Incriminating Documents: Nechaev and Dostoevsky in J.M. Coetzee's 'The Master of Petersburg.' (Sergei Nechaev, Fyodor Dostoevsky)

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In violent times, some novelists abandon literature altogether, taking to the streets or barricades; others, of course, bring the streets and barricades into their fiction, exposing suffering and injustice, arguing, pleading, and persuading. Those who do neither will stand accused of complacency, perhaps collaboration; like Christ, people intent on justice often believe that those who are not for them are against them. In our time South Africa has been one of those places that seem to compel writers into action and, as a professor at the University of Cape Town, J. M. Coetzee has spent much of his adult life in a country where, for many years, guerillas were locked in combat with a repressive state. And though the university was doubtless far more sheltered than some dusty township in Soweto, it was no less vulnerable to the apocalyptic civil war many reasonable people were predicting. In such circumstances, Coetzee's failure to engage politics directly brought him much criticism; Nadine Gordimer, for example, argued that indirection, allegory, and distance in his novels kept Coetzee safe, preventing his work from being banned by the old South African censorship.(1)

Yet of course Coetzee's novels frequently attend to the cruelest realities. From the bombing and defoliating of Dusklands to the labor camps and burning settlements of The Life and Times of Michael K. and The Age of Iron, history in his novels has been marked by violent invasions, by mutilated bodies, by civil war. Standing apart from this history, but somehow engaged and responsible and guilty, is the figure of the writer, perhaps a colonial administrator with a taste for archeology, perhaps the employee of a think tank, fingering a photo of a sergeant from Texas raping a Vietnamese child. Such figures tell us that Coetzee has always agonized over the question of where writers stand in relationship to public atrocity, what responsibilities they bear for it, and how they might usefully respond. But the quality of a writer's political engagements, he told an interviewer, should not be measured in the simple way Gordimer suggests; a naive realism only reproduces the injustice it describes, licking wounds rather than offering a critical alternative to the mind set that produced injustice in the first place. In place of such realism, Coetzee offers a more sophisticated, ironic narrative, one capable of "demythologizing history."(2) Such narratives, he says, are not "supplementary" to history; that is, they cannot be checked against it, as a teacher might check a child's homework against the answer book; rather they are a rival, sometimes even an enemy discourse. Thus the point of an ironic narrative is not so much that it substitutes a more accurate version of history and politics for the received one as that it lays bare the unacknowledged assumptions that shape both stories.

Coetzee's impulse to assess the relationship between writers and public violence becomes even more evident in The Master of Petersburg, where he turns to the theme of terrorism. This time, however, the fictional figure of the writer is played not by an obscure bureaucrat or a cancer-ridden professor writing her last letters to a daughter in America, but by Fyodor Dostoevsky, author of the first and perhaps master terrorist novel. In Demons, Dostoevsky became the first of a distinguished line of writers, one that grew to include Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Andre Malraux and such contemporary novelists as Doris Lessing and Don DeLillo, to use the relationship between terrorists and writers or intellectuals to question the writer's responsibility for violence. The historical Dostoevsky had transformed the notorious Sergei Nechaev into the sociopath Peter Verkhovensky; Coetzee invents an encounter between a fictional Dostoevsky and Nechaev that thoroughly destabilizes the relationship between the novelist, by middle age a staunch czarist, and his subject. Although never simply doubles for each other, Dostoevsky and Nechaev, in Coetzee's version, are drawn into a dialogue that points to their disturbing similarities. …