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J.M. Coetzee’s fictionalised memoir traces a writer in the no man’s land between Africa and Europe

Written by Sudeep Paul |
August 8, 2009 12:46:54 pm

The strange amalgamation of attributes thrust upon a solitary soul by his life and times forms his reality of self and informs his moral universe. But if Robert Musil’s Ulrich was a creature of the Vienna that disappeared with the Great War,such “men without qualities” come to us every now and then. The Ulrichs,gifted with the undeceiving eye,cannot help staring at themselves in the mirror. From the margins,they inspect everybody in the great game. In J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime,the late writer John Coetzee,who is given the author’s name and part biography,is our man without qualities,an alien in the land of his birth,not quite “manly” man,in love with what is dead or dying,incapable of fully giving himself to others.

This book ends the trilogy of Coetzee’s fictionalised memoir,after Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002). Not yet published,it is on the Booker longlist,marking what is being celebrated on strange shores as a return of the “masters” to the Booker or of the Booker to the masters. (That’s delightfully ironic,since Coetzee is an essential bridge between postmodernism and post-colonialism,especially a “postcoloniser” writing post-colonial fiction.)

It is sacrilegious to trace authors in their characters and narratives,but it is also difficult to not read fictionalised memoir as a case of acute self-reflexivity,albeit a literary one,where the fictionalised life investigates not just the workings of human relations but also how a literary work relates to itself,to the world of letters,to history and the world around. The story of its creation is also how fiction comes into being.

An English scholar is writing a biography of John Coetzee,focusing particularly on 1972-77,when Coetzee’s career was nascent. Since Coetzee is dead,people who,in varying degrees,“mattered” to him are interviewed. Each version of Coetzee is true. And yet,it is only other people’s words. At its most complete,the picture is of an inward-looking,shy,young man,whose return from the United States intrigues the Coetzee clan as much as his compulsive desire for manual work — a taboo for white South Africans in apartheid days — or suspected poetry writing. South Africa of the times emerges from the exercise.

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In White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (1988),Coetzee defined such white writing as “white only in so far as it is generated by the concerns of people no longer European,not yet African”. John Coetzee sits in this no man’s land between Africa and Europe,waiting to shrug off the remnants of colonialism stifling his sense of self and his literary outburst. In that,he is an embodiment of the peculiar challenges of South African literature,which,naturalised Australian John Maxwell Coetzee has called “a literature in bondage”. The self-reflexivity of the real Coetzee’s fiction,its textual concerns,are navigators through the historical and political constraints of such a literature. The Kafka on fictional Coetzee’s shelves and the Beckett transplanted to the real Coetzee’s text don’t just reiterate who the author’s masters are but also celebrate the inner workings of his craft.

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