Memories of Underdevelopment

J.M. Coetzee’s account of his South African boyhood.

Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life
By J.M. Coetzee
Viking; 165 pages; $22.95

There are some epic moments in this slim volume–memories of bitterness and shame magnified by the fly-thick heat of the western Cape. Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life by J.M. Coetzee, the Booker Prize-winning white South African novelist and author of Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and Life & Times of Michael K (1983), tells of barren spaces. The first of these is a small town named Worcester, where Coetzee spent part of his childhood and where nothing grows. The second is the city of Cape Town, where his family returned after a stint in the hinterland and where dead babies rot in brown paper packets.

Part 1 of an autobiographical trilogy, Boyhood is the story of a boy forced to endure and imagine his way out of that barrenness. It is a writer’s memoir, minutely detailed and finely polished. Framed by a dystopic post-World War II South Africa–where the economy has moved from rural to urban, Afrikaner nationalists have risen to power, and apartheid is testing its wings–the story airs these larger happenings through the muggy lives of its young protagonist (the book spans years 10 through 13) and his family: his father, a nonpracticing attorney whom he despises; his mother, who is too close to him and to whom he is too close; and a younger brother, who he suspects may, at heart, be normal.

This last, you understand, is not a good thing. Normalcy, to which John the memoirist’s father is doomed and against which his mother is his own last bastion, must be avoided at all costs. On young John’s rejection of “normal,” that twee, tired word, turns the action of this book. He can isolate his every sensation, indulge his every impulse, in the untested space on either side of the n and the l. He identifies himself as a Roman Catholic–not because he is one (his family is nondenominationally Christian) but “because of Rome, because of Horatius and his two comrades, swords in their hands, crested helmets on their heads, indomitable courage in their glance, defending the bridge … against the Etruscan hordes.” The bathetic discovery that Roman Catholicism has little to do with Horatius has no effect on his philosophy of life (asked to choose between the Russians and the Americans, he chooses the Russians as he chose Rome, because of the letter r, “particularly the capital R, the strongest of all letters”); but there’s a larger reality that will not be ignored: the fact that he, thinking only of Leonidas at Thermopylae, has by his choice of faiths isolated himself in a Protestant-majority school. From that day forward, his social options are severely limited–to the other outcasts, Greenberg and Goldstein, who are, like him, in a despised religious minority.

Isolation and introspection, those staples of the Bildungsroman, scrape at young Coetzee’s sensibilities, refining them raw. Exposure–of ignorance, of soft pink feet in a classroom of callused soles–is anathema. Lessons must be mastered and feet remain shod. Ugliness and sloth thin the nostrils and raise the gorge. Appearances must be maintained and the desperately unhappy worlds of home and school kept separate, and they almost are. Above all is the yearning for greatness, for acts of wondrous heroism. But shy, brainy, and unpopular, Coetzee must make do with hyperbolic fantasy instead:

The water from the water-bottle is magically cool, but he pours no more than a mouthful at a time. He is proud of how little he drinks. It will stand him in good stead, he hopes, if he is ever lost in the veld. He wants to be a creature of the desert, this desert, like a lizard.

Boyhood’s grand fumblings put me in mind of V.S. Naipaul’s semiautobiographical novel A House for Mr. Biswas, whose protagonist is similarly prone to self-romanticization. Like Coetzee, Naipaul has been accused of avoiding politics when he writes. That’s a mystifying charge: Biswas’ paranoias, the magistrate’s coming apart in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, the antihero’s inability to connect with the world around him in his Life & Times of Michael K, are all directly traceable to the traumas of political change and the individual’s need to find stability within it.

Likewise, there is no mistaking the political underpinnings of Boyhood. There are cozy images of empire: John’s obsession with cricket (“not a game … the truth of life”), his description of beloved train rides (“sleeping snug and tight under the crisp white sheets and navy-blue blankets that the bedding attendant brings”). There are scenes from provincial life that derive from absolute hierarchies, which, in turn, are built on Manichaean oppositions: The Afrikaners, with whom he must share a last name, are crude, their language filthy beyond belief. The Coloureds, fathered by whites upon Hottentots, are poor and therefore good, naturally qualified by their lack of book-learning to fix a broken gadget or a leaky faucet. The Natives, rightful owners of the land, are immutable, their pithy pidginisms ("Man builds great boats of iron, but the sea is stronger”) deserving of the utmost reverence ("You must remember what he said. He was a wise old man,” intones Mrs. Coetzee–this, observes John, is the only time he has heard his mother use the word “wise”). Atop this heap are the English, the fascinating, remote English, “people who have not fallen into a rage because they live behind walls and guard their hearts well.” The stereotyping is powerful, the more so because it appears deceptively unquestioned.

T here is explicit racism, too. What, for example, does one do with a cup sullied by Coloured lips? Does one wash it, or does one discard it? (One bleaches it.) It is among these careful calibrations that John must come into his own. Painfully aware of the limitations of class, occasionally able to peer outside the prison house of race, he strains to exceed his inheritance. He despairs of his father the failed lawyer, the gunner who can’t hit a bird that doesn’t bother with flight, the pajama-clad alcoholic who squelches his cigarettes in his own excrement. The son copes, as any kid would, by leaving out the details that most offend him. When he tells his friends about his father’s service in the South African army during World War II, for instance, he drops the “lance” before “corporal.” But the father remains common. He cannot aspire.

The mother, however, is another matter. She has tragic potential. She lives in fear of breast cancer; adores Ingrid Bergman; learns to ride a bike, then, ridiculed by her family, abandons it. Underneath it all is her rock-solid, oppressive devotion to her son. Her tolerance feeds his tantrums, her servitude his warped sense of self. She, like him, is denied wholeness by her downwardly mobile lot and remains fluttery and distracted almost to the last, when she has the moment of clarity her son has dreaded. Unlike the mother, however, the son can and did flee into his books and beyond–to the pastoral beauty of his grandfather’s farm, for one, and toward his future. Not that Coetzee invites you to celebrate with him. In Boyhood, as in his other work, astringence remains his first principle. Frosty of tone, flinty of edge, he doesn’t tell you what to feel or how to escape. You’re on your own.