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J. M. Coetzee

Written by eastern writer on Monday, December 31, 2007

Novelist, critic and academic John Michael Coetzee is a leading South African intellectual who has made a significant contribution to contemporary South African culture. One of a number of youthful, dissident literary voices speaking against the apartheid regime in the 1970s and 1980s, Coetzee's distinctive prose was identified early on as one of the most eloquent and radical of the period. His work has been compared favourably with Nabokov, Kafka and Conrad, and by the time of mature works such as Foe (1986) he had already achieved international acclaim.

Much of Coetzee's writing reflects either directly or indirectly on recent events unfolding within South African society. Coetzee's task is not an easy one, considering the rapid, often traumatic changes currently transforming and dividing the country. Yet, as his recent Booker Prize-winning novel, Disgrace (1999), demonstrates, Coetzee is a writer ready to meet the challenge. At the centre of Disgrace stands 52-year-old David Lurie, an English professor who spends more time plotting romance with his female students than on the Romantic poetry he is meant to be teaching them. Eventually found out and disgraced by the University, the professor retreats to his daughter's isolated small holding. The personal differences between David and his daughter unfold against this backdrop as tensions rise within the recently emancipated local community. Coetzee's unforgiving vision of South Africa exposes the insecurities of a floundering, but still dominant white culture.

Disgrace illuminates two of the key concerns of Coetzee's work: the historical motivations behind colonialism and its legacies in the post-colonial era. For Coetzee the post-colonial does not signal the formal disintegration of empire, but rather a new, and in many respects more insidious phase of colonisation. For example, his debut novel, Dusklands (1974) comprises two novellas that evoke apparently discrete historical events, one colonial and the other post-colonial, in a manner that clearly asks us to reflect upon their relationship to one another and to contemporary South Africa more generally. The first handles America's part in Vietnam. The second is set 200 years earlier and focuses on a Boer settler in the 1700s. The very different protagonists of these narratives: Eugene Dawn (an expert in psychological warfare) and Coetzee (an adventurer and pioneer), turn out to be involved in strikingly similar forms of oppression.

It is this kind of relationship between oppressor and oppressed in the second part of Dusklands that also structures one of Coetzee's most powerful, disturbing and successful works to date: Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). The novel, which is on one level an exploration of the relationship between barbarity and civilisation, takes its title from a poem by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. Winning the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the spare, razor sharp prose celebrated in Waiting for the Barbarians has become a trademark of Coetzee's later fiction. Set in an unspecified frontier land, a desert landscape at indeterminate point in time, the novel is an allegorical exploration of the relationship between coloniser and colonised. The Magistrate, who is in charge of the frontier settlement, finds himself caught between the empire that employs him and the barbarians for whom he feels increasing sympathy. Through the conflicted perspective of the Magistrate it becomes apparent that the barbarians are not simply a population 'out there' beyond the frontier occupied by the empire. The shocking, barbaric violence that Colonel Joll deals out to an elderly barbarian and a young child in the opening pages works to draw into question the very distinction between civilised and savage. The barbarians, it would seem, lie at the heart of the very empire that constructs them as other.

Waiting for the Barbarians was followed by the brilliant Booker Prize winning Life & Times of Michael K (1983). The allegorical abstractions of Coetzee's Barbarians are exchanged here for a moving, intimate account of Michael K and his mother. The plight of these two characters, both of whom are physically disabled, gets worse as they find themselves without a secure home or income in a South Africa torn apart by civil war. A dream of a better life in the country motivates their decision to leave the city behind. Their tortuous journey out of Cape Town (Michael pushes his mother in a wheelbarrow) offers little sign of liberation or escape. Michael's mum dies, along with the dream they shared, long before they reach the dreamed of destination. Like Disgrace, the novel evokes a rural retreat, an idyllic setting that ultimately fails to materialise and resolve the problems of the protagonist. (Escape, incidentally, is also the organising theme of Coetzee's most recent novel, Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002)). These are often bleak uncompromising works of fiction in which resolutions tend to replace solutions.

Coetzee's critically acclaimed novel Foe signals a temporary departure from the South African landscape. A short, powerful book, it reinvents the story of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe from within the city of London. Re-imagining a canonical novel of British imperialism, it adopts and adapts a distinct strategy within postcolonial fiction (including Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea and Morag Gunn's Prospero's Child), as it writes back to the culture of the coloniser. Foe is ultimately a tale about tale telling: the female narrator, Susan Barton, tells her story in order to find somebody who will publish it. Yet for all its richness and variety of voice, Foe is most notably a novel about silence, the silence of Friday, whose voice Coetzee refuses to represent. Through the silent centre of this text, Coetzee manages to expose the extent to which language, too, is a key instrument of colonisation.

More recently, in work like The Master of Petersburg (1994), Coetzee signals his indebtedness to other literary figures and traditions notably the work of Dostoevsky and Crime and Punishment. Coetzee's various influences can also be found within his critical writing, of which Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999 (2001) is an excellent recent example. Bringing together 29 essays he includes writers as varied as T. S. Eliot, Defoe, Turgenev, Kafka, Rushdie, Gordimer and Lessing, not to mention an account of the 1995 Rugby World Cup.


Professor J. M. Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940. He studied at the University of Cape Town and the University of Texas, after which he taught at the State University of New York in Buffalo. He returned home to South Africa to take up a series of positions at the University of Cape Town, the last being Distinguished Professor of Literature. During his latter years there, he also travelled frequently to teach at universities in the US.

His first published book was Dusklands (1974), and this was followed by several further novels including In the Heart of the Country (1977), winner of the Central News Agency (CNA) Literary Award and filmed as Dust in 1985; Life & Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999), both winners of the Booker Prize for Fiction; and Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons (2003). His most recent novels are Slow Man (2005) and Diary of a Bad Year (2007).

J. M. Coetzee also writes non-fiction. White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (1988) is a collection of essays on South African literature and culture, and Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (1992) is a collection of essays and interviews with David Attwell. His books Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997) and Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002) are both fictionalised memoirs. He is also a translator of Dutch and Afrikaans literature.

J. M. Coetzee emigrated to Australia in 2002, where he has an honorary position at the University of Adelaide. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

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Genres (in alphabetical order)

Autobiography, Essays, Fiction, Non-fiction


Dusklands Ravan Press (Johannesburg), 1974

In the Heart of the Country Secker & Warburg, 1977

Waiting for the Barbarians Secker & Warburg, 1980

Life & Times of Michael K Secker & Warburg, 1983

A Land Apart: A South African Reader (editor with André Brink) Faber and Faber, 1986

Foe Secker & Warburg, 1986

White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa Yale University Press, 1988

Age of Iron Secker & Warburg, 1990

Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews Harvard University Press, 1992

The Master of Petersburg Secker & Warburg, 1994

Giving Offense: A Study of Literary Censorship University of Chicago Press, 1996

Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life Secker & Warburg, 1997

Disgrace Secker & Warburg, 1999

The Lives of Animals Princeton University Press, 1999

Stranger Shores: Literary Essays 1986-1999 Secker, 2001

Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II Secker & Warburg, 2002

Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons Secker & Warburg, 2003

Landscape with Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands (translator) Princeton University Press, 2004

Slow Man Secker & Warburg, 2005

Diary of a Bad Year Secker & Warburg, 2007

* * Read about books by J. M. Coetzee at - the British Council's book database and global online book club
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Prizes and awards

1977 Central News Agency (CNA) Literary Award (South Africa) In the Heart of the Country

1980 Central News Agency (CNA) Literary Award (South Africa) Waiting for the Barbarians

1980 James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction) Waiting for the Barbarians

1981 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize Waiting for the Barbarians

1983 Booker Prize for Fiction Life & Times of Michael K

1984 Central News Agency (CNA) Literary Award (South Africa) Life & Times of Michael K

1984 Prix Fémina Etranger (France) Life & Times of Michael K

1987 Jerusalem Prize Foe

1990 Sunday Express Book of the Year Age of Iron

1995 Irish Times International Fiction Prize The Master of Petersburg

1998 Lannan Literary Award (Fiction)

1999 Booker Prize for Fiction Disgrace

2000 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best Book) Disgrace

2003 Nobel Prize for Literature

2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region, Best Book) (shortlist) Slow Man

2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (shortlist) Slow Man


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