1 March, 2004Issue 3.2AfricaFictionLiteratureWriters

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The Trouble with JM Coetzee

Gertrude B. Makhaya

J.M. Coetzee
Life and Times of Michael K
Vintage, 1998
184 pages

J.M. Coetzee
Vintage, 2000
220 pages

J.M. Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940, eight years before the birth of legislated racism. The country was already ravaged by colonial struggles and the politics of hatred. But Apartheid advanced and institutionalised racial suspicion and hatred, putting race at the centre of every human interaction and every economic transaction. Black people, though a majority, could not vote, could not legally own property in 87% of the country, could not pursue certain occupations, could not marry across the colour line and, as Coetzee shows in The Life and Times of Michael K, could not even move freely within the country. The list of restrictions is endless. All manner of ‘tests’ were relied upon to determine race in ‘ambiguous cases’ because everyone had to be classified; a documented, government-certified racial identity was a prerequisite for official recognition of one’s existence. Sometimes individuals were reclassified, usually with devastating consequences. This madness finally came to an end in 1994, when black people were enfranchised. That the end of such an inhumane system could be achieved through a negotiated settlement has been hailed by many as a miracle.

The reality, however, is that we live in a world where it is much easier to legislate discrimination and economic oppression than tolerance, mutual respect and equal opportunity. South Africa is still in the (hopefully loosening) clutches of racism. Democracy is still in its infancy. It is thus no surprise that, internationally speaking, the best known author from this new country, JM Coetzee, is best known for his 1999 novel, Disgrace. The general reaction to this novel is a revealing reflection of the times.

As a community, white South Africans occupy tricky territory in the new dispensation. There is a strong, though possibly diminishing, feeling that black South Africans, led by Nelson Mandela, have worked harder towards reconciliation than their white counterparts. The perception is that they have been willing to forgive the past and support democracy whilst their white fellow citizens are either emigrating or complaining (to each other) about ‘the country going to the dogs’, a frequently heard mid-nineties expression. In that nineties climate, before the development of cross-over kwaito music, and before it became common for some white South Africans to insist on being called African, this local variety of Afro-pessimism was met by those who saw themselves as committed to the new South Africa with hostility.

Consequently, a novel like Disgrace, which depicts the ‘miracle’ through the eyes of a white, middle-aged, male professor associated with the formerly white University of Cape Town, was met with considerable interest. There is a lot in the novel that raises eyebrows. Take the following account of the central figure in Disgrace, David Lurie, during a criminal attack:

He speaks Italian, he speaks French, but Italian and French will not save him here in darkest Africa. He is helpless, an Aunt Sally, a figure from a cartoon, a missionary in cassock and topi waiting with clasped hands and upcast eyes while the savages jaw away in their own lingo preparatory to plunging him into their boiling cauldron. Mission work: what has it left behind, that huge enterprise of upliftment? Nothing that he can see.

The biographical similarities between David Lurie and JM Coetzee may be superficial, but one cannot help being curious about the extent to which Lurie’s personal views are similar to Coetzee’s. JM Coetzee’s work certainly fits him into the same mould as Lurie, a man who ‘has never been afraid to follow a thought down its winding track’. The possibility or suspicion that the character of Lurie is fashioned on Coetzee himself has obviously created problems in the way that Coetzee is received by the small reading public in the country of his birth. Once, there was a call by a group of English teachers to remove Disgrace from high school reading lists. On a personal note, I doubt if I have ever struck as many conversations with strangers as when I was carrying around the book in public. Once, a young white waitress who had just graduated from high school hovered around my table and eventually came out with it and warned me about how shocking and terrible the book is.

Lurie, a man who sees crime in South Africa through a racial lens, would be regarded as a distasteful figure in the new South Africa. Yet the hard truth is that it is people like him – white, educated intellectuals – who are the source of most representations of the new South Africa in the international sphere. And it is white writers like JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton, Rian Malan, Antjie Krog – writers who typically would not have had first-hand experience of ‘black South Africa’ – whose voices are heard outside the country. In a racialised, wounded society, it is even more difficult than usual to separate the writer from his or her work. The fact that black South African viewpoints and portrayals of the new South Africa are rarely given a platform outside Africa cannot be ignored, and it heightens tensions surrounding what white South African artists and intellectuals, with easier access to international audiences, have to say about democratic South Africa.

In both his Booker books, The Life and Times of Michael K (first published in South Africa in 1974) and Disgrace (1999), Coetzee grapples with a society in upheaval. The central characters in both books are outcasts trying to make their own paths through what is at best an indifferent and at worst an oppresive society. Michael K is a simple Coloured1 man trying to lead a simple but independent life in the tumult of a country seething with civil strife and simultaneously at war with its neighbours. In his quest to take his mother (and when she dies on the way, her ashes) to her birthplace, he violates influx control measures,2 is caught and forced into a temporary work gang, and is later relegated to a resettlement camp from which he escapes. Because he insists on his independence, the life he has to live when he is not interrupted by the authorities and their institutions is miserable and fragile. He spends most of his time hiding in an underground burrow on the abandoned farm where his mother grew up, sometimes living on roots and insects. Eventually he cannot hold down proper food and when he is arrested on suspicion of being an ally to anti-apartheid terrorists, he baffles his captors with his ability to survive without eating:

[h]e is like a stone, a pebble that, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time, is now suddenly picked up and tossed randomly from hand to hand. A hard little stone, barely aware of its surroundings, enveloped in itself and its interior life. He passes through these institutions… like a stone. Through the intestines of the war. An unbearing, unborn creature.

Michael K is a disturbing and sometimes pathetic character. In Disgrace, David Lurie is also reduced to a pathetic figure, but under different circumstances. A divorced white professor mourning the end of sexual desirability, he engages in weekly sojourns with a prostitute, and when that ends, he successfully pursues one of his students. She files a charge with the university, and his fiddle with her grades is discovered. A man who follows his own rules, he refuses a public admission of guilt. He takes refuge at his daughter’s small farm, where he struggles to relate fully to her black neighbour and business partner as an equal. He reminisces about those good old days when he could have bossed him around. It is the other side of the coin to the comments black South Africans sometimes make when they enter a place they could not have entered before, or say something they could have never dared to say to a white person. Lurie gradually resigns himself to the presence of the black business partner, his daughter’s homosexuality and rural lifestyle, and his loss of employment and prestige.

Then the small farm is attacked by three young black men. Lurie is assaulted and his daughter is raped. One of the myths that sustained apartheid turns out to be ‘true’ after all – once the ‘savages’ are in power, chaos reigns, and under the cover of lawlessness they exact revenge, stealing white property and raping white women. That is how crime is understood by some people in the new South Africa. Is Coetzee fuelling that sentiment and purposefully soiling the image of black-led South Africa through his portrayal of an alienated white male and his ‘bleeding heart’ daughter, who tries against all odds to live under the changed circumstances (or at least her interpretation of the changed circumstances)? Or is he arguing, benignly, that political change cannot eliminate the misery of all, as some reviewers of the book believe? In a strange turn in the plot, Lurie’s daughter’s black neighbour, Petrus, who seems to have been involved in the attack (possibly to intimidate her), asks her to be his third wife. He says she will feel safer that way. She agrees, much to her father’s mortification.

‘How humiliating,’ he says finally. ‘Such high hopes, and to end like this.’
‘Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing…No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity.’
‘Like a dog.’
‘Yes, like a dog.’

The extract above was cited in a ruling party submission to the Human Rights Commission on Racism in the Media as an example of racist depictions of democratic South Africa as a place where black people are out to humiliate white people. It is not clear whether the intention was to label Coetzee himself as a racist. The sentiment expressed in the quote above is a less dramatic version of one felt by one of Michael K’s captors:

‘At least prisoners have stopped dying of unnatural causes since I took over,’ says Noel… ‘Nevertheless,’ I say, when it is my turn to speak, ‘when the shooting stops… and the enemy walk through the gates unchallenged, they will expect to find the camp commandant at his desk with a revolver in his hand and a bullet through his head. That is the gesture they will expect, despite everything.’

The artist’s work may end with the last brushstroke or the last sentence, but Coetzee, in refusing to engage in public discussions of his work, does not make his life, or the lives of his interested readers, any easier. His decision to shun the debates he provokes is usually met with suspicion.

Many would agree that Coetzee is an accomplished writer. He skilfully confronts us with the core of his characters’ anguish. He draws us unsuspecting into forbidden places. He tries to describe things as they are – no explanations, no judgements, no outrage – as he does in the following passage from Michael K:

[s]he had spent five days lying in a corridor among scores of victims of stabbings and beatings and gunshot wounds… neglected by nurses who had no time to spend cheering up an old woman when there were young men dying spectacular deaths all about.

He does not preach, he is neither superficial nor trivial, and unlike most South African artists of his time he is not engaged directly in party politics or public political debates. This may be a source of misreadings, overreadings and misunderstandings. As a white writer who has written a novel through the eyes of a racist white male, he occupies a difficult position. Appreciation of his work is often complicated by the fear of celebrating a sympathetic representation of racism. His Nobel victory was, unsurprisingly, met with hesitant admiration in his native land. He was celebrated as a great South African writer, albeit one who has recently emigrated to Australia. As a South African-born Nobel laureate, he is in the company of Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, FW de Klerk, Desmond Tutu and Nadine Gordimer; individuals who, in their own way, share a love for and belief in South Africa.

A minor, silly spat between South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), and the (predominantly white) main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, arose in the days after Coetzee’s honour. The ANC was accused of displaying hypocrisy by congratulating Coetzee, in spite of having criticised his work in the past. It was at pains to point out that you can be polite to someone you do not always agree with. For others in South Africa, like Xolela Mangcu, the head of the Steve Biko Foundation, the real celebration will be when Chinua Achebe or Ngugi wa Thiong’o receive similar acknowledgement.

Gertrude B. Makhaya recently completed an MSc in Economics for Development at Oxford University and is currently on sabbatical from the Rhodes Scholarship. She is a member of slice( ) mango, an Oxford based writers’ collective.


  1. In the apartheid system of racial classification there were four main groups: black, coloured, white, and Indian. Coloured people are of mixed heritage and had forged a separate community from indigenous black people, and although some have always claimed the ‘black’ identity, many still today refer to themselves as ‘coloured’.
  2. He leaves his designated area without proper documentation.