There are two authors on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die that have ten novels on the list. One is Charles Dickens. The other is J. M. Coetzee. This year I am determined to read the ten novels by Dickens. I could never commit to reading Coetzee’s ten novels in one year. Don’t get me wrong, he is a wonderful author. I marvel over his skill. The problem is the subject matter. I have read three of his books to date. But the first two I have to reread for my challenge. And each one has disturbed me.
I read Dusklands in one day. The novel is only 121 pages long. I attempted to read this novel in April and I got ten pages in and then set it down. Then I didn’t pick it back up. I knew this past Sunday that if I didn’t finish the novel I would not want to go back to it any time soon. And I did not want to have to reread parts to remember the story. Please note that the review below contains some spoilers.
Here’s the blurb from the back of my copy.
“A megalomaniac Boer frontiersman wreaks hideous vengeance on a Hottentot tribe for undermining the ‘natural’ order of his universe with their anarchic rival order, mocking him and subjecting him to the humiliations of his own too palpable flesh.
A specialist in psychological warfare is driven to breakdown and madness by the stresses of a project of macabre ingenuity to win the war in Vietnam.”
Sound uplifting? This novel, even though it is short and disturbing proves that Coetzee is brilliant. He starts off with Eugene Dawn, the expert who is trying to figure out a way to win the war in Vietnam. The first lines of the novel intrigued me, “My name is Eugene Dawn. I cannot help that. Here goes.” As you get to know Eugene you realize that he is going crazy and that he thinks he is the only one who has the answers to everything. Even when he is institutionalized he is delusional.
“I have no sense of shame at finding myself in a mental institution, nor do I intend to acquire it. The reason I am not ashamed is of course that I have a better case history than the long-term patients.”
At times Coetzee’s writing is entertaining. When the police are after Eugene he is hiding in a hotel room. “I am ready; that is to say, I am standing behind the curtain sweating.”
Eugene’s story is upsetting but there were moments that weren’t too disturbing. This was not the case for me when the story switched to the Boer frontiersmen. Any happy thoughts that I was clinging onto were gone. The second half chronicles a man intent on proving that he is superior since he is civilized. However, after he is stricken with an illness and the uncivilized take care of him his views of the world are upset. To add insult to injury, some laugh at his illness and he sets out to prove that he in fact is better than the natives. Many of the scenes and images are shocking. I won’t go into too much detail but will provide some quotes to show what type of man Coetzee is describing.
“Now that the gun has arrived among them the native tribes are doomed, not only because of the yearning for it will alienate them from the wilderness. Every territory through which I march with my gun becomes a territory cast loose from the past and bound to the future.”
“Boredom is a sentiment not available to the Hottentot: it is a sign of higher humanity.”
“Through their deaths I, who after they had expelled me had wandered the desert like a pallid symbol, again asserted my reality. No more than any other man do I enjoy killing; but I have taken it upon myself to be the one to pull the trigger, performing this sacrifice for myself and my countrymen, who exist, and committing upon the dark folk the murders we have all wished…God’s judgment is just, irreprehensible, and incomprehensible. His mercy pays no heed to merit. I am a tool in the hands of history.”
On many occasions I found myself conflicted while reading the novel. The story was making me squirm in my seat and made me embarrassed to be part of the human race. And yet the writing is magnificent. I felt bad about appreciating his way with words while telling such a horrific tale. I wanted to hate every aspect of the novel. I wanted to hate his writing, the characters, and the plot. But Coetzee has a way of drawing you in even when you are trying to resist.
Would I suggest this book? That is a hard question to answer. I think I have to leave it up to individuals to decide if this is something they would like to tackle. His writing is brilliant, that can’t be denied. But the subject matter is not easy to take. And I should warn you that there is a lot of violence towards people and animals. Seriously, this is not an easy book to enjoy.
I read this novel for the Books Published in the First Years of My Life Challenge. I think the next book for this challenge is a science fiction novel and I hope it isn’t as difficult to read.