Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Coetzee's Postcolonial Diaspora

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Coetzee's Postcolonial Diaspora

Article excerpt

My subject is the poetics of place but more particularly, the ways in which place comes to define what is possible for the subject-of- writing. I'll begin with that hazardous expedient of Coetzee criticism: the quotation from an interview. This one is taken from the Stockholm newspaper Dagens Nyheter of 7th December, 2003, shortly before the Nobel ceremony. The tone here is, at first, parodic, but the historical diagnosis is reliably Coetzeean:

  I am a late representative of the vast movement of European
  expansion that took place from the sixteenth century to the
  mid-twentieth century of the Christian era, a movement that
  more or less achieved its purpose of conquest and settlement
  in the Americas and Australasia, but failed totally in Asia
  and almost totally in Africa. ... I am also a representative of
  the generation in South Africa for whom apartheid was created,
  the generation that was meant to benefit most from it.

The sweeping temporal and spatial gestures express a characteristic resistance to being positioned, as if to say, if historical positionahry is at issue, then let's have the entire frame out in the open. The tone is less defensive in the second sentence where the referent is apartheid. I will come back to the trials of positionality in Coetzee's writing, but for the moment let me acknowledge the tone and move on to the substance.

Nowhere, Coetzee says, have four centuries of European expansion been an unequivocal success. It "more or less achieved its purpose of conquest and settlement in the Americas and Australasia, but failed totally in Asia and almost totally in Africa." The histories of conquest and settlement are not discussed in national-cultural terms- -Lusophone, Hispanic, Dutch, Francophone, British--but as arising from a broadly singular situation--Europe--which meets with different outcomes. Whether these outcomes are the result of internal factors in the colonizing cultures, whether they are a function of varying degrees and kinds of resistance, or both of these factors, is not specified; instead, the postcolonial world is arranged in degrees of success.

This is one measure of the significance of Coetzee's relocation from South Africa to Australia and its influence on his work: he has moved from a part of the world where conquest and settlement have almost totally failed, to one where they have more or less achieved their purpose. To put this narrative in literary-historical terms: if modernism and its legacies are in some measure an enactment of the violence of modernity then Coetzee's (post)modernism is an enactment of that violence; more trenchantly, however, it is an enactment of South Africa's violence and his writing has yet to be touched by anything equivalent in Australian history. As Elizabeth Costello puts it,

  We're not a country of extremes--I'd say we're rather pacific--but
  we are a country of extremities. We have lived our extremities
  because there hasn't been a great deal of resistance in any
  direction. If you begin to fall, there isn't much to stop
  you. (15)

And:

  You have to realize how vast Australia is. We
  are only fleas on Australia's backside, we late settlers. (29)

It is the geography of Australia that has made its mark on Coetzee, not its history (or rather, it is the idea of Australian geography that has influenced him rather than its particularity) whereas in South Africa, as the essays on land and landscape of White Writing reveal, geography and history are, in a certain sense, indistinguishable.

Just as significant as the spatial frame in the comments from Dagens Nyheter is the temporal: European expansion may have been in retreat for some time in different regions of the globe but it ended, he says, in the mid-twentieth century; in other words, it is the experience of his particular generation of settler-colonials to live out the end of Empire and decolonization ("live out" is his verb-- later in the interview he says he has lived out this history in his writing as much as in his day-to-day life). …

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