Exploding the Rules of the Game: J.M. Coetzee Writing South Africa

By Jolly, Rosemary | Queen's Quarterly, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Exploding the Rules of the Game: J.M. Coetzee Writing South Africa


Jolly, Rosemary, Queen's Quarterly


Against Totalitarian States

J.M. COETZEE, unlike many other South African writers, including fellow Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, has always rejected being identified as a "South African writer." This may seem odd for one so committed to writing as an ethical form; but Coetzee, together with fellow South African writer Njabulo Ndebele, was adamant: to make one's cultural capital as an artist off possession of the anti-apartheid label was to diminish the art. For it is not difficult to create art that identifies apartheid as a crime against humanity. What is more difficult is to create literary forms that shed light on how the power structures that feed human rights violations come into being, and how they might be avoided. What kinds of novel imaginative forms can be used to deconstruct the supposed logic of structures of totalitarianism?

Andre Brink, yet another of South Africa's writing giants, has stated in the wake of South Africa's transition that "It is one thing to die for liberation; it is something entirely different to live with freedom." What Ndebele and Coetzee have both argued, in their different ways, is that a focus on the evils of the oppressor does little to foster the sorts of self-knowledge that are required to produce creative resources needed to dislodge that oppression. This is why Coetzee looks upon blunt violations of censorship laws as having a very limited role in the struggle for freedom. If the minute the censorship laws ban scenes of interracial sex (as the Censorship Board did in South Africa), the writer responds by writing scenes of interracial sex, the state is still, in a significant sense, dictating what the writer is doing. More insidiously, the anti-apartheid writer has enabled the state to dictate the content of her/his works. As Coetzee pointed out during the height of the State(s) of Emergency declared by South African President P.W. Botha in 1986,

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

  ... there is something tawdry about following the state in this way,
  making its vile mysteries the occasion of fantasy. For the writer the
  deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma
  proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or
  else to produce representations of them. The true challenge is: how
  not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one's
  own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one's own terms.
  (1)

Historical Complicities

IT was South Africa's own eagle-eyed critic and poet that first noted the resistance to Coetzee's modern fables among readers of South African literature, precisely because Coetzee refused to see South Africa as unique in a history of colonialism. Coetzee, Stephen Watson pointed out, had remarked in an interview in 1978 that he was inclined "to see the South African situation today as only one manifestation of a wider historical situation to do with colonialism, late colonialism, neo-colonialism." (2) In order to sustain this link, Coetzee's first three novels describe fabular landscapes that resist realist representation of South Africa, a factor which brought many, including one of Coetzee's earliest supporters, Nadine Gordimer, to accuse him of various forms of escapism. Gordimer saw what she described as the allegorical mode of Coetzee's early works as indicating a "stately fastidiousness; or a state of shock," demonstrating the fact that Coetzee was resisting the "daily, grubby, tragic" consequences of apartheid. "He seemed able to deal with the horror he saw ... only--if brilliantly--if this were to be projected into another time and plane." (3)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

What this response to Coetzee's work denied, of course, is not only Coetzee's insistence on the West's complicity in the making of apartheid South Africa and other forms of neo-colonialism world-wide; what got to Gordimer, I think, was Coetzee's assertion of the white writer's inability to hold herself apart merely through the writing of critical fictions. …

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