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J.M. Coetzee
London: Secker & Warburg, 2002.
£14.99, 169 pages, ISBN 0-436-205823.

David Sorfa
Liverpool John Moores University

When writing about J.M. Coetzee it seems that there is a familiar set of adjectives to which reviewers and critics inevitably resort: arrogant, cruel, austere, honest, precise, ironic, bleak, abstemious, ethereal, spare, dry, controlled, elegant, cold, chilly and perhaps unexpectedly, humorous. It is words of this ilk, words that suggest a certain reticence and even silence, that are used to describe Coetzee's writing style, his characters, plots and, often, Coetzee himself. For somebody as notoriously uncommunicative, in person at least, as Coetzee, much has been made of his foray into autobiography with his 1997 Boyhood and his latest third-person Youth. It is as if we are waiting for the moment when Coetzee finally lets down his guard and announces unambiguously his intentions. Famously reserved in social situations, we fondly imagine that it is to us that he will suddenly warm, perhaps partake of a few glasses of wine, and just tell us simply and with a few loud guffaws exactly what the joke is that we all seem to vaguely glimpse in the man and his books.

Much like the magistrate in Coetzee's nowhere fable of a man obsessed with trying to understand the life of a crippled and blinded woman, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), the reader seems to be constantly on the edge of some sort of revelation that never quite seems to come: "But with this woman it is as if there is no interior, only a surface across which I hunt back and forth seeking entry. Is this how her torturers felt hunting their secret, whatever they thought it was?" (43). Coetzee's work seems filled with characters who cannot see or talk and who are constantly being interrogated by well-meaning white men to divulge their inner meaning. In Foe (1986), the servant Friday has had his tongue removed and in the finale of the novel his drowned mouth finally produces an enigmatic speech: " His mouth opens. From inside him comes a slow stream, without breath, without interruption....Soft and cold, dark and unending, it beats against my eyelids, against the skin of my face" (157). What that speech is telling us is impossible to know. It is difficult therefore not to imagine that Coetzee sees his own autobiographical project as fundamentally doomed yet in some way essential. In his 1969 Ph.D. on Samuel Beckett he writes: "It now seems clear that when all is called into doubt no assertion can be made; yet the process of doubt, uttered by the doubter, remains on the page. We read, so to speak, a sequence of sentences that have been scored through: they form no statement because they have been cancelled, yet we read them all the same." So we read Coetzee's fictionalised reminiscences (since all reminiscences are necessarily fiction) in the understanding that their truth is under an ironic erasure. For Coetzee the subaltern both cannot speak and must speak.

Since we are dealing with the question of autobiography and the extent to which it is possible or not, perhaps I should divulge the extent of my own personal encounters with Coetzee. While a post-graduate student at the University of Cape Town in the early 90s, J.M. Coetzee and that other luminary of white writing in South Africa, André Brink, ran a newly established M.A. course. The contrast in teaching styles between the two men could not have been more different. While Brink talked eloquently about the incidence of animal imagery in the work of Zola, Coetzee seemed to hardly say anything at all (quite a feat considering that this was a full-time 2 year taught course). Needless to say, gossip about these two literary stars among our student group was rife and as the course wore on it seemed that many considered Coetzee to be holding out on us. The only time I remember Coetzee saying something was when, halfway through a particularly gruelling 6 month section foolishly entitled "Postmodernism", some of the students openly challenged the venerable professor to explain what, exactly, this thing "postmodernism" was. After an uncomfortable silence, Coetzee answered, "It's something to do with loss" and would not be drawn any further into the matter. It strikes me now that the two years of angst that the course caused many of us was worth it just to hear this slightly gnomic and perhaps crushingly obvious sentence. He was, and I presume still is, an unfailingly charming man (although many of the group disagreed during the protracted drinking sessions that often followed the Thursday meetings). To what extent this little anecdote adds to the world's knowledge of Coetzee is uncertain (its accuracy may also be questionable).

In Joseph Conrad's short story Youth: A Narrative (1898), a rather dull story of high times on the high seas, the best bits are the narrator's apostrophes to a lost past: "Oh, the glamour of youth! Oh, the fire of it, more dazzling than the flames of the burning ship, throwing a magic light on the wide earth, leaping audaciously to the sky, presently to be quenched by time, more cruel, more pitiless, more bitter than the sea—and like the flames of the burning ship surrounded by an impenetrable night" (29-30). So Coetzee's Youth seems to burn in a similar way: illuminating little, consuming itself, and yet providing a joyous spectacle of destruction that should be celebrated rather than interrogated. While Coeztee's book takes us from South Africa to London in the 1960s, from Ford Madox Ford to computer programming for IBM, from one unsuccessful love affair to another, there seems to be a tenderness for the follies of youth and a wry understanding of mortality. What is the book about? Well, it's got something to do with loss.

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