Authors: J. M. Coetzee
She gives an impatient snort. 'I am hiring you as an expert on English, not as a lawyer,' she says. 'The will is written in English, in English words. What do the words mean? What does
, he thinks.
How am I going to get out of this?
But of course she is not mad. She is simply in the grip of rage and greed: rage against the husband who has slipped her grasp, greed for his money.
'The way I understand the clause,' she says, 'if I make a claim then no one, including my brother-in-law, can withstand it. Because that is what
means: he can't withstand me. Otherwise what is the point of using the word? Do you see what I mean?'
'I see what you mean,' he says.
He leaves the house with a cheque for ten rands in his pocket. Once he has delivered his report, his expert report, to which he will have attached a copy, attested by a Commissioner of Oaths, of the degree certificate that makes him an expert commentator on the meaning of English words, including the word
, he will receive the remaining thirty rands of his fee.
He delivers no report. He forgoes the money that is owed him. When the widow telephones to ask what is up, he quietly puts down the receiver.
Features of his character that emerge from the story: (a) integrity (he declines to read the will as she wants him to); (b) naiveté (he misses a chance to make some money).
31 May 1975
South Africa is not formally in a state of war, but it might as well be. As resistance has grown, the rule of law has step by step been suspended. The police and the people who run the police (as hunters run packs of dogs) are by now more or less unconstrained. In the guise of news, radio and television relay the official lies. Yet over the whole sorry, murderous show there hangs an air of staleness. The old rallying cries –
Uphold white Christian civilization! Honour the sacrifices of the forefathers!
– lack all force. We, or they, or we and they both, have moved into the endgame, and everyone knows it.
Yet while the chess players manoeuvre for advantage, human lives are still being consumed – consumed and shat out. As it is the fate of some generations to be destroyed by war, so it seems the fate of the present one to be ground down by politics.
If Jesus had stooped to play politics he might have become a key man in Roman Judaea, a big operator. It was because he was indifferent to politics, and made his indifference clear, that he was liquidated. How to live one's life outside politics, and one's death too: that was the example he set for his followers.
Odd to find himself contemplating Jesus as a guide. But where should he search for a better one?
Caution: Avoid pushing his interest in Jesus too far and turning this into a conversion narrative.
2 June 1975
The house across the street has new owners, a couple of more or less his own age with young children and a BMW. He pays no attention to them until one day there is a knock at the door. 'Hello, I'm David Truscott, your new neighbour. I've locked myself out. Could I use your telephone?' And then, as an afterthought: 'Don't I know you?'
Recognition dawns. They do indeed know each other. In 1952 David Truscott and he were in the same class, Standard Six, at St Joseph's College. He and David Truscott might have progressed side by side through the rest of high school but for the fact that David failed Standard Six and had to be kept behind. It was not hard to see why he failed: in Standard Six came algebra, and about algebra David could not grasp the first thing, the first thing being that
were there to liberate one from the tedium of arithmetic. In Latin too, David never quite got the hang of things – of the subjunctive, for example. Even at so early an age it seemed to him clear that David would be better off out of school, away from Latin and algebra, in the real world, counting banknotes in a bank or selling shoes.
But despite being regularly flogged for not grasping things – floggings that he accepted philosophically, though now and again his glasses would cloud with tears – David Truscott persisted in his schooling, pushed no doubt from behind by his parents. Somehow or other he struggled through Standard Six and then Standard Seven and so on to Standard Ten; and now here he is, twenty years later, neat and bright and prosperous and, it emerges, so preoccupied with matters of business that when he set off for the office in the morning he forgot his house key and – since his wife has taken the children to a party – can't get into the family home.
'And what is your line of business?' he inquires of David, more than curious.
'Marketing. I'm with the Woolworths Group. How about you?'
'Oh, I'm in between. I used to teach at a university in the United States, now I'm looking for a position here.'
'Well, we must get together You must come over for a drink, exchange notes. Do you have children?'
'I am a child. I mean, I live with my father. My father is getting on in years. He needs looking after. But come in. The telephone is over there.'
So David Truscott, who did not understand
, is a flourishing marketer or marketeer, while he, who had no trouble understanding
and much else besides, is an unemployed intellectual. What does that suggest about the workings of the world? What it seems most obviously to suggest is that the path that leads through Latin and algebra is not the path to material success. But it may suggest much more: that understanding things is a waste of time; that if you want to succeed in the world and have a happy family and a nice home and a BMW you should not try to understand things but just add up the numbers or press the buttons or do whatever else it is that marketers are so richly rewarded for doing.
In the event, David Truscott and he do not get together to have the promised drink and exchange the promised notes. If of an evening it happens that he is in the front garden raking leaves at the time when David Truscott returns from work, the two of them give a neighbourly wave or nod across the street, but no more than that. He sees somewhat more of Mrs Truscott, a pale little creature forever chivvying children into or out of the second car; but he is not introduced to her and has no occasion to speak to her. Tokai Road is a busy thoroughfare, dangerous for children. There is no good reason for the Truscotts to cross to his side, or for him to cross to theirs.
3 June 1975
From where he and the Truscotts live one has only to stroll a kilometre in a southerly direction to come face to face with Pollsmoor. Pollsmoor – no one bothers to call it Pollsmoor Prison – is a place of incarceration ringed around with high walls and barbed wire and watch towers. Once upon a time it stood all alone in a waste of sandy scrubland. But over the years, first hesitantly, then more confidently, the suburban developments have crept closer, until now, hemmed in by neat rows of homes from which model citizens emerge each morning to play their part in the national economy, it is Pollsmo or that has become the anomaly in the landscape.
It is of course an irony that the South African
should protrude so obscenely into white suburbia, that the same air that he and the Truscotts breathe should have passed through the lungs of miscreants and criminals. But to the barbarians, as Zbigniew Herbert has pointed out, irony is simply like salt: you crunch it between your teeth and enjoy a momentary savour; when the savour is gone, the brute facts are still there. What does one do with the brute fact of Pollsmoor once the irony is used up?
Continuation: the Prisons Service vans that pass along Tokai Road on their way from the courts; flashes of faces, fingers gripping the grated windows; what stories the Truscotts tell their children to explain those hands and faces, some defiant, some forlorn.
DR FRANKL, YOU
have had a chance to read the pages I sent you from John Coetzee's notebooks for the years 1972–75, the years, more or less, when you were friendly with him. As a way of getting into your story, I wonder whether you have any reflections on those entries. Do you recognize in them the man you knew? Do you recognize the country and the times he describes?
Yes, I remember South Africa. I remember Tokai Road, I remember the vans crammed with prisoners on their way to Pollsmoor. I remember it all quite clearly.
Nelson Mandela was of course imprisoned at Pollsmoor. Are you surprised that Coetzee doesn't mention Mandela as a near neighbour?
Mandela wasn't moved to Pollsmoor until later. In 1975 he was still on Robben Island.
Of course, I had forgotten that. And what of Coetzee's relations with his father? He and his father lived together for some while after his mother's death. Did you ever meet his father?
Did you see the father in the son?
Do you mean, was John like his father? Physically, no. His father was smaller and slighter: a neat little man, handsome in his way, though plainly not well. He drank on the sly, and smoked, and generally did not look after himself, whereas John was a quite ferocious abstainer.
And in other respects? Were they alike in other respects?
They were both loners. Socially inept. Repressed, in the wider sense of the word.
And how did you come to meet John Coetzee?
I'll tell you in a moment. But first, there was something I didn't understand about those notebook entries: the italicized passages at the end of them –
To be expanded on
and so forth. Who wrote those? Did you?
Coetzee wrote them himself. They are memos to himself, written in 1999 or 2000, when he was thinking of adapting those particular entries for a book.
I see. How I met John. I first bumped into him in a supermarket. This was in the summer of 1972, not long after we had moved to the Cape. I seemed to be spending a lot of time in supermarkets in those days, even though our needs – I mean my needs and my child's – were quite simple. I shopped because I was bored, because I needed to get away from the house, but mainly because the supermarket gave me peace and gave me pleasure: the airiness, the whiteness, the cleanness, the muzak, the quiet hiss of trolley wheels. And then there were all the choices – this spaghetti sauce against that spaghetti sauce, this toothpaste against that toothpaste, and so forth, on and on. I found it calming. It was good for my soul. Other women I knew played tennis or did yoga. I shopped.
This was the heyday of apartheid, the 1970s, so you didn't see many people of colour in a supermarket, except of course the staff. Didn't see many men either. That was part of the pleasure. I didn't have to put on a performance. I could be myself.
You didn't see many men, but in the Tokai branch of Pick n Pay there was one I noticed now and again. I noticed him but he didn't notice me, he was too absorbed in his shopping. I approved of that. In appearance he was not what most people would call attractive. He was scrawny, he had a beard, he wore horn-rimmed glasses and sandals. He looked out of place, like a bird, one of those flightless birds; or like an abstracted scientist who had wandered by mistake out of his laboratory. There was an air of seediness about him too, an air of failure. I guessed there was no woman in his life, and it turned out I was right. What he plainly needed was someone to take care of him, some no-longer-young hippie with beads and hairy armpits and no makeup who would do the shopping and the cooking and cleaning and maybe supply him with dope too. I didn't get close enough to check out his feet, but I was ready to bet the toenails weren't trimmed.
I was always conscious, in those days, of when a man was looking at me. I could feel a pressure on my limbs, on my breasts, the pressure of the male gaze, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle. You won't understand what I am talking about, but any woman will. With this man there was no pressure detectable. None.
Then one day that changed. I was standing in front of the stationery rack. Christmas was around the corner, and I was selecting wrapping paper – you know, paper with jolly Christmas motifs, candles, fir-trees, reindeer. By accident I let a roll slip, and as I bent to pick it up I dropped a second roll. Behind me I heard a man's voice: 'I'll get them.' It was of course your man, John Coetzee. He picked up both rolls, which were quite long, a metre maybe, and returned them to me, and as he did so, whether intentionally or not I still can't say, pressed them into my breast. For a second or two, through the length of the rolls, he could actually be said to have been prodding my breast.
It was outrageous, of course. At the same time it was not important. I tried to show no reaction: did not drop my eyes, did not blush, certainly did not smile. 'Thank you,' I said in a neutral voice, and turned away and went on with my business.
Nevertheless it was a personal act, no use pretending it wasn't. Whether it was going to fade away and be lost among all the other personal moments only time would tell. But not easily ignored, that intimate, unexpected nudge. In fact when I got home I went so far as to lift my bra and examine the breast in question. It was unmarked, of course. Just a breast, a young woman's innocent breast.
Then a couple of days later, driving home along Tokai Road, I spotted him on foot, Mister Prod, carrying his shopping bags. Without thinking twice I stopped and offered him a lift (you are too young to know, but in those days one still offered lifts).
Tokai of the 1970s was what you would call an upwardly mobile suburb. Though land was not cheap, there was a lot of new building going on. But the house where John lived was from an earlier era. It was one of the cottages that had housed farm-workers when Tokai was still farmland. Electricity and plumbing had been added, but as a home it was still fairly basic. I dropped him at the front gate; he did not ask me in.
Time passed. Then, happening one day to drive past the house, which was on Tokai Road, a big road, I caught sight of him. He was standing in the back of a pickup truck, shovelling sand into a wheelbarrow. He wore shorts; he looked pale and not particularly strong, but he seemed to be managing.
What was odd was that it was not customary in those days for a white man to do manual labour, unskilled labour. Kaffir work, it was generally called, work you paid someone else to do. If it was not exactly shameful to be seen shovelling sand, it certainly let the side down, if you know what I mean.
You asked me to give an idea of John as he was in those days, but I can't give you a picture of him alone without any background, otherwise there are things you will fail to understand.
I understand. I mean, I accept that.
I drove past him, as I said, did not slow down, did not wave. The whole story could have ended there and then, the whole connection, and you would not be here listening to me, you would be in some other country listening to the ramblings of some other woman. But, as it happened, I had second thoughts, and turned back.
'Hello, what are you up to?' I called out.
'As you can see: shovelling sand,' he said.
'But to what end?'
'Construction work. Do you want a tour?' And he clambered down from the pickup.
'Not now,' I said. 'Some other day. Is that pickup yours?'
'So you don't have to walk to the shops. You could drive.'
'Yes.' Then he said: 'Do you live around here?'
'Further out,' I replied. 'Beyond Constantiaberg. In the bush.'
It was a joke, the kind of little joke that passed between white South Africans in those days. Because of course it wasn't true that I lived in the bush. The only people who lived in the bush, the real bush, were blacks. What he was meant to understand was that I lived in one of the new developments carved out of the ancestral bush of the Cape Peninsula.
'Well, I won't hold you up any longer,' I said. 'What are you constructing?'
'I'm not constructing, just concreting,' he said. 'I'm not clever enough to construct.' Which I took as a little joke on his part to answer the little joke on mine. Because if he was neither rich nor handsome nor appealing – none of which he was – then, if he was not clever, there was nothing left to be. But of course he had to be clever. He even looked clever, in the way that scientists who spend their lives hunched over microscopes look clever: a narrow, myopic kind of cleverness to go with the horn-rimmed glasses.
You must believe me when I tell you that nothing – nothing! – could have been further from my mind than flirting with this man. For he had no sexual presence whatsoever. It was as though he had been sprayed from head to toe with a neutralizing spray, a neutering spray. Certainly he was guilty of nudging me in the breast with a roll of Christmas paper: I had not forgotten that, my breast retained the memory. But ten to one, I now told myself, it had been nothing but a clumsy accident, the act of a
So why did I have second thoughts? Why did I turn back? Not an easy question to answer. If there is such a thing as taking to a person, I am not sure that I took to John, not for a long time. John was not easy to take to, his whole stance toward the world was too wary, too defensive for that. I presume his mother must have taken to him, when he was little, and loved him, because that is what mothers are there for. But it was hard to imagine anyone else doing so.
You don't mind a little frank talk, do you? So let me fill out the picture. I was twenty-six at the time, and had had carnal relations with only two men. Two. The first was a boy I met when I was fifteen. For years, until he was called up into the army, he and I were as tight as twins. After he went away I moped for a while, kept to myself, then found a new boyfriend. With the new boyfriend I remained as tight as twins throughout my student years; as soon as we graduated he and I were married, with both families' blessing. In each case it was all or nothing. My nature has always been like that: all or nothing. So at the age of twenty-six I was in many respects an innocent. I had not the faintest idea, for instance, how one went about seducing a man.
Don't misunderstand me. It was not that I led a sheltered life. A sheltered life was not possible in the circles in which we, my husband and I, moved. More than once, at cocktail parties, some man or other, usually a business acquaintance of my husband's, had manoeuvred me into a corner and leant close and asked in a low voice whether I didn't feel lonely out in the suburbs, with Mark away so much of the time, whether I wouldn't like to get away one day next week for lunch. Of course I didn't play along, but this, I inferred, was how extramarital affairs were initiated. A strange man would take you to lunch and after lunch drive you to a beach cottage belonging to a friend to which he happened to have a key, or to a city hotel, and there the sexual part of the transaction would be carried out. Then the next day the man would phone to say how much he had enjoyed his time with you and would you like to meet again next Tuesday? And so it would proceed, Tuesday after Tuesday, the discreet lunches, the episodes in bed, until the man stopped calling or you stopped answering his calls; and the sum of it all was called having an affair.
In the world of business – I'll say more about my husband and his business in a moment – there is pressure on men – or at least there was in those days – to have presentable wives, and therefore on wives to be presentable; to be presentable and to be accommodating too, within bounds. That is why, even though my husband would get upset when I told him about the overtures his colleagues were making to me, he and they continued to have cordial relations. No displays of outrage, no fisticuffs, no duels at dawn, just now and then a bout of quiet fuming and bad temper in the confines of the home.
The whole question of who in that little enclosed world was sleeping with whom seems to me now, as I look back, darker than anyone was prepared to admit, darker and more sinister. The men both liked and disliked it that their wives were coveted by other men. They felt threatened but they were nevertheless excited. And the women, the wives, were excited too: I would have had to be blind not to see that. Excitement all around, an envelope of libidinous excitement. From which I purposely excised myself. At the parties I mention I was as presentable as one was required to be but I was never accommodating.