J.M. Coetzee

Read September 2003

A deep look into squalid lives, Coetzee's meditation on the emerging South Africa is unremitting in its darkness.  Coetzee populates the book with typecast characters, but then proceeds to dissect them mercilessly.

When a great evil ends, do people suddenly reform?  Goldhagen wrote a large historical treatise to the contrary on "willing executioners"; Coetzee advances the same treatise in a few pages of taut prose.  In the process he attacks the opportunism and the unwarranted visiting of revenge also.

Today, this book is arguably a particularly chilling encapsulation, less so of South Africa than of its neighboring Zimbabwe.  But Coetzee's location, supposedly the Eastern Cape, is big sky country, dry and desolate, an abstraction for the battlefield of a mythic war (think of Altdorfer's portrayal of Issus, or of the plains of Kurukshetra).  Coetzee can't seem to write dialog, and his prose isn't memorable, but he preserves well the noble tradition of philosophical inquiry through fiction.