Dan Sandman

33: Dusklands by J.M. Coetzee

In Books, Fiction, History, Non-Fiction on 14/08/2015 at 12:00 pm

Duskland by J. M. CoetzeeThis chilling debut novel contains two first person accounts: firstly, the disturbing thoughts of an American propagandist during the Vietnam War; and secondly, the brutal narrative of a frontiersman and elephant hunter. The first account is by all appearances a work of fiction, whilst the second account is framed by the translator as an historical document (pg. 85). By melding supposed fiction with supposed history, Coetzee asks the reader to question the validity of historical truth. When we consider this in the light of J.M Coetzee’s autobiographical work Boyhood (1997), we can begin to understand the difficult relationship that Coetzee has with historical truth.

As America was suffering huge defeats in Vietnam, across the world steps were being taken by colonialist nations to decolonize. A quick Wikipedia search will show that forty two African nations were granted independence between 1955 and 1975 (the twenty year period in which the ‘American War’ was thought). By the time Dusklands was published in 1974, Portugal’s African empire had collapsed. African politics scholar Jonathan Farley sees this as a turning point, leading to independence of Rhodesia as Zimbabwe (1980) and South Africa achieving majority rule in 1994 (see Southern Africa by Jonathan Farley). This is the historical context within which Coetzee was finishing his novel, a creative process which involved literary research at The British Museum.

It is fascinating to think of Coetzee living in London, before the two Booker Awards and the Nobel Prize for Literature, sifting through the archives of my local museum. In fact, it is inspiring to know that his scholarly novels can still be published and appreciated by a wide audience. The more I learn about fiction and history, the more I realize how important novels are to me. The novel form can work independently from the dates, figures and ideologies purveyed by historians and journalists. Humanistic storytelling can help the reader to feel empathy towards other cultures, and to question the received wisdom of politically motivated ‘non-fiction’. Dusklands has been criticized for not being harsh enough on the frankly genocidal eighteenth century explorers portrayed in the second half of the novel. Instead of being condemned by Dr. S.J Coetzee (the novelist’s father) in his 1951 edition (pg.85), they are celebrated in the afterword as ‘honorable’ (pg.166). However, if this slim novel fails to fully address the warped education system of apartheid era South Africa, this overhanging issue is explored more fully in the autobiographical work Boyhood.

Today he would probably be keeping a blog for that sort of thing.

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