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Native son's eye on South Africa

Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee searches his homeland's soul.

October 04, 2003|Robert McCrum | Special to The Times

There had been rumors that this year's Nobel Prize for literature would go to a North or South American, to Philip Roth or Mario Vargas Llosa but, as usual, the Swedish Academy confounded commentators, as it likes to do. For once, the unexpected choice is also a very good one.

J.M. Coetzee is the first South African to win the prize since Nadine Gordimer in 1991. That, in a sense, is all you need to know. Coetzee is the novelist of the new South Africa. Gordimer, a brilliant, rather mannered stylist steeped in the Afrikaans and English traditions, was consistently and bravely at odds with the apartheid regime and wrestled in her books with issues of segregation and white privilege. But her work suggested a writer looking at her country from the outside.

Coetzee, by contrast, was born the son of a sheep farmer in 1940, grew up with apartheid, absorbed its crimes against humanity into his consciousness and published his first novel, "Dusklands," paralleling America's role in Vietnam with the early Dutch settlers in South Africa, in 1974. From the first, he has wrestled with the peculiar historical predicament of Africa's white tribe.

In "Waiting for the Barbarians," published in 1980, when South Africa was in crisis, apartheid in its death throes and the confident and slightly brutal prosperity of the previous generation had been reduced to a political wasteland, he composed a disturbing allegory set in an unidentified country where the existing order is on the point of collapse.

Coetzee, 63, always denied that he was writing about apartheid, but there was no getting away from the fact that he was using fiction to explore the complex moral and political dilemmas of living in a police state.

His desolate, pared-down prose was perfectly suited to his subject, and he was justly awarded Britain's prestigious Booker Prize in 1983 for his next novel, "The Life and Times of Michael K," in which a homeless, simple-minded man, like a character from a Beckett play who has stumbled into a Kafka novel, creeps aimlessly across an almost apocalyptic landscape.

At the time he won the Booker, Coetzee seemed to be simply the most gifted of a group of South African writers, including Andre Brink, whose work was inspired by their country's condition and defined by the cruelties and oppression of the society in which they lived.

"Age of Iron," a 1990 novel about a terminally ill South African woman confronting her own death and the passing of apartheid, seemed to confirm Coetzee's position as a brilliant ancien regime novelist whose bleak personal vision was strangely in harmony with its times.

At first, when Nelson Mandela was released and South Africa embarked on its extraordinary and turbulent transfor- mation, Coetzee seemed lost. His fiction had been a visceral assault on apartheid and its perpetrators, or as the Swedish Academy put it, "criticism of the cruel rationalism and cosmetic morality of Western civilization." Now, apparently, there was nothing to protest. De Klerk had shot his fox.

In 1994, Coetzee published "The Master of St. Petersburg," a fictionalized account of a year -- 1869 -- in the life of Dostoevski, and during this transitional period Coetzee, then lecturing at the University of Cape Town, also published a number of essays. Renowned as a teacher, he himself was both laconic and reclusive, refusing to join the herd of literary celebrities roaming the world from literary festival to prize dinner. By sticking to his desk, Coetzee kept his art alive.

He continued to grapple with the issues facing his country in the heady but disturbing transition from white minority to black majority rule. A turning point came in 1999, with publication of "Disgrace." It took its inspiration from social and political conflict but transcended both time and place. "Disgrace" showed that Coetzee's gift was not simply to hold up the mirror of fiction to his society, but also to ask awkward questions about the relations of blacks and whites, and men and women.

In "Disgrace" a liberal college professor's brief and thoughtless affair with one of his students detonates a campus scandal. Humiliated but defiant, David Lurie refuses to apologize but resigns and goes to live with his daughter on a remote farm. Here he begins to find a new harmony in his life, until he realizes that the native black workers are on the point of war with the local white settlers. His idyll ends when, in a shocking climax that exposes the truth about his relationship to his country and his conduct as a father, his daughter is attacked and raped.

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