J.M. Coetzee

South Africa’s reclusive Nobel Laureate.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

It is surely a sign of a writer’s achievement when old work can reacquire a startling, contemporary urgency. Of no recent Nobelist is this truer than J.M. Coetzee (pronounced cut-ZEE-uh). The prize may be awarded for a lifetime’s achievement, but this Nobel feels as if it has been awarded for Coetzee’s great allegorical novels from the early ‘80s, Waiting for the Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K, which are uncannily in keeping with the temper of our War-on-Terror times. Reread today, the novels are chillingly prescient.

This is a kind of historical joke, because Coetzee has long stressed the ahistorical nature of his work. South Africa received its only other literary Nobel 12 years ago, when the Swedish committee awarded Nadine Gordimer, the doyenne of antiapartheid writers, the prize a year after Nelson Mandela strode triumphantly from prison. But where Gordimer has tended to write directly out of her historical moment and speak (in fiction and in essays) back into it, Coetzee has recoiled from attempts to read his novels through the politics of the time. (When there was talk of turning Waiting for the Barbarians into a movie, he reputedly made it a condition that the film be set outside his homeland so as not to compromise the novel’s allegorical placelessness.) He has recoiled, too, from the public demands of the writer-activist. A formidable recluse, he is the most ascetic and cerebral of contemporary writers. Dry wit doesn’t get any drier than one South African writer’s remark, on hearing that J.M. Coetzee had landed the Nobel: “We can be proud of our homeboy.” Coetzee is a homeboy who doesn’t hang.

I discovered as much when, newly out of college, I stumbled into a junior lectureship in English at the University of Cape Town. My mind was a jumble of shapeless intellectual enthusiasms, and I was eager to the meet the man known to possess the department’s most searing intelligence. In person, Coetzee proved as difficult to fathom as friends had predicted. He possessed the tiniest repertoire of corridor pleasantries of anyone I’ve ever met. He talked little and never small.

Like many a great writer, Coetzee has successfully turned a temperament into a style. His sentences sound like no one else’s; he strips them down, scouring them of adjectives and sentiment. He is the least lush of novelists, at the furthest remove from Arundhati Roy with her tropical thickets of descriptive foliage. Yet Coetzee’s best writing feels, paradoxically, both spare and richly textured, not least because he is that unfashionable rarity, a novelist of ideas. Coetzee has a capacity to think simultaneously like a semiotician, a literary historian, a polyglot comparative linguist, a novelist, a cultural anthropologist, a computer programmer, and a French structuralist. He possessed a profound interdisciplinary intelligence when interdisciplinary was barely a known word.

Yet sometimes that intelligence tempts him into forms of cerebral self-display that clash with his fictional talents. Not least among those talents is a gift for spawning characters who are ungiving and unforgiving toward themselves; characters who may be chilly, calculating, acerbic, even cruel, but remain unforgettable. When (in Foe, In the Heart of the Country, and, now, Elizabeth Costello) Coetzee slows a novel’s narrative pulse with overt philosophizing, his characters suffer, becoming less animated and less memorable.

Elizabeth Costello, in the new novel of that name (published last month), is the latest addition to Coetzee’s genealogy of abrasive narrators. Coetzee has organized the novel into public lectures or “lessons” delivered by Costello, a famous, elderly Australian novelist, who, with angular intelligence, ponders such subjects as “The Problem of Evil” and “The Philosophers and the Animals.” This is the kind of book that professors love, brimming with troubled, sometimes poignant inquiries into what it means to be human, into the ethics of empathy, the relation between the sciences and the arts, and the role of imagination in connecting us to animals. And it’s very good on the tension between Costello’s sagging flesh and her vital intelligence.

But too often Coetzee leaves us staring at the narrative’s distractingly visible conceptual scaffolding. Elizabeth Costello is ultimately too meta- to rank with his finest work. It’s closest in spirit to Foe, Coetzee’s postmodernist recasting of Robinson Crusoe. In Elizabeth Costello, as in Foe, we sense a gifted novelist of ideas short-changing his talent by offering up a novel of ideas about ideas.

It’s when it enters the vicinity of violence and paranoia that Coetzee’s writing is most magisterial—and most relaxed. It’s as if something eases in him, as if he’s back on native terrain. Which in a sense he is: As his compatriot Breyten Breytenbach once put it, apartheid South Africa was a “fear-frozen society.” Few writers convey fear’s freeze as viscerally as Coetzee. He is particularly good at summoning those places where fear becomes unfocused and out of scale and tilts over into paranoia, as it does in Waiting for the Barbarians and Life and Times of Michael K.

Set in an outpost of empire lorded over by the Third Bureau, Waiting for the Barbarians explores the political expediency of the idea of an Enemy. We witness the imperial forces, emboldened by technological hubris, set out to crush the barbarians in the name of saving civilization. Coetzee understands the brittle macho posturing, the deceits and self-deceits that mangle crusades against evil and end up fomenting enemies in the name of crushing them. The military commander ultimately accuses and tortures the novel’s narrator, a liberal magistrate, for consorting with the enemy. The magistrate has already been rendered ethically impotent by his own swirling fears and by empire’s call for solidarity.

Life and Times of Michael K continues Coetzee’s fascination with the deforming impact of the Enemy on civic values. Michael K, a simple man who simply wishes to garden, can find no space to live in peace amid a civil war. Wrongly accused of being in league with the guerrillas, K is interned in a prisoner-of-war camp without recourse to legal representation.

Coetzee doesn’t write realism: His novels cannot be pinned down to a history, be it apartheid South Africa or Bush’s increasingly authoritarian America. Yet it’s hard to believe that the Nobel committee, in coming to its judgment, wasn’t moved by the way Coetzee’s most astute writing speaks to this moment. A moment when an ill-conceived campaign against an ill-defined enemy risks creating in its wake a culture of surveillance, military hubris, anonymous internment, torture, more violence and counter-violence, and, among America’s citizenry, an immobilizing paranoia.