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S. African Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

J.M. Coetzee is honored for novels that explore his homeland's struggle with race.

October 03, 2003|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

South African writer J.M. Coetzee, a master at highlighting the anguish in his racially divided home country, Thursday won the 2003 Nobel Prize in literature for novels "characterized by their well-crafted composition, pregnant dialogue and analytical brilliance."

The 217-year-old Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, described Coetzee, 63, as a "scrupulous doubter, ruthless in his criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of Western civilization."

The publicity-shy Coetzee, the first two-time winner of Britain's prestigious Booker Prize, said the announcement came as a "complete surprise." He received the news in a 6 a.m. phone call from Stockholm.

"I was not even aware that the announcement was pending," he said in statement issued through the University of Chicago, where he teaches for a period each year.

A native of South Africa's southwestern port city of Cape Town, Coetzee moved permanently to Adelaide, Australia, in 2002.

Coetzee, a white, has said he left his native country for personal reasons. But critics believe that the former University of Cape Town professor went into self-imposed exile after his novel "Disgrace" -- among the works cited by the academy Thursday -- came under a bruising attack from the ruling African National Congress party of President Thabo Mbeki.

The ANC referred the book to the country's Human Rights Commission, saying it reinforced stereotypes about blacks.

In "Disgrace," which has sold about 200,000 copies worldwide, a discredited university teacher experiencing a midlife crisis confronts the consequences of having an affair with one of his students. He also tries to protect the honor of his daughter, who has been raped by three black men. The woman declines to prosecute, partly because of her colonial guilt.

The novel deals with many crucial issues faced by South Africa, including land ownership, crime, lax security and the continuing racial divide.

"I think what he offers are uncomfortable truths," said David Medalie, head of the English department at the University of Pretoria.

Thursday, the ANC was among the South African groups heaping praises on Coetzee. The ANC said in a statement that it hoped that recognition given to Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer -- a South African writer who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1991 -- would "serve as an inspiration to young writers across the continent."

Coetzee, who will receive $1.3 million from the Swedish Academy, also is expected to benefit from an increase in book sales sparked by the prize -- especially in South Africa, where his novels have not been widely read.

Coetzee's latest novel, "Elizabeth Costello," a collection of stories about an Australian writer and intellectual, is scheduled to be released Oct. 16.

Members of South Africa's literary community expressed hope that Coetzee's prize would foster greater respect for African authors.

"It helps to put South African literature on the map," said Medalie of the University of Pretoria, speaking by phone from Johannesburg. "It sends a message to South Africans that perhaps the literature we produce is valuable."

South Africa's readership and literary intelligentsia are small. The nation has 11 official languages -- almost all of them indigenous -- with a primarily oral tradition.

Apart from Coetzee and Gordimer, Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka is the only other sub-Saharan African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Soyinka won the award in 1986.

South Africa has seven Nobel laureates, including former Presidents Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

The works of Coetzee, who was raised in an English-speaking home despite an Afrikaner background, often are compared to those of notable authors Franz Kafka, a Czech, and Irishman Samuel Beckett.

"He's an unusual writer, complex and oblique," said David Attwell, head of the English department at the University of the Witwatersrand and a specialist on Coetzee's works. "He uses a postmodernist and metaphysical strategy to write about Africa."

Coetzee's books generally focus on the consequences of apartheid -- South Africa's former system of racial separation -- underscoring the effects on people's values and behavior. His themes focus on the emotional and spiritual breakdown of his central characters. He examines the human dilemma. In many of his works, Coetzee questions whether it is possible to evade history.

"Extensive reading reveals a recurring pattern, the downward spiraling journeys he considers necessary for the salvation of his characters," the academy citation said. "His protagonists are overwhelmed by the urge to sink, but paradoxically derive strength from being stripped of all external dignity."

Among Coetzee's best-known works are "Life & Times of Michael K" and "Waiting for the Barbarians."

The son of a sheep farmer, Coetzee attended the University of Cape Town, where he completed degrees in mathematics and English. He left South Africa in 1960 after the infamous massacre of demonstrators by police in the black township of Sharpeville.

He worked briefly in England as a computer programmer for IBM. In 1965, he enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin and completed a doctorate in linguistics. He spent three years teaching at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Coetzee is viewed by some who don't know him personally as somewhat of a recluse. But Attwell says, "He's simply a private man who has declined his role as the writer as a public figure, a public intellectual."

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