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Saturday, June 20th, 2009

Historical Background

I started reading Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K this morning. It is a dark, fascinating book, drawing me in to its violent, damaged world immediately from page 1 onward. I'm wondering a bit about the precise historical setting of the novel -- it was published in 1983 and I'm assuming without any confirmation, that it is set in the present, i.e. the late 70's or early 80's. (And Michael is 31, so would have been born around 1950.)

I realize suddenly how limited my knowledge of South African history is -- I remember as a young teenager reading in the paper and in magazines about apartheid, and thinking it was important that it should end, and self-identifying as an opponent of apartheid; but it was all pretty abstract. I did not realize that a hot civil war was being fought -- and I would not have thought of it that way prior to reading this book. But it seems from the book like at the point where the narrative starts, war is an established, ongoing state of affairs -- people are used to living in wartime.

This is the second book of Coetzee's I am reading that is not Disgrace... I went to the library this morning thinking (among other things) of checking out Disgrace; but looked at the first couple of pages and it did not really seem like what I wanted to be reading right now. (Also checked out Saramago's History of the Seige of Lisbon.)

posted afternoon of June 20th, 2009: 2 responses
➳ More posts about J.M. Coetzee

I am falling, he thought.

I could live here forever, he thought, or till I die. Nothing would happen, every day would be the same as the day before, there would be nothing to say. The anxiety that belonged to the time on the road began to leave him. Sometimes, as he walked, he did not know whether he was awake or asleep. He could understand that people should have retreated here and fenced themselves in with miles and miles of silence; he could understand that they should have wanted to bequeath the privilege of so much silence to their children and grandchildren in perpetuity (though by what right he was not sure); he wondered whether there were not forgotten corners and angles and corridors between the fences, land that belonged to no one yet. Perhaps if one flew high enough, he thought, one would be able to see.

Two aircraft streaked across the sky from south to north leaving vapour trails that slowly faded, and a noise like waves.

This passage -- like many others in this book -- is beautiful for the way it combines impressionistic rendering of the scene with terse, probing investigation of what is happening behind the scene. "Sometimes, as he walked, he did not know whether he was awake or asleep" communicates a mood that I know, puts me right in Michael's head, and does it with optimal efficiency, not a word wasted. Michael's meditation about silence and vastness is interrupted by his wondering by what right the owner's of the land possess this silence -- and the narrator moves outside him, above him, into the broader scene.

Coetzee's epigraph for the book sounds oddly familiar, I'm sure I've heard it quoted elsewhere: "War is the father of all and king of all. Some he shows as gods, others as men. Some he makes slaves, and others free." -- Or possibly I am thinking of some other similar quotation; I think this aphorism is composed in the style of some classical writer, but I'm not sure who...

Update: the epigraph is from a fragmentary writing of Heraclitus, quoted by Hippolytus in Refutatio Ⅸ.

posted afternoon of June 20th, 2009: Respond
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Reasons

Between this reason and the truth that he would never announce himself, however, lay a gap wider than the distance separating him from the firelight. Always, when he tried to explain himself to himself, there remained a gap, a hole, a darkness before which his understanding baulked, into which it was useless to pour words. The words were eaten up, the gap remained. His was always a story with a hole in it: a wrong story, always wrong.
What a startlingly elegant description of bad faith!

One thing that is puzzling me a bit about this novel (halfway through) is the complete absense of race. I would have thought race and racial tension would be important factors in South Africa of the mid-to-late 20th Century; but so far there has been absolutely no mention of it, everything is class tension among characters whose race is not mentioned but I don't see how it could be other than white. I'm not quite sure what to make of this; one idea is that apartheid means the white characters have no interaction with blacks -- though my understanding was that blacks were transported from the "homelands" into white areas to work -- another possibility is that I'm reading this wrong, and the setting is not historical South Africa but a hypothetical, allegorical location.

posted evening of June 20th, 2009: Respond

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

Pitch-perfect

My initial reaction to part 2 of Life and Times of Michael K was to feel kind of let down at the change in narrative perspective -- it seemed kind of like if the the next section after Benjy's narrative in The Sound and the Fury had been told a clinician attempting to diagnose Benjy... But I warmed to it pretty quickly. It is not Michael's story, this section of the novel is the doctor's story; I could express it as a criticism of Coetzee, that he is only telling one person's story at a time, not allowing his characters to interact -- but I think this sort of solitude is part of the fabric of the universe he has built here.

As the section goes on, Coetzee seems more and more comfortable in the doctor's consciousness. This passage, from just after they've found that Michael has absconded, is full of rigor and insight and beauty:

It occurred to me that if I followed after him, proceeding down the avenue in a straight line, I could be at the beach by two o'clock. Was there any reason, I asked myself, why order and discipline should not crumble today rather than tomorrow or next month or next year? What would yield the greater benefit to mankind: if I spent the afternoon taking stock in my dispensary, or if I went to the beach and took off my clothes and lay in my underpants absorbing the benign spring sun, watching the children frolic in the water, later buying an ice-cream from the kiosk on the parking lot, if the kiosk is still there? What did Noël ultimately achieve labouring at his desk to balance the bodies out against the bodies in? Would he not be better off taking a nap? Maybe the universal sum of happiness would be increased if we declared this afternoon a holiday and went down to the beach, commandant, doctor, chaplain, PT instructors, guards, dog-handlers all together with the six hard cases from the detention block, leaving behind the concussion case to look after things. Perhaps we might meet some girls. For what reason were we waging the war, after all, but to augment the sum of happiness in the universe? Or was I misremembering, was that another war I was thinking of?

Also in this section we get (from Noël) the first mention of any concrete dates -- he is 60 years old, and he was a child "in the 1930's" -- this seems to confirm my idea that the novel is set around 1980. And again from Noël, the first mention of race in the novel, in a context that I am having a lot of trouble making any sense of: In response to the doctor's question of why they are fighting the war, he says "We are fighting this war so that minorities will have a say in their destinies." So first off, does "minorities" mean "non-white people" in South African usage? I had figured that was an American idiom -- it certainly doesn't make sense in South Africa where Boers are less than 10% of the population. And what would it mean for someone working for the South African army in 1980 to say that? I'm just confused here.

posted afternoon of June 21st, 2009: 5 responses

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