Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

J.M. Coetzee and the Idea of Africa

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

J.M. Coetzee and the Idea of Africa

Article excerpt


The debate over representations of Africa in J.M. Coetzee's fiction tends to collapse into two irreconcilable positions: (a) he is either uninterested in the African subject or represents it as diminished, or (b) this accusation is naive and oblivious to the autotelic qualities of Coetzee's fiction. This article seeks to move beyond these positions by looking at moments in Coetzee's writing when he actually does deploy Africa as sign. Analysis of these moments reveals that the sign of Africa in Coetzee is frequently rendered potent, mysterious and obscure--occulted--in order to achieve certain aesthetic effects. These effects are consistent with his efforts to enable fiction to reprise prevailing historical discourses.


Die debar oor voorstellings van Afrika in J.M. Coetzee se fiksie is geneig om in twee onversoenbare kampe uiteen te val: (a) Die kamp wat meen dat hy of nie in die onderwerp van Afrika belangstel nie of dit as "verklein" voorstel, en (b) die kamp wat meen dat voornoemde beskuldiging naief is en nie die outoteliese eienskappe van Coetzee se fiksie in aanmerking neem nie. In hierdie artikel probeer die outeur by hierdie standpunte verby te beweeg deur te kyk na momente in Coetzee se fiksie wanneer hy Afrika wel as teken benut. 'n Ontleding van hierdie momente toon dat die teken van Afrika in Coetzee dikwels kragtig, geheimsinnig en duister--okkulties--gemaak word ten einde bepaalde estetiese effekte te bewerkstellig. Hierdie effekte vorm deel van sy poging om fiksie in staat te stel om heersende historiese diskoerse te hervat.


[M]y intellectual allegiances are clearly European, not African.

(J.M. Coetzee, Dagens Nyheter 7 December, 2003)

There are two obvious positions in the polemics suggested by this title, which I shall begin by naming in order to open other possibilities. The first would be that in J.M. Coetzee the African subject or African humanity is under-represented and undervalued. The kind of evidence that is ready to hand for this argument would be that in Foe (1986) Friday is mutilated and voiceless; in Disgrace (1999) Petrus is a schemer who connives in Lucy's rape; in Age of Iron (1990) the youths, Florence and Thabane, allow their war with the regime to become a war on the very concept of childhood, ensuring that the new order will be incapable of regeneration. This position finds it regrettable that the novels tend to place resistance in question rather than representing it positively; where it is represented it is displaced onto faceless subjects like the barbarians, or marginal characters like Michael K whose refusals are unrecognisable in terms that have any connection with the African experience of colonialism. Especially awkward in this view is the indubitably seedy figure of Emmanuel Egudu, the Nigerian novelist in Elizabeth Costello (2004) who manufactures authenticity by celebrating the ersatz orality of the African novel to sustain himself in the Western literary marketplace. He also uses his exoticism to achieve sexual conquest (that Costello reveals herself to have succumbed to him in the past matters little--the character seems mildly offensive).

The opposing position points to the literary naivete of these objections: they all demand that the game being played is that of representation, Darstellung as Gayatri Spivak would describe it, mimesis, or rather, a simplified understanding of realism, whereas the games the novels play are autotelic, referring frequently to other discourses and not, in the first instance (or as the immediate referent) to social conditions themselves (Spivak 1994: 71). Typically, Coetzee deconstructs the discourses of power from within. In this view Coetzee is also said to acknowledge the African presence, but he withdraws from directly representing it for what is an ethically defensible reason, which is that he avoids the epistemological capture that would only confirm the position of privilege. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.