Discussed in this essay:
Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee. Penguin. 224pp, $15.00.
Promised Land, Karel Schoeman. Summit Books.
1. Suspect Masterpieces
It is entirely possible, and even likely, that when J.M. Coetzee wrote his 1999 novel Disgrace, he was not thinking about Karel Schoeman’s 1972 novel Promised Land, first published in Afrikaans and then translated into English in 1978 by Marion V. Friedmann. It is possible, too, that Coetzee had never read Schoeman’s novel of a future South Africa (though it is just as likely he had); regardless, it’s probable that, even if he never read it, he knew something of its premise—the novel gained enough notice at the time of its publication for the U.S. dust jacket to feature a sentence from Alan Paton in typeface nearly as large as that used for Schoeman’s name: “I suspect this novel is a masterpiece.”
Whether Coetzee read Promised Land, though, is a minor and ultimately irrelevant question. There are interesting similarities between the books, but nothing to suggest Coetzee wrote Disgrace in response to it. What the similarities do show us, though, is the particular excellence of Coetzee’s novel, because Alan Paton’s suspicions were incorrect: despite its virtues, Promised Land is overall a book bound by the moment of its writing, more important for its context than its content; in contrast, Coetzee’s novel is immensely rich, both philosophically and stylistically, in a way that is not as bound to its setting or the situation of its writing as is Schoeman’s novel.
There is richness to be mined in each novel, though, and a comparison can reveal resonances that might not be apparent in reading either book alone. Both novels transform and critique a traditional genre of Afrikaner fiction that, in fact, Coetzee has written about at length: tales of farming and pastoral life known as plaasroman. Both novels offer characters strangled by their allegiance to a mythic past: in Promised Land the past grows all the more mythic by being remembered in an imagined future, while Disgrace is set in a present that resembles the future Schoemann imagined. Both novels encourage readers to be skeptical of the words their characters use to justify the lives they have chosen for themselves, and to recognize that, indeed, choice played a greater role in their fates than the characters are able to admit.
2. Tell Me That Another World Exists
She felt sad because she knew, she understood so well that South Africa had shut out all other choices. There was no way now that any other thing could be done with the present way of life, with this South Africa, with the South African way of life; there was nothing else that could be done to save it; there was only one way left—people had to fight.
—Mongane Serote, To Every Birth Its Blood
Promised Land was not the first novel about a future South Africa, but it was the first such novel not to support colonialism or apartheid. The story is a straightforward one: George Neethling, an Afrikaner born in South Africa, spends only the first few years of his life in his native country—when he was a child the white nationalist government of the Afrikaners was defeated, the brutal segregationist policies known as apartheid were ended, and the government was taken over by the country’s black majority, causing George’s parents to flee to Europe. Now, decades later, George’s mother has died and he has inherited the farm they left behind in South Africa. The novel begins with George’s return to the country of his birth, where he hopes to sell the farm. He stops to ask directions from a local family of farmers, the Hattinghs, and they invite him to stay with them—they remember his mother, and they tell him that there’s nothing much worth seeing at the farm he inherited, but that they will take him there in the morning if he wants.
The rest of the novel details the days George spends with the Hattinghs and their neighbors, an insular community of whites who feel like persecuted exiles in a land they once led. They are suspicious and bitter, they cling to memories of the “old days” before “the troubles,” and they yearn for the lost past of their heroic ancestors. The younger generation is ignorant and confused, having grown up with a sense of entitlement to the fairy-tale kingdom of the old, good world, the world where their inherent superiority was recognized and valued and rewarded with power. George is unsettled, but also fascinated. This could have been his fate. He tries to convince the Hattinghs and their neighbors that he is one of them, but they’ll have none of it. One of the Hattingh daughters, Carla, tells George early on:
What difference does it make who your mother was or where you were born? What matters is what you yourself are, and you’re certainly not one of us. You come from abroad, your work, your home, your whole life is there. You know nothing about us, we’re strangers to you, this country is only a place where you’ve come for a few days to visit people who happen to speak a language you understand.
George spends much of the novel trying to reconcile his imagined South Africa with the one he visits. His parents spoke of the homeland with great reverence, they taught him the language and history they thought he would need to keep the place they were exiled from alive in his heart. But the world they gave him was not a real one. He thinks to himself: “This was, after all, the promised land, possessed by birth and inheritance, the land about which so much had been spoken and dreamed, the object of such endless longing, for which so much had been endured—even exile and death.”
The farm that George inherited lies in ruins because the caretaker his parents regularly sent money to did not do what he was supposed to. “Someone’s cheated you nicely,” Hattingh says, then reveals his opinion of the people who now hold power: “They enjoy it, they’re only too pleased if they can get something from us. You’ve got to be on your toes in this country, I’m telling you.”
A farm gate in South Africa.
Carla (who is roughly George’s age) and her younger brother Paul are members of the generation that has only the vaguest memories of life in a world where their people had power. Paul, more sensitive than his sister (he even writes poetry), sometimes dares to dream about another kind of life, and he is particularly drawn to speculation about the world beyond the farm. He is fascinated by George, whose presence both highlights the limitations of farm life and gives him a desire to know more: “Tell me that there is something else. Tell me that another world exists, otherwise there’s no point in going on.” Carla is more suspicious and cynical, and she doubts the power of words: “It’s the old people who want to sit and talk, my parents and Aunt Miemie, but words don’t help.” Paul begs George to take him with him when he departs, but all George can think to do is give Paul what money he happens to have in his wallet. For Carla, though, he is willing to do more: he offers to marry her and bring her with him, but she refuses, saying it wouldn’t be a different world, just a change of scenery: “You’re trapped in the web of the past, all of you, here and over there. . . . But it’s senseless, worthless, useless; it’s devoid of any meaning. If I could only believe in it like my parents do, it would at least be tolerable, but it’s words: that’s all—words. There’s nothing at all.” Carla reveals to him that she has plans to leave on her own, that she doesn’t know where she’s going or what she’s heading toward, but that she will not let this life hold her back anymore.
The last third of the novel is mostly taken up with a party held in George’s honor, a chance for the neighbors to remember his mother’s life before exile, an opportunity for everyone to revel in their memories of the good old days. Some of the more openly political neighbors approach George and ask him not to return to Europe. They tell him, “We need men who love their country and their people, who are willing to dare much for them, to fight and if need be to die for them.” Later that night, police break into the home:
George couldn’t quite see what was happening but suddenly the man struck the teacher across the face so that he toppled and fell, slowly and silently, like someone moving under water. The police who had remained standing at the door laughed, but George only saw their wide-open mouths: he could distinguish no sound.
The police arrest three men (two of them the eldest Hattingh brothers) and leave. At first, the Hattinghs insist that the men were arrested randomly, that they had done nothing, but eventually George learns that the men had been collecting weapons—indeed, he learns that the farm he inherited was destroyed by police who discovered it was being used as a hide-out and as a place to stash weapons and supplies to be used against the government.
Promised Land’s themes are obvious and Schoeman makes sure that readers don’t miss them. The book seems intended as a warning to Afrikaners who wished to deny the fragility of their power and the inevitability of black rule in South Africa. In one of her many reflections on her life, Carla tells George:
When something becomes irrevocable, you have to recognize the fact and accept it. It doesn’t help to kick and struggle, all your tears and your prayers won’t help. You must go on with your life, as well or as badly as you can. It’s life that’s unyielding, implacable, not me. The old world has disappeared and it will never, in all eternity, come back, even if we give our lives to try to regain it. We must learn to live in the new world.
Earlier, a member of the older generation, Aunt Loekie, indulged in self-pity: “What more could we have wanted? We had everything. What did we do wrong, what did we do to deserve this? Why did we have to be punished like this? Do you call this a life?”
3. Apocalyptic Warnings
Once upon our time, there was an earthquake: but this one is the most powerful ever recorded since the invention of the Richter scale made it possible for us to measure apocalyptic warnings.
—Nadine Gordimer, “Loot”
In the decade after Promised Land was published, novels that speculated about civil war in South Africa and/or a post-apartheid future became more common and were more often written by white writers than black—Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People and A Sport of Nature are two of the most overt and prominent such novels, but Coetzee’s own Life & Times of Michael K and Waiting for the Barbarians can be seen as part of this genre as well. (Ralph Pordzik has offered the fullest exploration I have found of South African utopian and dystopian novels from this era, and he includes an annotated bibliography.) 1
Margaret Lenta, in a 1988 article entitled “Fictions of the Future,” identifies two main types of South African future fictions: the first group consists of “fictions which although they are set in an indefinite future have as their principal subject areas of South African life in the present” (a category into which she puts Promised Land and July’s People), while the second group consists of novels “which focus on the revolutionary period itself, a period which, it is understood, has already begun” (a category that includes Coetzee’s novels and a novel by a black writer, Mongane Serote’s To Every Birth Its Blood).2
Both Lenta and Sheila Roberts point out that few if any writers chose to describe either the events that sparked revolution or the last moments of the revolution itself. The revolution is either in the midst of happening or happened in the past. Roberts says,
. . . in Rose Moss’s novel The Terrorist, the young white man who sets off a bomb in a train station is at first elated because he is convinced that his action has “started the end.” He visualizes a new beginning for the country and for himself and his wife. . . . Yet, no novel by a white South African takes up at this point, at the moment when the bomb goes off, at the starting of the end. 3
Gordimer’s A Sport of Nature would later fill some of this gap, but it remained an exception. The lack of novels showing either how the revolution might be incited or how to get to a new, inclusive type of government suggests that these events were not the ones that cried out to be imagined; such topics would more comfortably fit in the province of manifestoes and speculative political theory. Speculative fictions were aimed not at inciting a revolution that hardly needed more incitement, nor at drawing a blueprint for a society that seemed, even to Karel Shoeman in 1972, inevitable—these fictions were aimed, instead, at feeling their way toward a future that appeared certain to arrive, but uncertain in its ability to overcome the horrors that gave it birth.
4. The Future Arrives
Black and white. That has been the definition of the struggle in South Africa. Black and white, not grey or technicolour. As long as South Africa was in the grip of one of the most evil systems the twentieth century has evolved—institutional racism, on a par with Nazism and Leninism—the struggle had to be seen in such terms. In war there is friend and foe, good and bad.
Now that the conflict is won, subtler shades are permissible.
—Robert Harvey, The Fall of Apartheid: The Inside Story from Smuts to Mbeki
In a report from South Africa published in the January 1981 issue of Harper’s, Adam Hochschild ends by referencing Promised Land:
The book is less a prediction than a mirror. Of course any black government … will have strong economic motivations for keeping whites from leaving. But the longer South Africa’s whites keep blacks in peonage, the more superhuman will be the statesmanship required to stop blacks from someday turning the tables.
Disgrace, published five years after Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in the country’s first election open to the whole population, caused fierce controversy for its depiction of black violence against whites and particularly for its presentation of the black rape of a white woman. In an essay in J.M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Public Intellectual, Rosemary Jolly explained,
Within the African National Congress, Disgrace was rejected outright as racist. The ANC, in its 1999 submission to the Human Rights Commission’s investigation into racism in the media, names Disgrace as a novel that exploits racist stereotypes.
She quotes from the report: “In the novel, J.M. Coetzee represents as brutally as he can the white people’s perception of the post-apartheid black man.” While recognizing that the novel is “bleak,” Jolly disagrees with the ANC’s interpretation of it as racist and suggests they proposed this reading for political reasons—they did not want to admit what Disgrace explores: “the systemic aspect of the rape epidemic in South Africa.” Jolly’s essay is a valuable one, though it sees Coetzee’s characters as mouthpieces for the author more than is, I think, justified (such an approach eliminates some of the complexity of the novels and denies them their existence as works of fiction). Coetzee’s characters may sound certain of their beliefs, and they may even be so, but that does not mean we should trust them, nor that we should limit our reading of the novel to how it reflects the historical circumstances at the time of its publication.
5. Lessness, Darkness
Part of the privilege of being white was that one could choose not to hear, not to know.
— Melissa E. Steyn, “Whiteness Just Isn’t What It Used to Be”: White Identity in a Changing South Africa
It is worth remembering that Coetzee studied linguistics. Indeed, the first appearance of his name in The New York Times occurred on August 19, 1973, when John Leonard quoted, with derision, a Scientific American article about a young scholar in Cape Town analyzing Samuel Beckett’s “Lessness” with a computer: “Turning to the finer structure of the work, Coetzee used a computer algorithm to break each sentence into ‘phrases’: lexical units that within the work are indivisible. He found 106 phrases of from one to 12 words each.” 4 David Lurie, the protagonist of Disgrace, is a “professor of modern languages” whose department is closed, leaving him as merely an “adjunct professor of communications.” Throughout the book, he will argue with and meditate on the meanings and connotations of particular words and phrases, and Coetzee will use others that, within the context of 20th-century South African history, resonate far beyond their literal meanings.
Consider Coetzee’s use of words related to darkness. When, early in the novel, David is visited by a threatening friend of the student he has seduced and essentially raped (he debates the word for himself, of course, but it is clear even to him that though Melanie submits to him, she does not want to do so), the man is described as wearing “a black leather jacket and black leather trousers”; half a page later we are told that “Light dances on his black eyeballs.” Later, he thinks he sees Melanie and the boy: “A motorcycle throbs past, a silver Ducati bearing two figures in black.” Melanie is someone he thought he was helping, he thought he was being good to, but who now says he oppressed her, and the color he associates with this threat is black. Later, after David and his daughter Lucy are attacked, and Lucy raped, by a gang of black men, their neighbor, Ettinger (described at the beginning of Chapter 12 as “a surly old man who speaks English with a marked German accent”), arrives and mentions the black man who helps Lucy with her farm:
Of the absent Petrus, Ettinger remarks darkly, “Not one of them you can trust.” He will send a boy, he says, to fix the kombi.
In the past he has seen Lucy fly into a rage at the use of the word boy. Now she does not react. [bolding added]
Speculating on how Petrus might be connected to the attack, David’s ideas are related through the narration: “The worst, the darkest reading would be that Petrus engaged three strange men to pay Lucy a lesson . . .” David writes a letter to his ex-wife, Rosalind, who is traveling in Madagascar: “To Rosalind in darkest Africa.” He worries about the effect of the attack on Lucy: “What if an attack like that turns one into a different and darker person altogether?” David and Lucy leave a party given by Petrus and his family, a party at which the attackers are present: “The guests give way before them. No longer is there friendliness in their aspect. Lucy has forgotten the flashlight: they lose their way in the dark.” David visits Melanie’s family and, when her younger sister realizes who he is, David thinks of himself as “the unwanted visitor, the man whose name is darkness.” To the parents, David gives a superficial version of the story of his life after the scandal:
Stitched together in this way, the story unrolls without shadows. Country life in all its idiot simplicity. How he wishes it could be true! He is tired of shadows, of complications.
David visits his house back in Cape Town and discovers it has been ransacked. “The lights are cut off, the telephone is dead. Unless he does something about it he will spend the night in the dark.” Working on writing an opera about Byron: “With the aid of the banjo he begins to notate the music that Teresa, now mournful, now angry, will sing to her dead lover, and that pale-voiced Byron will sing to her from the land of the shades.” Lucy makes a remark that leads David to think she has had an abortion at some point in her past: “Did Rosalind know, and was he kept in the dark?” While at the kennel where he helps euthanize dogs, David thinks of Teresa and Byron in his opera: “‘Come!’ she whispers. ‘Come to me, I plead, my Byron!’ She opens her arms wide, embracing the darkness, embracing what it will bring” and two paragraphs later: “Sitting at his table in the dog-yard, he harkens to the sad, swooping curve of Teresa’s plea as she confronts the darkness.” Finally, when Lucy, who is pregnant from the rape, says that she is “determined to be a good mother. . . . A good mother and a good person,” David thinks, “A good person. Not a bad resolution to make in dark times.”
Coetzee is too skilled a writer to let this pattern be a simple allegorical one. Darkness throughout the book is a motif sometimes conjured in a racial context, and each appearance of the motif contains its own meaning (e.g. David’s term “darkest Africa” for Madagascar ironically summons colonialist imagery), but the pattern suggests that ignorance is what darkness most fully represents in Disgrace—ignorance of danger, ignorance of self, ignorance of other people, ignorance of the present moment. South Africa has been handed over to its dark-skinned majority, yes, but they are not the ones in the dark—the ignorant characters in Disgrace are the whites, and they are each ignorant in their own ways, with varying levels of self-knowledge, and various consequences to their blindness.
Promised Land, too, concerns itself with knowledge and ignorance for, as Ralph Pordzik has written,
Promised Land is a demythologizing dystopia in which mutually exclusive versions of history are implicitly placed in confrontation in order to stress the fact that the past is not a set of established truths in which all further developments originate, but rather a contested site of cultural codes, each designed to preserve (or efface) a particular version of cultural and national identity.
The old Afrikaners who have held on to their history, as if it can save their future, are so stuck in the past that they are ignorant of the present, and they are blind to the ways their fierce loyalty to myths has impoverished their lives. They do not conceive of history as cultural codes, but as true stories of their superiority and right to dominance, and so they are unable to understand their situation except as a failure of moral will or the result of abandonment (hence their resentment of the Afrikaners who fled). They expect the truth of their mythology to vindicate them, if only the rest of the world can see what is going on. The world beyond them, though, is ignorant of them—George’s concept of their reality was created by tales of the lost past, but the lives of the Hattinghs and their neighbors are more provincial (and even Hobbesian) than he could ever have imagined. One of the nationalists is amazed that George wasn’t aware of the full plight of his countrymen: “Do you people over there know nothing of our situation then?” he asks, to which George responds: “We know in a general way how things are, but there’s no direct contact, reports are vague, and one doesn’t know what to believe.”
You say that the political radicalism of the exposure of conventions has been contested. I would respond that an unquestioning attitude toward forms or conventions is as little radical as any other kind of obedience.
—J.M. Coetzee, “Interview [The Poetics of Reciprocity]“, Doubling the Point, edited by David Attwell
Promised Land and Disgrace both offer a subversion of the traditional form of the South African plaasroman or “farm novel,” a genre Coetzee wrote about at length in White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, his first book of nonfiction. Michael Titlestad and Ralph Pordzik have both discussed Promised Land as, in Titlestad’s words, a “dystopian revision of the plaasroman” while various critics have viewed Disgrace as, at least in part, an anti-plaasroman.5
For Pordzik, the plaasroman served a specific political purpose: “Through their accurate portrayal of the day-to-day running of a farm and the sheer range of details amassed in the narrative texture of the farm novel, colonial writers sought to inscribe themselves into a history and topography they conceived of as ‘blank’ and ‘unwritten.’” Disgrace is filled with words for blankness and erasure, for what is written and unwritten, while the world of Promised Land is one of missing pieces—the far-past is well remembered, but the near-past is vague, its details unspoken by the characters and uninscribed in the novel’s text. We know nothing of how this world has come to be. This is not a problem Disgrace presents to its readers or characters. The question remaining for David Lurie is not how—or even why—he got to be where he is, but what he’s going to do now that he is there.
Coetzee points out in White Writing that the basic structure of farm and peasant life in a plaasroman is patriarchal, and that the language used is rich with gendered connotations (“the rape of the land”, nature as nurturing mother). Such an insight suggests much about Disgrace—a novel that inverts, subverts, and converts such structures and phrases—but it is also interesting to apply the idea to Promised Land, where the only family member to escape at the end is a woman, Carla, and where the only other family member to express a strong desire to escape is Paul, who is given what are, in many cultures, stereotypically feminine traits: a tendency to write poetry, an aversion to manual labor, a “sensitive” personality.
“By and large,” Coetzee writes, “the program espoused by the plaasroman is one of a renewal of the peasant order based on the myth of the return to the earth. . . . Not only will the peasant proprietor and his sons and daughters recover their true selves by a return to the earth: their serfs too will come to recognize that town life is an aberration, that true happiness is to be found on the farm where they were born . . .” The peasant order, he points out, is a static one, and one that relies on the idea of work as a virtue and idleness as a sin:
Judged from the outside, and particularly from the position of an educated person, however sympathetically disposed, peasant culture can justify its manifold internal oppressions, of beasts as of women and children, only as long as it maintains an ethos of work. The spectacle of peasant idleness, a vacuous leisure supported by petty despotism, provokes wholly understandable moral outrage. . . . [I]n a culture where there is either work or nothing, where there are no arts, only crafts, leisure and idleness amount to the same thing.
The narrowed lives of the Afrikaners in Promised Land have become the equal of the “vacuous leisure supported by petty despotism.” The rage of the Afrikaners in the novel is the rage of people forced into a despicable leisure-idleness that they do not see as the result of their own prejudices and stubbornness, but as something imposed upon them by the people who were previously, for all intents and purposes, their serfs.
The dystopia of Promised Land is one that follows logically from the premises of the plaasroman, but the dystopia of Disgrace is broader—while it has obvious resonances with the plaasroman, those resonances are more substantially subversive. Disgrace is not the reductio ad absurdum of the plaasroman, as Promised Land is, but a surgical strike against its tropes and against the forces that codified those tropes—it is, in that sense, as much an extension and development of Coetzee’s literary criticism as is Elizabeth Costello, a novel more obviously engaged with textual analysis.
Whatever we did would always be scraggy at the seams.
—Dambudzo Marechera, The Black Insider
In his 1987 acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize, collected in Doubling the Point, Coetzee said,
At the heart of the unfreedom of the hereditary masters of South Africa is a failure of love. To be blunt: their love is not enough today and has not been enough since they arrived on the continent; furthermore, their talk, their excessive talk, about how they love South Africa has consistently been directed toward the land, that is, toward what is least likely to respond to love: mountains and deserts, birds and animals and flowers.
Coetzee’s words could be used to describe the Hattinghs and their neighbors in Promised Land—their love is directed toward an idea of “the land” that is a dream of the mythic past, a dream allowed by their years of power, their ability to oppress other histories and turn their past dominance into cherished signs of inherent superiority. The human beings disgusted them, and so they loved the indifferent landscape they had made their own. The members of the younger generation who have not latched themselves to the impossible quest to regain the power of oppression realize that they must reject the love of a land that has done nothing but bring them ruin, and so they seek to leave the farm.
The quest of David Lurie is a different one—he has loved language, not land, and has been ignorant of his own power to oppress other people. His quest is to find a form of love that will not lead to destruction and shame. What he finds, in the simple but profound task of helping dogs to a quiet death, is not so much love as grace. His ancestors moved from the pastoral land to the modern (Westernized) city, and he brings his battered self back to the land, but it is a land without mystique, a land impervious to his language, a land that he is not even tempted to love. David escapes ignorance in the end by embracing annihilation:
“Yes, I agree, it is humiliating. But perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity.”
“Like a dog.”
“Yes, like a dog.”
And on the last page of the novel, he helps a dog into nothingness, a necessary nothingness for himself as well. The blankness ascribed by the colonial regimes to the land and cultures of Africa is now inverted, absorbed by an individual who is an ancestor of those regimes. It is a profoundly moving ending, and its emotional power is all the more impressive for being attached to a protagonist who has, until that point, seldom evoked much sympathy from us. Little did we know we wanted David to find peace, and yet when he is able to speak of both the dog and himself in the novel’s final sentence (“Yes, I am giving him up.”) we are allowed a catharsis—a catharsis of the character and his disgrace, a catharsis that signals a difficult future, but an end to a particular history of suffering and oppression. We are left with no illusion that the rest of David’s life will be comfortable or easy, but we are given a way to envision a dignity within it. It is the dignity that the older generation in Promised Land will never find, unable as they are to embrace the nothingness that they have led themselves to, but a dignity Carla, who leaves the land, may discover.
Promised Land offered its vision as a warning; Disgrace is less visionary, more metaphysical, delineating the human costs of the common ignorance that produced the worlds of both novels, offering not a speculation about the future but a speculation about what is required for a human being to rise out of ashes, out of ruins, out of myth and delusion and arrogance.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction with Locus, SF Site and One Story, among others. He is a columnist for Strange Horizons and maintains the weblog The Mumpsimus.
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