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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