Friday, May 14, 2004

JM Coetzee
Is anyone out there interested in JM Coetzee?

Sometime ago I came across this article by Gertrude Makhaya in the Oxonian Review of Books, a kind of in-house journal, called "The Trouble with JM Coetzee."

The trouble, she says, is Coetzee's novel Disgrace, for which he won the Booker. In essence, she argues, Disgrace fails to acknowledge the miracle of South Africa's negotiated transition. Instead, the novel depicts South Africa through the eyes of David Lurie, a racist white man, who is quite possibly Coetzee himself. Furthermore, by depicting a violent attack on Lurie and his daughter by three black men, during which Lucy is raped, Coetzee is possibly deliberately fuelling white racist views about black savagery. All of this means that appreciation of Coetzee's work is complicated in South Africa. Unlike other South African Nobel prize-winners, he appears sympathetic to racism and does not share a love for and belief in the country.

I tend to think that a lot of this is off the mark, most notably the suspicion that Coetzee is a racist. So I've sent the following letter to the journal for publication. Unfortunately, I had a word limit so I wasn't able to say everything I wanted to.

In "The Trouble with JM Coetzee" Gertrude Makhaya raises a number of important points about Disgrace, of which I would like to comment on two in particular.

The first is the possibility that David Lurie, the character through whose eyes Disgrace is narrated, is Coetzee, or that Coetzee is hiding behind Lurie to propagate distasteful views about South Africa. If one wants to find Coetzee in his own fiction, then the obvious place to look is, however, not Disgrace, but Elizabeth Costello. Furthermore, Disgrace invites us to view Lurie critically. Throughout much of the novel he is presented as a selfish individual, who does not appreciate the harm that he does. Only gradually does he gain an imaginative insight into the suffering of others. Disgrace does not, in other words, invite us to endorse all of Lurie's views.

Secondly, Makhaya raises the concern that, in Disgrace, Coetzee is purposefully fuelling racist white fears about black savagery, most notably through his depiction of an attack upon Lurie and his daughter, Lucy, by three black men, during which Lucy is raped. We should recall, however, that, in the first part of the novel, Lurie rapes one his students, a young women of mixed-race. The black rapists might care little about the consequences of their actions, but neither does Lurie. Once again, this makes it difficult to argue that Coetzee is promoting the view that blacks are intrinsically savage, whereas whites are not.

That is not to say, however, that Disgrace is uncontroversial. Elizabeth Lowry has argued that Lurie's paternalistic relationships with women of mixed-race can be identified with British colonialism. By the end of the novel, however, a new patriarch has emerged in the form of Petrus, Lucy's black business partner, who appears to have facilitated her rape. In this way, Disgrace is pessimistic, for it suggests that, once patterns of violent disregard for individual life are established, they are unlikely to be broken by political transition. Makhaya is right to point us in the direction of this important discussion. But it should not be conducted on terms that elide Disgrace's complexity, or which accuse Coetzee of simple racism.

Any comments?

On a personal note I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Disgrace and think that, like most of Coetzee's work, it's superb.

The review of Disgrace by Elizabeth Lowry is, by the way, also excellent. But, unfortunately, there seems to be a problem with the web-site I got it from at the moment. I will post a link when it becomes available again.

UPDATE: The Elizabeth Lowry review of Disgrace is available here.


At 17 May 2004 at 14:14, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding J M Coetzee:

How about the simple point that not every character in a novel is meant to have politically correct opinions?

What kind of literature is permissible in today's South Africa--only writing in which the characters are happy and free, or in which the downtrodden triumph over their persistent tormentors?

Why is it fair to slam Coetzee for writing about white fears, and not to slam Zakes Mda (for instance) for leaving HIV/Aids out of his novels?

I'm not saying "art for art's sake", but why not at least judge art on its own terms? Or does one have to wave the flag to deserve the Nobel prize?


At 18 May 2004 at 05:53, Blogger Gregory said...

I've been rereading Coetzee's work and catching up a bit on his recent novels, including Disgrace, and was very interested in reading Ms. Makhaya's review and your response. I think levelling charges of racism, even insofar as only raising the question, is ludicrous and misses the point of the novel entirely, perhaps even deliberately. The review raises a number of examples from the novel and Coetzee's life in an entirely misleading fashion, finally demonstrated in the last two paragraphs where Coetzee's Nobel is miscontextualized with Nobel Peace Prize awards and Xolela Mangcu's misapprehension of the status outside of Africa of African writers: Wole Soyinka won the Literature prize decades before Coetzee did. Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong'o's accomplishments are notable, unquestionably, but don't represent the same breadth and depth as either Soyinka or Coetzee.

At 3 June 2004 at 09:25, Blogger Kevan Kanjee said...

I am not sure wha all the fuss about JM's book is about. I am a 35 year old Indian man, i will be living with my mother soon. There is nothing racist about this book. I think JM is representing things the way they are in South Africa. We dont feel safe anymore in our country that once used to be a very safe place.

I have never been into the rural areas of South Africa because it is very dangerous. I dont have black friends. The danger is very real and JM's book is a revelation for the world to see how bad things are in south africa. Bring back the death penality i say. I am leaving jhb to go live in dbn because jhb is so dangerous.

At 4 June 2004 at 21:06, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quote : "Achebe and Ngugi's work don't represent the same breadth or depth as Coetzee or Soyinka?" And what exactly is that breadth or depth? You had me and several others laughing aloud. Now here are a few facts:
Xolela Mangcu raises some solid questions that go to the
"cultural and political" design of the Nobel Prize. The writers that are honored are not in anyway the world's best but the "the best writers who also politically pander to the west and make Europeans in particular comfortable". No one expects the author of "An image of Africa: racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness -Achebe - to be rewarded by Europeans. By the way that treatise is now a classic on its own merits and was described as "one of the most widely discussed essays ever written" by a Harvard Professor. Achebe and Maybe Ngugi really do not NEED the Nobel. Things Fall Apart is already in the world canon of classics.. a feat that Soyinka (what great book has he written?)and your dear Coetzee have not been able to match with the Nobel or backed by enormous campaigns from the West. What is happening and making several individuals nervous is the fact that the "arbiters of world culture in Sweden" are becoming quickly irrelevant. When Africans were left to determine for themselves the best books from the continent, Achebe's work was ranked #1 by AFRICANS!!!! Soyinka's work #12 ! Coetzee's books did not make the top 12!!!!! Disgrace is a racist Book. Whether the Author can be labelled so is up to debate. His moving to Australia soon after the hand over of power to blacks in South Africa (unlike Nadine Gordimer) is interesting to say the least.
Have a nice Day!!!

At 15 June 2004 at 14:13, Blogger Wessel said...

Apologies for posting this under JM Coetzee. I wanted to post a comment with regards to the contribution of Afrikaans literature. You have disabled comments there however.

I will start by playing the man, not the ball. An ignorant, arrogant and chauvinist posting justifies this response. Perhaps when studying at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and being an 'English' South African does give you a sense of entitlement, jingoism and superiority. But try and keep it to yourself.

Your posting is wrong on a number of counts.

Even if true, the fact that Afrikaans literature kept mum, or even promoted the policy of Apartheid does not make it bad literature per se.

michelle houellebecq’s Platform is very contentious on numerous counts. Is it bad literature? There are numerous examples of good art that has fallen fowl of notions of acceptability at various times.

But your point was wrong anyway. No doubt you have little knowledge of Afrikaans literature.

Considering the strong Nationalist feeling among Afrikaners its incredible how little support there was for the Nationalists in Afrikaans literature. There are a few exceptions, Pierneef's fascist art for instance.

Even then there was no art & literature propaganda machine as in Stalinist Russia.

On the contrary to your assertions, even before the so called 'sestigers' group (you know who this is don’t you?) Afrikaans literature had writers contesting Apartheid. NP van Wyk Louw being is the obvious example. This anti-Nat stream of Afrikaner literature became dominant. To such an extent that Afrikaners often felt alienated from the output of Afrikaans authors.

I challenge you to list the Afrikaans authors or books that promoted Apartheid or even those that made no statement about it.

Not only was Afrikaans literature overtly political and very critical of the Nats (and many of the books were banned) it has the most extensive body of gay and lesbian literature. That hardly sits comfortably with official Afrikaans Calvinism. Now quantity does not equate to quality. I give you that.

The first (and only graphic novels to be banned) in SA were published in Afrikaans. Bitterkomix.

There really are a few good Afrikaans books. You have to take my word for it.

Your problem - I expect - is that you are suffering from an identity crises. You want to feel you belong to South Africa, but you can only speak English, (you probably have some broken Afrikaans and Xhosa or Zulu). You consider yourself an intellectual and you can’t stand the fact that the majority of literature that is published in your country is in a language that you don’t understand. And please, you don’t want black South Africans to publish in their mother tongues either. No?

Why don’t you just start learning some more languages? I know its pain in the ass, but it's worth it.

At 13 December 2004 at 18:26, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pierneef's art was certainly political and played a role in developing a sense of national identity and the myth of the Afrikaner's relationship with the land. This does not however justify the labelling of his art as fascist. Pierneef’s discomfort with the politics of his day may only be hinted at by his distancing from political circles towards the end of his life. In enlightened times we are aware of the oppression and effects of marginalisation that apartheid inflicted. It is however doubtful that Pierneef perceived it in this way.

At 3 June 2005 at 04:47, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it is sad that after South Africa has gone through such an intense period of self discovery and such an honest introspection into the identity of the country, there are still critics like Ms Makhaya who have a very narrow view on what it is to be a South African, especially a white South AFrican, and identity Coetzee explores honestly and openly in his novels. Ms Makhaya has entirely failed to grasp the complexities of South African society, those which Coetzee depicts so poignantly and uniquely.

At 12 September 2005 at 02:03, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The main character, David, experiences the anguish over the rape of his daughter at the hands of three young african men. In essence, the tables have turned, as the white man has pain inflicted upon him, upon his family by the african. This turning of the tables represents the change in South Africa, a black people that no longer are willing to be raped by the white man, a race of people who are revisitng the savagery done to them by the white government. JM is not condoning racism, in fact it seems that by the attitude assumed by his daughter, one of willing sufferance, he is stating that the white man in africa deserves his turn. Any injustice against any man, affects all men, or, what comes around goes around.

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