Authors: J. M. Coetzee
Table of Contents
Scenes from Provincial Life
In the Heart of the Country
Waiting for the Barbarians
Life & Times of Michael K
Age of Iron
Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews
The Master of Petersburg
Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life
The Lives of Animals
Stranger Shores: Essays 1986–1999
Diary of a Bad Year
Scenes from Provincial Life
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Published by Harvill Secker 2009
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Copyright © J.M. Coetzee 2009
J.M. Coetzee has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
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First published in Great Britain in 2009 by
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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Grateful thanks to Faber and Faber Ltd and the estate of Samuel Beckett for permission to quote from
Waiting for Godot
My thanks to Marilia Bandeira for assistance with Brazilian Portuguese, and to the estate of Samuel Beckett for permission to quote (in fact to misquote) from
Waiting for Godot.
22 August 1972
, a report from Francistown in Botswana. Sometime last week, in the middle of the night, a car, a white American model, drove up to a house in a residential area. Men wearing balaclavas jumped out, kicked down the front door, and began shooting. When they had done with shooting they set fire to the house and drove off. From the embers the neighbours dragged seven charred bodies: two men, three women, two children.
The killers appeared to be black, but one of the neighbours heard them speaking Afrikaans among themselves and was convinced they were whites in blackface. The dead were South Africans, refugees who had moved into the house mere weeks ago.
Approached for comment, the South African Minister of Foreign Affairs, through a spokesman, calls the report 'unverified'.
Inquiries will be undertaken, he says, to determine whether the deceased were indeed South African citizens. As for the military, an unnamed source denies that the SA Defence Force had anything to do with the matter. The killings are probably an internal ANC matter, he suggests, reflecting 'ongoing tensions' between factions.
So they come out, week after week, these tales from the borderlands, murders followed by bland denials. He reads the reports and feels soiled. So this is what he has come back to! Yet where in the world can one hide where one will not feel soiled? Would he feel any cleaner in the snows of Sweden, reading at a distance about his people and their latest pranks? How to escape the filth: not a new question. An old ratquestion that will not let go, that leaves its nasty, suppurating wound. Agenbite of inwit.
'I see the Defence Force is up to its old tricks again,' he remarks to his father. 'In Botswana this time.' But his father is too wary to rise to the bait. When his father picks up the newspaper, he takes care to skip straight to the sports pages, missing out the politics – the politics and the killings.
His father has nothing but disdain for the continent to the north of them.
is the word he uses to dismiss the leaders of African states: petty tyrants who can barely spell their own names, chauffeured from one banquet to another in their Rolls- Royces, wearing Ruritanian uniforms festooned with medals they have awarded themselves. Africa: a place of starving masses with homicidal buffoons lording it over them.
'They broke into a house in Francistown and killed everyone,' he presses on nonetheless. 'Executed them. Including the children. Look. Read the report. It's on the front page.'
His father shrugs. His father can find no form of words spacious enough to cover his distaste for, on the one hand, thugs who slaughter defenceless women and children and, on the other, terrorists who wage war from havens across the border. He resolves the problem by immersing himself in the cricket scores. As a response to a moral dilemma it is feeble; yet is his own response – fits of rage and despair – any better?
Once upon a time he used to think that the men who dreamed up the South African version of public order, who brought into being the vast system of labour reserves and internal passports and satellite townships, had based their vision on a tragic misreading of history. They had misread history because, born on farms or in small towns in the hinterland, and isolated within a language spoken nowhere else in the world, they had no appreciation of the scale of the forces that had since 1945 been sweeping away the old colonial world. Yet to say they had misread history was in itself misleading. For they read no history at all. On the contrary, they turned their backs on it, dismissing it as a mass of slanders put together by foreigners who held Afrikaners in contempt and would turn a blind eye if they were massacred by the blacks, down to the last woman and child. Alone and friendless at the remote tip of a hostile continent, they erected their fortress state and retreated behind its walls: there they would keep the flame of Western Christian civilization burning until finally the world came to its senses.
That was the way they spoke, more or less, the men who ran the National Party and the security state, and for a long time he thought they spoke from the heart. But not any more. Their talk of saving civilization, he now tends to think, has never been anything but a bluff. Behind a smokescreen of patriotism they are at this very moment sitting and calculating how long they can keep the show running (the mines, the factories) before they will need to pack their bags, shred any incriminating documents, and fly off to Zürich or Monaco or San Diego, where under the cover of holding companies with names like Algro Trading or Handfast Securities they years ago bought themselves villas and apartments as insurance against the day of reckoning (
dies irae, dies illa
According to his new, revised way of thinking, the men who ordered the killer squad into Francistown have no mistaken vision of history, much less a tragic one. Indeed, they most likely laugh up their sleeves at folk so silly as to have visions of any kind. As for the fate of Christian civilization in Africa, they have never given two hoots about it. And these – these! – are the men under whose dirty thumb he lives!
To be expanded on: his father's response to the times as compared to his own; their differences, their (overriding) similarities.
1 September 1972
The house that he shares with his father dates from the 1920s. The walls, built in part of baked brick but in the main of mud-brick, are by now so rotten with damp creeping up from the earth that they have begun to crumble. To insulate them from the damp is an impossible task; the best that can be done is to lay an impermeable concrete apron around the periphery of the house and hope that slowly they will dry out.
From a home improvement guide he learns that for each metre of concrete he will require three bags of sand, five bags of stone, and one bag of cement. If he makes the apron around the house ten centimetres deep, he calculates, he will need thirty bags of sand, fifty bags of stone, and ten bags of cement, which will entail six trips to the builders' yard, six full loads in a one-ton truck.
Halfway through the first day of work it dawns on him that he has made a mistake of a calamitous order. Either he misread the guide or in his calculations he confused cubic metres with square metres. It is going to take many more than ten bags of cement, plus sand and stone, to lay ninety-six square metres of concrete. It is going to take many more than six trips to the builders' yard; he is going to have to sacrifice more than just a few weekends of his life.
Week after week, using a shovel and a wheelbarrow, he mixes sand, stone, cement and water; block after block he pours liquid concrete and levels it. His back hurts, his arms and wrists are so stiff that he can barely hold a pen. Above all the labour bores him. Yet he is not unhappy. What he finds himself doing is what people like him should have been doing ever since 1652, namely, his own dirty work. In fact, once he forgets about the time he is giving up, the work begins to take on its own pleasure. There is such a thing as a well-laid slab whose well-laidness is plain for all to see. The slabs he is laying will outlast his tenancy of the house, may even outlast his spell on earth; in which case he will in a certain sense have cheated death. One might spend the rest of one's life laying slabs, and fall each night into the profoundest sleep, tired with the ache of honest toil.
How many of the ragged workingmen who pass him in the street are secret authors of works that will outlast them: roads, walls, pylons? Immortality of a kind, a limited immortality, is not so hard to achieve after all. Why then does he persist in inscribing marks on paper, in the faint hope that people not yet born will take the trouble to decipher them?
To be expanded on: his readiness to throw himself into half-baked projects; the alacrity with which he retreats from creative work into mindless industry.
16 April 1973
which, in among exposés of torrid love affairs between teachers and schoolgirls in country towns, in among pictures of pouting starlets in exiguous bikinis, comes out with revelations of atrocities committed by the security forces, reports that the Minister of the Interior has granted a visa allowing Breyten Breytenbach to come back to the land of his birth to visit his ailing parents. A compassionate visa, it is called; it covers both Breytenbach and his wife.
Breytenbach left the country years ago to live in Paris, and soon thereafter queered his pitch by marrying a Vietnamese woman,that is to say, a non-white, an Asiatic. He not only married her but, if one is to believe the poems in which she figures, is passionately in love with her. Despite which, says the
, the Minister in his compassion will permit the couple a thirty-day visit during which the so-called Mrs Breytenbach will be treated as a white person, a temporary white, an honorary white.
From the moment they arrive in South Africa Breyten and Yolande, he swarthily handsome, she delicately beautiful, are dogged by the press. Zoom lenses capture every intimate moment as they picnic with friends or paddle in a mountain stream.
The Breytenbachs make a public appearance at a literary conference in Cape Town. The hall is packed to the rafters with people come to gape. In his speech Breyten calls Afrikaners a bastard people. It is because they are bastards and ashamed of their bastardy, he says, that they have concocted their cloudcuckoo scheme of forced separation of the races.
His speech is greeted with huge applause. Soon thereafter he and Yolande fly home to Paris, and the Sunday newspapers return to their menu of naughty nymphets, errant spouses, and state murders.
To be explored: the envy felt by white South Africans (men) for Breytenbach, for his freedom to roam the world and for his unlimited access to a beautiful, exotic sex-companion.
2 September 1973
At the Empire Cinema in Muizenberg last night, an early film of Kurosawa's,
A stodgy bureaucrat learns that he has cancer and has only months to live. He is stunned, does not know what to do with himself, where to turn.
He takes his secretary, a bubbly but mindless young woman, out to tea. When she tries to leave he holds her back, gripping her arm. 'I want to be like you!' he says. 'But I don't know how!' She is repelled by the nakedness of his appeal.
Question: How would he react if his father were to grip his arm like that?
13 September 1973
From an employment bureau where he has left his particulars he receives a call. A client seeks expert advice on language matters, will pay by the hour – is he interested? Language matters of what nature, he inquires? The bureau is unable to say.
He calls the number provided, makes an appointment to go to an address in Sea Point. His client is a woman in her sixties, a widow whose husband has departed this world leaving the bulk of his considerable estate in a trust controlled by his brother. Outraged, the widow has resolved to challenge the will. But both firms of lawyers she has consulted have counselled her against trying. The will is, they say, watertight. Nevertheless she refuses to give up. The lawyers, she is convinced, have misread the wording of the will. Giving up on lawyers, she is instead seeking expert support of a linguistic kind.
With a cup of tea at his elbow he peruses the will. Its meaning is perfectly plain. To the widow goes the flat in Sea Point and a sum of money. The remainder of the estate goes into a trust for the benefit of his children by a former marriage.
'I fear I cannot help you,' he says. 'The wording is unambiguous. There is only one way in which it can be read.'
'What about here?' she says. She leans over his shoulder and stabs a finger at the text. Her hand is tiny, her skin mottled; on the third finger is a diamond in an extravagant setting. 'Where it says
Notwithstanding the aforesaid.'
'It says that if you can demonstrate financial distress you are entitled to apply to the trust for support.'
'It means that what is stated in this clause is an exception to what has been stated before and takes precedence over it.'
'But it also means that the trust cannot withstand my claim. What does
mean if it doesn't mean that?'
'It is not a question of what
means. It is a question of what
Notwithstanding the aforesaid
means. You must take the phrase as a whole.'