Can such a writer, a self-conscious Post-Modernist, have anything engaging to say about the moral choices thrown up in the transitional societies which are the subject of his fiction? It is a chilling, spare book, the work of a mature writer who has refined his textual obsessions to produce an exact, effective prose and condensed his thematic concern with authority into a deceptively simple story of family life.
More narrowly, can he have anything engaging to say about the moral choices that are part of everyday life in post-apartheid South Africa? Half campus novel, half anti-pastoral, it begins quietly enough in Cape Town.
Coetzee’s own style is sometimes parodic, sometimes allegorical.
He has made free use of destabilising narrative devices such as mock appendices and fake forewords, and has a marked taste for open-endedness, sudden authorial interventions and abrupt truncations.
Coetzee, however, doubts that the sort of literal reflection offered by Gordimer and writers like her tells us anything more real, or more truthful, than a more obviously imaginative approach would.
His expressed preference is for a novel that ‘operates in terms of its own procedures and issues in its own conclusions, not one that operates in terms of the procedures of history and eventuates in conclusions that are checkable by history (as a child’s schoolwork is checked by a schoolmistress)’.
He is, in other words, preoccupied with narrative voice and form, with the means by which the fictional illusion is created and by which it can be disrupted.
For the South African novelist writing about the overwhelming internal pressures exerted on South African society by apartheid, and the wider legacy of colonialism, form has always been problematic.
It is this writerly stress in his fiction that has attracted criticism from other South African writers, such as Gordimer and Stephen Watson.
Watson has objected that Coetzee’s concern with textuality means that his work is ‘little more than an artfully constructed void’, while Gordimer has identified as a weakness what she calls his ‘revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions’.