Apocalypse and Beyond: The Novels of J. M. Coetzee

by Michael Scrogin

Mr. Scrogin is pastor of First Baptist Church, Worcester, Massachusetts.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 18-25, 1988, p. 503. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


All who write for publication in South Africa, both black and white, run the risk of being censored, banned, exiled or worse. Although Coetzee’s criticism of apartheid has been strong, he has escaped the usual censoring.

All who write for publication in South Africa, both black and white, run the risk of being censored, banned, exiled or worse. Blacks, of course, have been much more harshly treated than whites. Steve Biko, political activist and budding poet, paid the ultimate price: when banning and imprisonment proved insufficient to silence him, he was beaten to death while in police "detention." Novelist Alex LaGuma and poet Dennis Brutus were each imprisoned on Robben Island because of their work. Brutus now lives and. writes in permanent exile in the United States. Even Mark Mathabane, the mild-mannered tennis player turned writer who is author of the best-selling autobiography Kaffir Boy, offended the government with the simple, powerful story of his boyhood, and he, too, now lives in the U.S.

Even the white-skinned giants of South African literature, such as Nadine Gordimer and the late Alan Paton, have had works banned from time to time. Playwright Athol Fugard manages to write and produce his plays in South Africa as well as in London and New York, but he claims that he must use caution. "There are several ideas I have for plays which I just know would not. be allowed to reach the stage, or, if they did, would be shut down very soon after opening" (Three Port Elizabeth Plays 1 19741, p. xxv) Fugard need not add that he personally could be at grave risk if he pursued those ideas. Donald Woods, a prominent newspaper columnist and an early friend and supporter of Steve Biko, has been expelled from the country, and novelist Breyten Breytenbach is among a number of white writers who have gone to prison. Breytenbach, imprisoned for seven years, two of these in solitary confinement, now lives in Paris.

Given this record, it is remarkable that a new and leading literary talent has emerged in South Africa who powerfully condemns the apartheid government but who has not, so far at least, been jailed, banned or beaten. To the contrary, he has received some of South Africa’s and the world’s most prestigious awards for his writing (including South Africa’s CNA Prize and the Booker Prize in Great Britain) This writer is J. M. Coetzee. In 1976 Gordimer called Coetzee "one of the most interesting newcomers. Today he is no longer a newcomer but an established writer with five novels to his credit.

If one asks how Coetzee has avoided problems with the government, no complete answer emerges. Several factors may have helped. Not least is that South Africa is trying to present a less dictatorial face to the outside world. It has probably also helped that Coetzee, 47, is professor of general literature at the University of Cape Town, for university affiliation provides a modest source of protection. And it may be in Coetzee’s favor, as far as the South African regime is concerned, that he is of unimpeachable Afrikaner stock.

Perhaps what has most kept him from harm, however, is what has also given his work such powerful. universal appeal: Coetzee’s work, though it can give no comfort to the apartheid government, is not explicitly confrontational. He has fashioned a method of storytelling that is closer to classical myth than to modern realism. Some critics have compared him to Franz Kafka, and the comparison is apt. Like Kafka, Coetzee often sets his work in unspecified or unnamed locations, or else in the distant past or not-too-distant future. Waiting for the Barbarians (Penguin, 1980) , for example, is about a mythical regime, called "the Empire." and its main character is known only as "the Magistrate." The Magistrate is a petty official of the Empire who has run the government outpost for years and who finally concludes that the Empire well deserves to fall to the Barbarians. Foe, Coetzee’s most recent work, a retelling of the Robinson Crusoe tale (hence the title’s allusion to Daniel DeFoe), is set on a desert island. And Life and Times of Michael K (Viking, 1984), Coetzee’s most fully realized work and one of his few stories set in South Africa. involves not the present but the future, at a time during and following a great race war. Despite this oblique approach, however, it is clear that the central question which fascinates Coetzee is how to end, and finally to transcend, the master-slave relationship which defines the races in South Africa.

Coetzee’s main resource in fashioning his myths, aside from his South African upbringing, is the great wellspring of biblical motifs. Though he does not explicitly allude to Scripture, again and again the central themes of Scripture inform and shape his works. Coetzee simply assumes, for example, an apocalypse. All his tales start from the premise that the old order -- of government, law, religion -- is falling apart or has completely disappeared. We are on a desert island, in a town at the edge of a crumbling empire, at an obscure farm in the remote heart of the country, or in the middle of a war. Coetzee apparently believes that this is what the future holds, at least for South Africa, and perhaps for the rest of the world.

Those characters who resist this apocalypse, this ending of the old order, do so cynically, half-heartedly, hopelessly. The Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians realizes that the only way the Empire can survive is to start over -- which means first of all eliminating the Barbarians. Otherwise there is no hope. Yet he cannot bring himself to approve this course. "That will not be my way. The new Men of Empire are the ones who believe in fresh starts, new chapters, clean pages; I struggle on with the old story, hoping that before it is finished it will reveal to me why I thought it was worth the trouble." But the story is soon finished, and the Magistrate concludes that the Empire was never worth the trouble.

It is a mistake to see Coetzee’s works as messages of despair, however. Indeed, his vision further mirrors the biblical motif in regarding apocalypse not as mere punishment but as transformation, a sign of hope that points toward reconciliation. But Coetzee’s hope is not a revolutionary one -- that is, it does not rest on the destruction and reorganization of the state under a new, more just order. He distrusts such political or military resolutions. The hope he offers is based on what he sees as a natural, inherent possibility for the healing of individuals and relationships. And the locus of that healing is in the land -- just as, in the Bible, the wilderness is the site of healing, renewal, recommitment and restoration.

For Coetzee, it is almost as though the land has a power and sense of its own, even a power to do justice. In Waiting for the Barbarians, the Magistrate, who has begun to sympathize with the Barbarians, tells us that they will win because they will outlast the Empire. And even the land and the water of the nearby lake, which gets saltier each year because of the Empire’s pollution, will assist this victory. "Every year the lake-water grows a little more salty. There is a simple explanation -- never mind what it is. The Barbarians know this fact. At this very moment they are saying to themselves, ‘Be patient, one of these days their crops will start to wither from the salt, they will not be able to feed themselves, they will have to go.’ That is what they are thinking. That they will outlast us."

But the land not only punishes; it can also heal and restore. Life and Times of Michael K is the story of a young black man who has been labeled retarded by the white authorities. As a race war engulfs Cape Town, where Michael lives with his aging and critically ill mother, he makes plans, as best he can, to return her to her ancestral home so that she can die among her people. But she does not survive the trip, and against Michael’s wishes her body is cremated by the authorities. Determined to keep his promise to her even in her death, Michael returns his mother’s ashes to the ancestral home and in the process begins a healing relationship with the land itself.

Unable to dig a deep hole for burial because of an underlying ledge, Michael turns over the topsoil and scatters his mother’s remains. Then, because he does not want to return to Cape Town, and because he wishes to live apart from the world of history and war, he plants a few pumpkin and melon seeds, found in an abandoned farmhouse, and so begins his life as a cultivator.

The earth gives back to Michael generously. He is pleased by the great silence of the land and by its bounty. When struck with dysentery, he nurses himself through the fever and relies for healing on his crop of melons and pumpkins. "When food comes out of this earth . . . I will recover my appetite, for it will have savor." And it is finally the land and his cultivation of it that give him a new and healing vision of who he is, and place him, at least temporarily, beyond the apocalypse -- the war going on all around him.

One night a group of black guerrillas camp near Michael’s garden and help themselves to his pumpkins and melons. Michael hides out of sight, listening to the proud laughter and tales of battle. He is at first entranced, and even thinks that in the morning he will come out of hiding and ask to join the warriors. But a moment’s reflection reminds him of his new and sacred vocation, one which he cannot abandon "because enough men had gone off to war saying the time for gardening was when the war was over; whereas there must be men to stay behind and keep gardening alive, or at least the idea of gardening: because once the cord was broken, the earth would grow hard and forget her children." The land has exercised its power: Michael is not a soldier, or a retarded boy, an orphan or a refugee, but a gardener.

Though peace comes outside history, the vision of peace which Coetzee’s protagonists reach is not without consequences within history. Coetzee’s heroes are signs and symbols for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. They represent the possibility of another way of living in relationship to history and to people, a way beyond the master-slave relationship. Michael K’s simplicity and courage become such a sign to one of the white authorities he encounters. At the end of his story, when he has again grown ill and has been found by the military, he is turned over to the care of a certain medical officer. In treating Michael the man comes to see his remarkable and peaceful strength, and he seeks Michael’s guidance.

I am not asking you to take care of me, for example by feeding me. My need is a very simple one. Though this is a large country, so large that you would think there would be space for everyone, what I have learned of life tells me that it is hard to keep out of the camps. Yet I am convinced that there are areas that lie between the camps and belong to no camps . . . certain mountaintops, for example, certain islands in the middle of swamps, certain arid strips where human beings may not find it worth their while to live. I am looking for such a place in order to settle there, perhaps only till things improve, perhaps forever. I am not so foolish, however, as to imagine that I can rely on maps and roads to guide me. Therefore I have chosen you to show me the way.

Coetzee’s several improbable heroes serve to show the way, to point to the reconciliation, hope and freedom that lies on the other side of apocalypse. In that new place freedom is not brought about by guns nor is it assured by institutions of government. It is an inherent freedom, the natural right of human beings, a right that emerges almost spontaneously when people live in right relationship with one another. It is this minimal but profound and irreducible freedom to which Michael K aspires and which he finally achieves, the freedom to be who one pleases and to stand on one’s own. "Perhaps the truth is that it is enough to be out of the camps, out of all the camps at the same time. Perhaps that is enough of an achievement, for the time being. How many people are there left who are neither locked up nor standing guard at the gate?" Coetzee holds out the small, fragile, but very potent hope that beyond the apocalypse we will no longer have to divide ourselves into those who are locked up and those who stand guard.