Only the Big Questions

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J.M. Coetzee almost never gives interviews, so I counted myself very lucky when he granted me an audience in the early 1990s. We met in his office in Cape Town, the novelist a pale and austere presence in his tweeds and corduroys, and I under strict instructions from his agent to avoid questions about the son who fell from a balcony, the ex-wife who died of cancer and the manner in which these private tragedies might have influenced his most recent writings. We were to talk only of literature, but my opening question was greeted by dead silence. Coetzee was writing the question on his notepad. He pondered it for several seconds, then proceeded to analyze the assumptions on which it was based, a process that offered some sharp insights into my intellectual shortcomings but revealed absolutely nothing about Coetzee himself. All my questions were similarly treated, and I wound up sounding like a reporter for a fanzine. "What kind of music do you like?" I asked, desperately. The pen scratched, the great writer cogitated. "Music I have never heard before," he said.

And this is about as colorful an anecdote as you'll ever hear about John Maxwell Coetzee (kut-see-uh). He is intensely private (some say cripplingly shy) and deeply (some say coldly) intellectual, but above all, he is a grand master of the complex game of postmodern literary theory, inclined to speak — when he speaks at all — in riddles and codes. As a South African, he lived in a society in which writers were always issuing polemics and producing grimly realistic novels about our perpetual crisis. Not Coetzee. He still declines to take sides, join causes or issue comments. He is reputed to enjoy rugby, practice vegetarianism and live in a house with formidable electronic defenses, but the truth is anyone's guess.


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And yet, and yet. When all the literary games are done and his last sentence deconstructed, Coetzee will be remembered for something quite simple: here was a writer who described, more truly than any other, what it was to be white and conscious in the face of apartheid's stupidities and cruelties. This may perplex people from outside South Africa, because the word apartheid is never uttered in his novels, and the settings are not necessarily South African. In 1980, when Coetzee's masterpiece Waiting for the Barbarians was published, I was in the U.S., living among people who took it as a surreal cowboy story set on some nameless frontier and wondered what all the fuss was about. For me, and for many white South Africans, it was an unbearably painful allegory about our daily lives and moral dilemmas, a book that engaged on a psychic level so deep and compelling that reading it left one dazed and hypnotized.

Barbarians alone was enough to earn Coetzee literature's ultimate accolade, but there were many more great novels in his pen, foremost among them Life and Times of Michael K (1983), the first of his two Booker prizewinners, and Foe (1986), the story of an Englishwoman who, stranded on a desert island, struggles desperately to communicate with a black slave whose tongue has been cut out. On its face, the novel is a retelling of the Robinson Crusoe fable, but in its depths I discerned something else entirely, the most profound book ever written about race relations in a society where whites were often separated from blacks by an abyss of linguistic and cultural incomprehension. "Is this not true?" I asked during our interview. "Is this not what you are saying?" The pen scratched, the writer cogitated. "I would not wish to deny you your reading," said Coetzee.

As the larger South African drama deflated, Coetzee seemed to turn to his private life for inspiration. His son died in a mysterious fall; he wrote The Master of Petersburg, a novel about a father similarly stricken. His ex-wife died of cancer, and he produced Age of Iron, a work that contains some of the most harrowing descriptions of pain ever written. In the mid-'90s, he came forth with autobiographical accounts of his youth, and then came Disgrace (1999), the tale of an arrogant white academic hounded out of his job by the gender police, humiliated by criminals and relegated to a life of cringing abjection on the outermost margins of the new South Africa. The work was haunted by disillusion and pessimism, and nobody was particularly surprised when Coetzee, now 63, quietly departed for Australia in 2002, leaving some of us asking: Now that Coetzee has left us, is his Nobel really a triumph for the Rainbow Nation, as our newspapers claim?

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