Tuesday, December 28, 2004

C is for Coetzee, that's good enough for me

Here is your new favorite author: J.M. Coetzee.

When I say "your" I mean "my". He is your favorite author because he wrote Disgrace, a novel about a jaded professor who sleeps with his students (not in a good way, but in a predatory "I can take advantage of THAT one" fashion). When his latest victim falls into a consequent depression and drops out of school, her family seeks legal action. The professor refuses to apologize for his action and decides to visit sunny South Africa...because what better place to seek salvation! Actually, his daughter lives there. She's raped. The professor is beaten. And the next door neighbors have a party a few days later, and the culprits are in attendence. However, the culprits are not treated as so. In fact, the next door neighbor tells the professor that he must not make noise (by going after the men who raped his daughter), that these are "good boys". It's clear this man would like nothing better than for all the white landowners to leave (in fact, it's implied that the rapists attacked the daughter because she is white). The professor tells the daughter that it's time to leave, that she could be hurt again, possibly even killed. So what does she do? She marries the next door neighbor! Now, she is under his protection, she gets to remain in her home, and he has gotten what he wants: her land.

It sounds ludicrous to you and, of course, bleak. But what you start to understand is that South Africa is a very, very different place than America. Disgrace and salvaltion and success and beauty mean very, very different things there--and you can only begin to glimpse an understanding of how different. Walk around in this professor's shoes for those last few chapters and you'll catch that glimpse.

The second book you've read by Coetzee is Elizabeth Costello. This "novel" is actually a series of lectures and anecdotes about "animal rights" which Coeztee wrote previously. Now, he's collected and revised them so they reflect the work and life (and death) of a fictional writer. The writer is eccentric, abrasive, and occassionally confused--but she is always adamant about the rights of animals. You like this writer because she is not like all the stereotypes of those dolphin-loving activists you make fun of by wearing "I ate Flipper" T-shirts. She talks about what "being" is--and how "being" is different for a human and animal. What is it like to be a bat? Or an ape? You cannot know, and so she dismisses those who argue about what it is to suffer or to be happy as it applies to animals. She relates the story of an ape who is "taught" to communicate--but the very act of communciating on a human level means that this ape's "apeness" has been left behind.

The thread that you see dangling through at least these two works has to do with your perception, your human-ness and your ability to see (and therefore connect) with all that you are not. It sounds funny now that you've written it out. But in our modern world of proliferating religions, cultures and Republicans it is a very important theme, you think. What is it to be South African? Or Iraqi? Israeli? Nebraskan? A bat? You think of Wallace Steven's "Snowman" and especailly the last three lines: "For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is". You realize that as a reader, as a writer and as a human being, your job is to listen--to listen carefully to all that you are not, to forget what you are--even if it's for a moment. That moment is transient; you cannot be a snowman or a bat. But that moment can shake you, reverbrate through your being--and that can change you.

Coetzee and milk are good for breakfast too!


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