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The Boston Phoenix J.M. Coetzee

"Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life"

By David Kurnick

NOVEMBER 3, 1997: 

BOYHOOD: SCENES FROM PROVINCIAL LIFE, by J.M. Coetzee. Viking, 166 pages, $22.95.

J.M. Coetzee's new book belongs to two literary traditions -- one well-established, the other of more recent vintage -- that have become notorious as vehicles of self-justification: Boyhood is both an adult's memoir of an unhappy childhood and a white South African's memoir of life under apartheid. The book represents a startling departure for Coetzee. Until now, he has rarely written directly about himself, and his novels have taken a distinctly oblique approach to the troubled politics of his native country. Books like In the Heart of the Country (1977) and Waiting for the Barbarians (1982) are in some undeniable way powerful documents of South African oppression, but their action unfolds in a surreal, depopulated landscape in which a handful of characters move through grimly obscure networks of power. And in these post-apartheid years, when the whole world seems to be talking and writing about South Africa, Coetzee has turned his novelistic attention elsewhere; The Master of Petersburg (1994), the only piece of fiction he has published since the turnover of power to the ANC, is set in Dostoyevsky's Russia.

Boyhood seems to promise a casting away of this literary mask, a move toward a more frank mode of self-expression. But from the first sentence, it is obvious that we are still in the heart of Coetzee country: "They live on a housing estate outside the town of Worcester, between the railway line and the National Road." "They" are Coetzee's family, and Coetzee himself appears throughout the memoir only as "he." It is as if Coetzee has foreseen the dangers of sentimentality and self-indulgence that accompany his topic, and has chosen to interpose this chilly, third-person distance between his writing self and the boy he describes.

As in Coetzee's novels, this ironic weight is counterbalanced by startlingly ardent language and violent emotional material. Boyhood loosely chronicles a particularly unhappy period in Coetzee's childhood, when his family had moved from Cape Town to the decidedly more backward Worcester. Its two dominant themes are Coetzee's deep sense of alienation from Afrikaner culture (despite his Afrikaans surname) and his equally profound discomfort with the inexorable obligations of filial love, which he describes as "this cage in which he rushes back and forth, back and forth, like a poor bewildered baboon."

Coetzee deals astringently with his former self, often portraying "him" as arrogant or cruel without reason. In particular, Coetzee makes no attempt to suggest that his instinctive stance against Afrikanerdom grew out of some noble moral sense: indeed, Boyhood suggests powerfully that our political convictions have less to do with ethics than with our sense of style and the shape of our desire. When asked by his schoolmates whether he "likes" the US or the USSR, Coetzee chooses the Russians "because he likes the letter r, particularly the capital R, the strongest of all the letters." He despairs at the National Party victory in the 1948 elections not because it established apartheid but because it meant the banning of Marvel Comics, and in history class he sides with the British in the Boer war because they "march[ed] to their death to the skirl of bagpipes."

Most intriguingly, Coetzee links his political consciousness to his erotic awakening. In a society built on the notion that humanity is divided into strict subgroups, the young Coetzee is dangerously, indiscriminately alive to the beauty in the boys and girls -- Afrikaner, African, English, and "Coloured"-- who surround him: he has an idea of the perfect human body. When he sees that perfection, something thrills inside him; a gulf opens up, he is on the edge of falling. Of all the secrets that set him apart, this may in the end be the worst. Among all these boys he is the only one in whom this dark erotic current runs; amid all this innocence and normality, he is the only one who desires. But, as Coetzee paints it, "all this innocence and normality" is also what maintains the oppressive insularity of Worcester and South Africa itself; Boyhood suggests that the feelings assigned the least civic value -- shame, lust, alienation -- may be the fount of a kind of political humanity.

With its investigation of this dark terrain, Boyhood serves as a sort of sourcebook for the concerns that animate Coetzee's novels. But the book will frustrate readers looking for a portrait of a personality. Its subtitle, "Scenes from Provincial Life," is accurate: the book is an assemblage of piercingly observed moments and moods, but it seems largely without narrative direction, and its ending intrudes abruptly. The book's brevity seems born of a modesty on Coetzee's part that is at once political and cosmic: as if to wallow in his own history would be somehow indecent in the face of the more pressing stories his compatriots have to tell; as if any self-description at all is at bottom an arrogant and futile endeavor. It is this pressure -- the weight of the silence waiting just past the closing line -- that lends his novels such urgency. In Boyhood, that same pressure has yielded a harsh and truthful book, but its author remains as elusive as ever.

David Kurnick is deputy editor of Transition.


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