An Unsparing Look At A Writer Named Coetzee

'Summertime' cover
Summertime: Fiction
By J.M. Coetzee
Hardcover, 272 pages
Viking Adult
List price: $25.95

A lot of smoke and mirrors cloud the reader's view as J.M. Coetzee's new novel, Summertime, begins. Questions of identity and the relation of the writer's life to his work come under scrutiny. The major premise of the plot is that a much-lauded South African novelist — named John Coetzee — has died, and there's a biographer going around interviewing people, mostly alert and sensitive women, about his life before his great literary success.

The results of these interviews make up most of this intriguingly designed novel. Coetzee was a learned but restrained fellow, as many of the interviewees (old girlfriends, some family members) testify. He was also standoffish, with little social sense, but he spoke and wrote good English. Alas, a bad lover, one of them puts in. Though as his Afrikaner cousin Margot points out in her emotional session, his concern for his ailing father shows through. As does his love of the South African outback.

Toward the end, the biographer pushes one of his former lovers, a French academic who was his colleague at university, to make an assessment of Coetzee's work. "In general," she says, "his work lacks ambition. The control of the elements is too tight. Nowhere do you get a feeling of a writer deforming his medium in order to say what has never been said before, which is to me the mark of great writing."

"Too cool, too neat," she goes on. "Too easy. Too lacking in passion ..." Well, not in this new book, with its candor and frank design, and intricate passions on display.

Excerpt: 'Summertime'

'Summertime'
Summertime
By J. M. Coetzee
Hardcover, 272 pages
Viking Adult
List price: $25.95

22 August 1972

In yesterday's Sunday Times, a report from Francistown in Botswana. Sometime last week, in the middle of the night, a car, a white American model, drove up to a house in a residential area. Men wearing balaclavas jumped out, kicked down the front door, and began shooting.When they had done with shooting they set fire to the house and drove off. From the embers the neighbours dragged seven charred bodies: two men, three women, two children.

The killers appeared to be black, but one of the neighbours heard them speaking Afrikaans among themselves and was convinced they were whites in blackface. The dead were South Africans, refugees who had moved into the house mere weeks ago.

Approached for comment, the South African Minister of Foreign Affairs, through a spokesman, calls the report 'unverified'. Inquiries will be undertaken, he says, to determine whether the deceased were indeed South African citizens. As for the military, an unnamed source denies that the SA Defence Force had anything to do with the matter. The killings are probably an internal ANC matter, he suggests, reflecting 'ongoing tensions' between factions.

So they come out, week after week, these tales from the borderlands, murders followed by bland denials. He reads the reports and feels soiled. So this is what he has come back to! Yet where in the world can one hide where one will not feel soiled? Would he feel any cleaner in the snows of Sweden, reading at a distance about his people and their latest pranks? How to escape the filth: not a new question. An old ratquestion that will not let go, that leaves its nasty, suppurating wound. Agenbite of inwit.

'I see the Defence Force is up to its old tricks again,' he remarks to his father. 'In Botswana this time.' But his father is too wary to rise to the bait. When his father picks up the newspaper, he takes care to skip straight to the sports pages, missing out the politics – the politics and the killings.

His father has nothing but disdain for the continent to the north of them. Buffoons is the word he uses to dismiss the leaders of African states: petty tyrants who can barely spell their own names, chauffeured from one banquet to another in their Rolls-Royces, wearing Ruritanian uniforms festooned with medals they have awarded themselves. Africa: a place of starving masses with homicidal buffoons lording it over them.

'They broke into a house in Francistown and killed everyone,' he presses on nonetheless. 'Executed them. Including the children. Look. Read the report. It's on the front page.'

His father shrugs. His father can find no form of words spacious enough to cover his distaste for, on the one hand, thugs who slaughter defenseless women and children and, on the other, terrorists who wage war from havens across the border. He resolves the problem by immersing himself in the cricket scores. As a response to a moral dilemma it is feeble; yet is his own response – fits of rage and despair – any better?

Once upon a time he used to think that the men who dreamed up the South African version of public order, who brought into being the vast system of labour reserves and internal passports and satellite townships, had based their vision on a tragic misreading of history.They had misread history because, born on farms or in small towns in the hinterland, and isolated within a language spoken nowhere else in the world, they had no appreciation of the scale of the forces that had since 1945 been sweeping away the old colonial world.Yet to say they had misread history was in itself misleading. For they read no history at all. On the contrary, they turned their backs on it, dismissing it as a mass of slanders put together by foreigners who held Afrikaners in contempt and would turn a blind eye if they were massacred by the blacks, down to the last woman and child.

Alone and friendless at the remote tip of a hostile continent, they erected their fortress state and retreated behind its walls: there they would keep the flame of Western Christian civilization burning until finally the world came to its senses.

That was the way they spoke, more or less, the men who ran the National Party and the security state, and for a long time he thought they spoke from the heart. But not any more. Their talk of saving civilization, he now tends to think, has never been anything but a bluff. Behind a smokescreen of patriotism they are at this very moment sitting and calculating how long they can keep the show running (the mines, the factories) before they will need to pack their bags, shred any incriminating documents, and fly off to Zurich or Monaco or San Diego, where under the cover of holding companies with names like Algro Trading or Handfast Securities they years ago bought themselves villas and apartments as insurance against the day of reckoning (dies irae, dies illa).

According to his new, revised way of thinking, the men who ordered the killer squad into Francistown have no mistaken vision of history, much less a tragic one. Indeed, they most likely laugh up their sleeves at folk so silly as to have visions of any kind. As for the fate of Christian civilization in Africa, they have never given two hoots about it. And these – these! – are the men under whose dirty thumb he lives!

To be expanded on: his father's response to the times as compared to his own; their differences, their (overriding) similarities.

From Summertime by J.M. Coetzee. Copyright J.M. Coetzee, 2009. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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