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.
I’m battling to get through Wuthering Heights at the moment, so I’m not sure I’ll get round to Coetzee. And I’m not a fan of war and violence, but I’ll see…maybe one day. 🙂
He’s great writer, but not easy to take. Good luck with Wuthering Heights. That also has some violence that is difficult to take.
Thanks for the review. Interesting book and author, but I’ll have to think about getting a copy 🙂
If you do I would love to know what you think of his work.
If you are feeling squirmish while reading the novel then I think Coetzee achieved his aim. In describing a setting that is based on history, he is also asking us to question and doubt certain prejudices: like the one that the Hottentot is not part of a higher humanity.
I think he succeeded in all of his aims, which is why I continued the book. But oh man did he make me uncomfortable and angry.
I could NEVER reread Coetzee. The only novel I tackled was Disgrace, and it was masterful, but incredibly depressing.
I have also read Disgrace. That one was just as difficult if not more. I might wait a decade before rereading it.
Terrific review, TBM! And prior to this, I would think of “Mary Poppins” whenever I heard the word “Hottentot.”
Trust me, you won’t get a Mary Poppins feel if you read this.
I know he is for human and animal rights, so all of his novels ultimately serve the purpose to show how horrible humans treat their fellow humans and the animlas as well. This said I’m not sure if writing about violence in a very graphic way is justified.
That is a difficult question. It is hard on me as a reader to read graphic violence. And it wasn’t just the violence, but the attitude of the character. However, it is hard to determine when there is too much violence when describing a horrible aspect of history. I’ll have to think about that Caroline and it reminds me of some questions raised at the London Book Fair. Maybe I’ll write a post on it.
That would be an interesting topic.
I often wonder when i read books abot war as well.
It is a difficult subject. When is there too much, especially when describing violent acts. How can you accurately depict trench warfare or something without showing the violence. The conversation at the book fair was on a different line, but it would be interesting to post about it and hear what others think.
I agree, J.M. Coetzee is such an intense author – I struggle with his works too, for the same reason.
He really knows how to put the reader through the wringer.
Great review, but hmmm…I’m not sure if I could get into this book.
I wouldn’t blame you for not picking it up.
I wish you could throw a little ‘reading motivation’ my way. I started an ebook about 2 months ago, got 20 pages in and then never though about it again.
Try a new book that you can’t set down. Sometimes all you need is a great story that sucks you in and then you start to crave more.
I sure have the same feeling…I’ve had a JM Coetzee book on my shelf for years. It’s called Disgrace. I kind of dance around the book choosing other ones to read. I just can’t seem to want to pick it up. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready.
Right now, I’m reading WILD by Cheryl Strayed about her hike 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail all alone. So far it’s very good.
I’ve read Disgrace and is is good. But it is depressing and it disturbed me. So I completely understand why you haven’t picked it up yet. The hiking book sounds fun. I’ll have to keep my eye out for it.
Thank you for a great post, TBM. I’d like to add that while I agree that Coetzee’s books can be depressing and disturbing, I also feel comforted by them. The gruellest excesses of humanity are written down void of judgement, sensationalism or sentimentality. They just are. And such attentiveness to detail and understanding needs a brave soul. I’m appreciative and comforted that Coetzee is such a brave soul, because in a sense he’s done the hard work for me, the reader. In reading his work, it’s up to me to not run away from discomfort. After all, the discomfort is only a diluted and condensed form. So, I feel comforted that there are people out there like Coetzee, who bravely tackle the bigger problems without spoon-feeding us, less-brave but still intelligent, sugar-coated opinions. Books like Disgrace and Dusklands, I realise, change your views and enrich you as a person, so I don’t mind the discomfort in reading them. Amen. 😉
Also, I read the ending of Disgrace as being really hopeful and empowering. Again, without the sugar-coating. Without wanting to spoil the ending, post-apartheid South Africa of the turn of the century is a tumultuous place to be. The “sins” of the past, Disgrace seems to advocate, cannot easily be expunged. Instead, one has to find ways to live with it, while acknowledging how difficult — not impossible! — it’ll be. That, I believe, is a powerful message, and far more realistic than the overly optimistic and rather ignorant view that the end of apartheid is the end of all problems. Mind you, this is 1995-2000 we’re talking about. In any case, I’d love to go into this, but really don’t want to spoil the ending for those who haven’t read it yet.
With this excessively long post (!) I tried to counteract all the, rightfully, “negative” responses. I attempted to hone in on the subtle positivity and hopefulness that underlies Coetzee’s books, in my opinion. I would really recommend reading his books. But maybe not on a dark winter’s night.
I see all of your points. He is a refreshing author to read and I agree, every brave to write about his subjects. It wouldn’t be easy to sit down and to envision the stories he wants to tell. And I agree with you that you learn much from him, even though his books aren’t very long. He packs a lot of emotion and thoughts into tight stories. I won’t avoid his novels and I plan on reading all of them. For me though, I need time to think about his works and then to tackle the next one. Some authors I can read all of their works at once and get into a groove. With him, I need time. His subjects aren’t easy to deal with and I’m a thinker and I like to ponder them days (even weeks) after my reading.
It has been a few years since I read Disgrace, but I’ll try to remember that you think it is positive.
And a dark winter night would make the stories a little harder to read, but might add to my feelings. Thanks for the comment and insight.
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