by J.M. Coetzee (1974)
Penguin Books (1985)
125 pp

I am on a Coetzee completion project.  Though I have liked Coetzee’s early books that I have read, I have not liked them as much as his later books, so I was a bit nervous to go back and read Coetzee’s first book, Dusklands. I wondered if I would find it an overwritten (a worry because I greatly admire Coetzee’s pared down prose) or under-developed first novel, but this book is exceptional. Coetzee, it seems, was on his Nobel track from the very beginning. It’s a shame that this book is basically out of print.

Dusklands is actually composed of two distinct, quite different, but complementary short novellas (or long short stories): “The Vietnam Project” and “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee: Edited, with an Afterword, by S.J. Coetzee; Translated by J.M. Coetzee.” As you can see, even in this his first book, Coetzee was already playing with his role as author and the relationship between the author and the subject matter. In fact, “The Vietnam Project” opens up like this:

Coetzee has asked me to revise my essay.

It is approximately 1972, and our narrator, Eugene Dawn, is a researcher employed by some agency of the U.S. government to write a report about the use of propaganda in Vietnam. It is the essay Coetzee has asked him to revise, though at first there is no indication why. Dawn struggles with his boss, thinking Coetzee lacks intelligence and vision. This is the first of several power struggles shown in Dusklands.

We are quickly introduced to another power struggle: Eugene Dawn is involved in a loveless marriage. His observations about his marriage show he is matched in his intelligence by his cold — and frightening — demeanor:

She wishes dull jobs on me in order that I should find relief in her. She feels herself empty and wishes to be filled, yet her emptiness is such that every entry into her she feels as invasion and possession.

Coetzee is always matter-of-fact with brutality between people, especially when they are intimate. The Dawn marriage is fraught with distrust and attempts to gain the upper hand by hurting the other person. In passing, in a simple phrase in a sentence directed at something else, Dawn mentions a son. Coetzee had depicted the horrors of this marriage so well that my mouth went dry. I stopped reading for a moment to shake my head: no!

Before we get anything else about the marriage and the son, we get a fair portion of Dawn’s Vietnam report. When it begins, it has an official and rational feel, even if what it says is frightening and repulsive (and all too real). Then the report’s tone begins to shift. As Dawn describes the Vietnamese mythic and social structure that the propaganda is meant to break, the official and scientific tone becomes broad and obviously the rantings of an insane man. This is an actual paragraph from the end of the report (no wonder Coetzee wants him to revise):

I sit in libraries and see things. I am in an honorable line of bookish men who have sat in libraries and had visions of great clarity. I name no names. You must listen. I speak with the voice of things to come. I speak in troubled times and tell you how to be as children again. 

When the report ends, we still have about half of the story to go, and, as the dynamics in the report play themselves out in Eugene Dawn’s personal life, it’s just as chilling as the first half led us to expect.

The next story takes us to South Africa and back over two hundred years to 1760. Jacobus Coetzee is a Dutch colonizer, and this is his personal narrative, as edited by S.J. Coetzee and then translated by our J.M. Coetzee. In his account, Jacobus Coetzee tells his experiences with the native tribes of South Africa while he hunted game and secured footholds for the empire. Already the Hottentots have been forced to submit to the Dutch colonists, but Jacobus Coetzee still has concerns:

Everywhere difference grow smaller as they come up and we go down.

In this account, Jacobus Coetzee tells us of a journey he and his servants made to the interior of South Africa to the Great Namaqua, where he encountered tribes that had never seen a white man before. Here is how Jacobus Coetzee contrasts this people with the Hottentots who have already submitted.

No longer can you get a truthful answer to a simple question, his only study is in how to placate you, and that means little more than telling you what he thinks you want to hear. He does not smile first but waits until you smile. He becomes a false creature. I say this of all tame Hottentots, good ones like Klawer and spoiled ones like Dikkop. They have no integrity, they are actors. Whereas a wild Hottentot, the kind of Hottentot that met us that day, one who has lived all his life in a state of nature, has his Hottentot integrity. He sits straight, he stands straight, he looks you in the eye. It is a pretty thing to see, this confidence, for a change, for one who has moved so long among the cunning and cowardly, though based on an illusion of course, a delusion of strength, of equivalence. There they stood before us in a clump, twenty of them gazing at six of us; there we stood before them, three muskets, mine loaded with swan-shot, the others’ with ball; they secure in their delusion, we in our strength. So we could look at each other like men, for the last time. They had never seen a white man.

Unfortunately for Jacobus Coetzee (and this tribe), Jacobus gets sick and is forced to submit to their care, which is far less adequate, he decides, than is due a white man.

As was the case in “The Vietnam Project,” “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee” is a fine literary creation in and of itself. Coetzee has full command over his language in each case. The voice of Eugene Dawn and of Jacobus Coetzee are each unique creations perfectly suited to their disparate times and places. The stories themselves are as exciting to read as they are interesting, the chain of events is shocking and yet, as it happens, inevitable.

But Coetzee, as usual, shows that he has control over more than his language. “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee” comes with an afterword by S.J. Coetzee, the editor (it was once a forward, the translator J.M. Coetzee says, but seemed to be more suitable as an afterword). In this afterword, S.J. Coetzee cannot help but reduce the narrative to a story about how Jacobus Coetzee went into the interior and discovered new rivers and landmarks. The rest of the chilling narrative is irrelevant to him and, essentially, he passes it off as an idle curiosity. It isn’t shame that causes the editor to discount the atrocities the account describes; it’s just that Jacobus Coetzee’s perspective is natural, not new. But this failure to see simply underscores what is relevant in the narrative: the horrific worldview that sits at its core and that was as pervasive in the eighteenth century as it was in the 1970s. Perhaps this same worldview still rears its ugly head today.

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By |2016-06-27T17:07:37-04:00January 2nd, 2011|Categories: Book Reviews, J.M. Coetzee|Tags: , , |13 Comments


  1. Colleen January 2, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    I also love Coetzee’s writing; he is truly a master stylist. With this in mind, I recently bought myself The Master of Petersburg – I’ll check your back posts to see if you’ve already posted on it, but maybe only after I’ve read it as I have an irrational fear of plot spoilers.

  2. Donovan Richards January 3, 2011 at 12:05 am

    I haven’t read any Coetzee. Where would you suggest I start?

  3. Sigrun January 3, 2011 at 2:59 am

    Thank you for a an interesting review. I’ve read some of Coetzee’s books, but not systematical. I would like to read them all, as he is – in my very subjective opinion – among todays absolute finest authors.
    I stated with “Disgrace” (1999), which actually (this might sound like a cliché, but is not meant to be) gave me a new understanding of the South-African society.
    It impresses me how Coetzee always manage to discuss political and social situations without ever compromising literary qualities.
    Maybe he has, as you suggest, been on the Nobel-track ll the time – ?

  4. Lisa Hill January 3, 2011 at 5:38 am

    This post is what I really love about litblogs – before web2 came along there was no way to find out about an author’s early work unless they were so important that someone had included them in a series like The Penguin Guide to English Literature or had written a whole scholarly book about them. Ordinary readers had very little access to such information about a writer.
    Whereas now, e.g. when I read my next Coetzee, I can wander around the web seeking out analysis of books written long ago to compare with the current work. All over the web, readers are doing what they’ve always done, reading fiction old and new, but now they’re sharing their thoughts about it with the rest of us.
    I think this is wonderful.

  5. Trevor January 3, 2011 at 11:11 am

    Colleen – I haven’t read The Master of Petersburg yet. When Dusklands arrived (used but in perfect condition — for only $3.50!), I completed my Coetzee collection, but I still have to read most of them, including that one (which I’ve had for a few years). I’m not sure which one I will read next, but if you read The Master of Petersburg before I do, please feel free to return and share some of your thoughts here. I’d love to hear about it!

    Donovan – That is a tough question, partially because I have read only six of Coetzee’s books and partly because I think Coetzee is an acquired taste. I know few people who read only one of his books and fell in love with his work on that reading alone. It seems most people (and this has been my experience) read one and find it disturbing and strange. It piques curiosity but no passion to rush out and read the rest of his work. But Coetzee is addicting: after reading a few of his books, the cravings begin because he can do things other writers cannot.

    But, since that doesn’t answer your question, let me just tell you where I began. My first Coetzee was Waiting for the Barbarians, which I liked quite a bit (and need to read again), but now, having read others, I don’t think it is representative of his work. I then moved to his two Booker-winning novels, The Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace. I loved both of them, though I think Disgrace might be the better place to start. It has a strong narrative structure, and the writing — well, it’s superb. Foe and Slow Man are both quite experimental, and I think it might help to see where Coetzee is coming from before venturing into them. Of course, Dusklands, being his first, and containing, it seems to me, the seeds of many ideas he chases down later, might be a great place to start.

    So, I guess my recommendation based on my reading would be to start with either Dusklands or Disgrace. Now, based on hearsay, it seems many find his fiction/autobiographies superb. These include Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime. I suspect these might be the perfect place to start. Personally, I’m saving them for some reason or another.

    Sigrun and Lisa, thanks for your comments. And, Lisa, I completely agree that coming into contact with old works is one of the best things about blogging. Blogging has certainly opened up my own reading world in ways I never could have anticipated.

  6. KevinfromCanada January 3, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    I was only dimly aware of this one and very much appreciate the review. It is particularly interesting to discover that Coetzee used what I will call the ambiguously-defined voice in his very first work. It is not a technique that normally appeals to me, but I have to say he seems to be able to carry it off whether others fail.

    Your reply to Donovan also sent me off on a bit of a tangent. I’m inclined toward being a completist (i.e. read the whole catalogue) of an author I like but (unlike you) don’t feel that way at all about Coetzee. I’ve read five and found them all well on the positive side of neutral but don’t own any of the rest (that includes two of the three recent in the recent trilogy) and must admit completing the Coetzee catalogue is not on my list of reading priorities. I’ll have to figure out why, since it does go against my usual trend.

    As a final note, I can’t believe Penguin has let this go out of print. Running off another printing is a minor effort (and expenditure) and he is a Nobel winner who is still being introduced to a lot of readers (with new works). Very strange. I haven’t checked but do wonder if this is available as an e-book — perhaps an indicator of a world to come where early works from prolific authors are more easily accessed in that format.

  7. Trevor January 3, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    As far as I can tell, Kevin, this is not available as an e-book. This same edition, though, is on sale from the Book Depository, so perhaps getting it from across the sea is the best option for anyone interested. You can, of course, find ten copies of Disgrace and five of Waiting for the Barbarians, with a couple of his other volumes (like Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a Bad Year) peppered in, in practically any major bookstore. It is much harder to find Foe, The Master of Petersburg, In the Heart of the Country, and The Age of Iron, though I did have luck. Dusklands, however, is not to be found, though it would seem to be just as saleable as his other pre-Disgrace volumes.

    And if upon reflection you figure out why further Coetzee doesn’t interest you, I’d like to know why. His work is strange, and I often find that it is better aged than fresh. I can’t, though, think of another author as clear and brutal as he is, and as stylistically/structurally innovative. I love how he examines the structure of his book and his writing while examining the structures of the world around him.

  8. Donovan Richards January 4, 2011 at 2:35 am

    Thanks for the detailed response Trevor. I’ll add Disgrace and Dusklands to my wish list and keep an eye out for them.

  9. Rise January 4, 2011 at 11:10 am

    This is the first Coetzee I’ve read (prior to his Nobel win) and was very affected by it. I’ve read it twice since then and 5 more titles. It’s hard for me to choose favorites by him, but it will probably be The Master of Petersburg. It’s probably not representative of his fiction too but it is very Coetzeesque.

  10. Trevor January 4, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    I might have to make The Master of Petersburg my next stop. It is the one that I’ve owned unread for the longest. Good to hear your high opinion of it, Rise!

  11. Kevin January 5, 2011 at 12:30 am

    Unsurprisingly, I’m on a completist project, too. It’s just that I’m not able to muster sustained energy at the moment. Coetzee’s a damn fine writer. Cheers, Kevin, K2D2

  12. litereader April 9, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    It was a pleasure to read this response. I read through Dusklands last year and found it an arresting, slow read. Coetzee is one of my favourite authors as well, but I was a little concerned to read this book as I am wary of debuts from author whose later works I have read and loved. My overall sense of this work is that it is incredible – particularly as a debut – but not quite so strong technically as what Coetzee produces later. His style is clear, but you don’t get the sense (as I did with Waiting for the Barbarians, the first book I read by him) that you are in the hands of a master after reading the first paragraph. You almost sense an identity crisis.

    All of this said, there are few authors with as much intelligence and insight as Coetzee. With fortune on his side, he will become one of the legends of the 20th and 21st Century; this work will only serve to fortify that position.

  13. anjali malhotra July 8, 2013 at 2:28 am

    Finished reading Dusklands a week ago. and i completely agree with this review. The book blows you away slowly. The Eugene-Marilyn relationship is brutally well written. It is very hard to continue reading it because it’s too dark, yeah , the whole novel is dark. Again, Jacobus’ contemplations on his relationship with his gun is haunting.

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