end of her life, she's forced for the first time to confront a system that she has never before questioned. Sean French wrote in New Statesman and Society, "Dying is traditionally a process of withdrawal from the world. … Coetzee tellingly reverses this."
Coetzee also delivered an impressive body of nonfiction, with works such as White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (1988) and Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (1992). In 1996 he published Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship to favorable reviews.
Coetzee lectured at numerous universities, including the University of Cape Town and Johns Hopkins University. He was distinguished by being a truly multilingual writer, translating work into Dutch, German, French, and Afrikaans. He was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Booker-McConnell Prize, CNA Literary Award, and the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society.
Further Reading on J. M. Coetzee
Further information can be found in Stephen Watson, "Speaking: J. M. Coetzee" in Speak (May-June 1978); Peter Knox-Shaw, "Dusklands: A Metaphysics of Violence" in Contrast (September 1982); Paul Rich, "Tradition and Revolt in South African Fiction" in Journal of Southern African Studies (October 1982), and "Apartheid and the Decline of the Civilization Idea: An Essay on July's People and Waiting for the Barbarians" in Research in African Literature (Fall 1984); and Landeg White and Tim Couzens, Literature and Society in South Africa (London, 1984).